Torquay, Greenway, and Agatha Christie

June 30, 2011 at 2:48 am (books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

At one point in our travels in the fall of 2006, we found ourselves sailing up the Dart Estuary toward Dartmoor. Above us, on a bluff overlooking the river, stood a lovely home surrounded by greenery. Roz Hutchinson, our Blue Badge Guide, informed us that this was Greenway, the country home of Agatha Christie. It had recently been acquired by the National Trust, but was not yet ready for viewing by the public. 

We sailed further along the River Dart.  Greenway was gradually lost to view. But I made a silent vow: namely, that one day soon I would get inside that house.

And last month I did just that.

Greenway was finally opened to the public in February of 2009. This article from the Telegraph includes a video made for this auspicious occasion.

For Ron and me, this was a return to Torquay.  The 2006  Smithsonian tour had commenced there. We’d stayed several nights in the Imperial Hotel; our room overlooked the graceful curve of the harbor. There were festivities in progress, and as evening drew on, fireworks were discharged. (“All this  for us? – you shouldn’t have!”)

This time, we were only in Torquay for a single day, a Monday, the final day of our tour. And what a day it was! For one thing, in an unexpected (and very welcome) turn-up, our guide for Torquay was once again Roz Hutchinson. In addition to that, our guide for Greenway, and indeed for All Things Agatha, was John Curran, award winning author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and acknowledged authority on the life and work of the Queen of Crime.

John Curran, with one of the Greenway guides in the background

Our Torquay excursion began with coffee at the Grand Hotel, where a young Agatha Miller spent the first night of her honeymoon with Archie Christie. Located right on the water, the Grand is a lovely old Grande Dame of a hostelry. Then it was on to the Torquay Museum and the Church of St. Mary  the Virgin in Churston Ferrers, both places visited by Ron and me on our 2006 journey.

  The museum contains a wonderful trove of Agatha-related objects; it also features an illustrated timeline of Christie’s life.

The Church of St. Mary the Virgin is the church attended by Agatha Christie. It is but one of many ancient edifices dedicated to religious observance that one finds all over England. Built in the fourteenth century, it was restored in the nineteenth. When we were there the first time, we were greeted by Mark, an elderly gentleman who had been a gardener at Greenway during Christie’s lifetime. But Mark was not there this time. Roz told us that he’d been ill. Ron and I felt his absence.

Mark and Roz, in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in 2006

One of the  church’s principal claims to fame is the Good Shepherd stained glass window donated by Dame Agatha herself.

Next door to the church is the Churston Court Inn, where we had lunch. The restaurant is housed in a twelfth century manor house which has been meticulously restored.

Now all of these activities were by way of a build-up to the main event: the tour of Greenway House.

This gracious, historic domicile, usually closed on Mondays, was opened especially for our group. And by the time we reached the front entrance, John Curran was in full flood as he commenced telling the story of Agatha Christie and her family at Greenway.

Here’s a video of John speaking to our group. Unfortunately the wind made it impossible to record his voice clearly. You probably won’t be able to make out much of what he’s saying, but you can get a general sense of his warmth and enthusiasm:

Agatha Christie and her husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, took up residence at Greenway in 1938. It was a house Christie had long known about and admired:

‘One day we saw that a house was up for sale that I had known when I was young…So we went over to Greenway, and very beautiful the house and grounds were. A white Georgian house of about 1780 or 90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart below, and a lot of fine shrubs and trees – the ideal house, a dream house.’

My overall impression was of a cozy, intimate dwelling place, very different in size, scope, and purpose from the imposing estates one often sees in England. John Curran told us that the Greenway experience aims to simulate that of a casual visit to friends or neighbors, who have just stepped out for a short time. In an article in the June issue Smithsonian Magazine, Robyn Brown, who manages the property for the National Trust, describes her conversations – one could almost call them negotiations – with Christie’s daughter, the frail and elderly Rosalind Hicks, just prior to Greenway’s being open to  the public: “The sticking point for Rosalind was that she didn’t want us to create a tacky enterprise–‘the Agatha Christie experience.'” In fact, Rosalind initially wanted the house stripped bare of its contents. Brown countered that in that case, the house would seem soulless. Moreover, if objects were brought in from elsewhere, they would lack authenticity. Brown then proposed that the home’s contents be left in place, and that the impression be given that the occupants were just temporarily absent and were soon to return. And indeed, that is the feeling you get as you go through the rooms of this very special place.

During the Second World War, Greenway was requisitioned by the Admiralty. It was then occupied by Flotilla 10 of the U.S. Coast Guard.  Lt. Marshall Lee, one of the guardsmen,  painted a frieze that runs along the wall of the library just beneath the ceiling.  In essence, it’s a pictorial history of the war as experienced by Lee’s group, from its beginning in Key West, Florida, right up to its billeting at Greenway.

At the war’s conclusion, the unit’s Commander asked the homeowner if she would like them to remove the receive. Christie replied that on the contrary, it was part of history. She elected to keep it as it was.


John Curran begins the introduction to his book as follows: “I first saw the notebooks of Agatha Christie on Friday 11 November 2005.”

Mathew Prichard, grandson of Agatha Christie, had invited Curran to see Greenway prior to the National Trust’s planned renovation of the property. For one devoted to Christie’s work, this was an irresistible opportunity. Even so, John Curran had no inkling of the discovery that awaited him…

On an upper floor of the house, he found himself confronting “…two locked rooms, silent guardians of unimaginable literary treasure and heart’s desire for every Agatha Christie enthusiast (but in reality accessible to very few).” One of these rooms contained a collection of signed first editions of Christie’s work, and also books written about her. The second room contained more  books as well as all manner of manuscripts, memorabilia, and other papers. This is what happened next:

On a bottom shelf was an ordinary cardboard box with a collection of old exercise copybooks…

I lifted the box on to the floor, knelt down and removed the top exercise book. It had a red cover and a tiny white label with the number 31. I opened it and the first words that I read were ‘The Body in the Library – People – Mavis Carr – Laurette King.’ I turned over the pages at random…’Death on the Nile – Points to be brought in…Oct 8 – Helen sequence from girl’s point of view…The Hollow – Inspector comes to Sir Henry – asks about revolver…Baghdad Mystery May 24th…1951 Plat Act I- Stranger stumbling into room in dark – finds light – turns it on – body of man…A murder has been arranged – Letitia Bailey at breakfast.’

All these tantalising headings were in just one Notebook and there were over 70 more still stacked demurely in their unprepossessing box. I forgot that I was kneeling uncomfortably on the floor of an untidy, dusty room, that downstairs Mathew was waiting for me to begin dinner, that outside in the November darkness the rain was now spattering the shuttered window. I knew now how I would spend the rest of the evening and most of the weekend. And, as it transpired, the next four years…

[from Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran]

When John took us into that room, he announced with a proper sense of drama that we were about to enter “the holiest of holies.”

John Curran was constantly pointing out connections between objects in the house and Christie’s fiction. For example, this portrait of the author at the age of four hangs in the Morning Room:

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller, aged four, painted by Douglas Connah in 1894

Upon seeing it, my first thought was of Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878): 

In both paintings, the children seem to exhibit the same lassitude. But John Curran zeroed in on the doll held close by the child Agatha: “Doesn’t that remind you of the story ‘The Dressmaker’s Doll?'” At the time, I had not heard of this story. I’ve since read it. It’s a strange tale that begins as an eerie encounter and ends on an unexpectedly poignant note. (“The Dressmaker’s Doll” is included in the collection Double Sin and Other Stories.)

Two Christie novels, both featuring Hercule Poirot, use Greenway and its grounds as the setting for the action: Five Little Pigs and Dead Man’s Folly. In Five Little Pigs, it’s the grounds behind the house leading down to the river – specifically the battery and the boathouse – that figure prominently in the narrative. I’d already read and very much enjoyed this novel, and had been looking forward to seeing these locations. Unfortunately, the day was windy and rainy. John Curran was willing to take us, but he warned that the footing was rather precarious. Although several of our group did make the trek down to the boathouse, Ron and I declined. And so there was an opportunity missed.

I hadn’t read Dead Man’s Folly at that time, but I purchased it at Greenway’s small but well stocked gift shop. I enjoyed the novel a great deal, especially since I could imagine the characters inhabiting the Greenway I had just seen.


I think I speak for everyone who came on this excursion when I say that we were simply astonished by John Curran. Not only does he possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Agatha Christie’s life but he also has a deeply impressive grasp of her oeuvre. We were told that he had stayed on in Bristol after Crimefest so that he could take our group through Greenway. John Curran is an exemplary scholar and a generous and gracious person.

    Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, the follow-up to Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, is due to be published this fall.


Masterpiece Mystery’s Six by Agatha contains some recollections and reflections by Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard, as well as an interesting slide show.

The BBC posted this feature on its site at the time of Greenway’s opening.

The National Trust provides a summary of Greenway’s history.

Finally the English Riviera site offers a veritable trove of Agatha info!


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Ghosts and legends of England and Wales

June 21, 2011 at 10:48 pm (To Britain and back 2011)

  In the introduction to The English Ghost, Peter Ackroyd states that “England is a haunted country.” He elaborates:

Several explanations for the ubiquity of the ghost in this land, can be offered. Alone among the countries of Europe, England is bordered by the original British (or Celtic ) nations. The popularity of the English ghost tradition–the English see more ghosts than anyone else–is deeply rooted in its peculiar mingling of Germanic, Nordic and British superstitions. The English are also in many respects obsessed with the past, with ruins, with ancient volumes. It is the country where archaeology is placed on national television, and where every town and village has its own local historian. Ghosts therefore may be seen as a bridge of light between the past and the present, or between the living and the dead. They represent continuity, albeit of a spectral kind.

While passing through the countryside of Herefordshire, we heard the story of a young woman who, believing her lover to be unfaithful, did murder him. Later she found that her suspicions had been unfounded. Upon learning the truth, she killed herself (pined away?). It is said that her ghost now haunts a well – I couldn’t make out for certain exactly where.


As we passed Goodrich Castle, our Blue Badge Guide Pam recounted the legend of Alice Birch. It seems that she and her lover Charles Clifford found themselves on opposite sides during England’s ferociously contested Civil War. They had both sought refuge in the castle, from whence they were at length forced to flee. Seizing Clifford’s steed, they made for  the River Wye in a desperate attempt at escape. But  the river was in full flood, their horse lost its footing, and they were drowned. They are said to haunt both the river and the castle. Learn more on “the eternal lovers and their watery fate” at Richard Jones’s site Haunted Britain and Ireland.


Weobley (pronounced “Webbley”) is one of the destinations on the picturesque black and white villages trail. In Weobley, we visited the Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.  

The church offers a small guidebook for visitors. Here’s how it opens:

Christians have worshipped here for nearly 1,000 years. Wibba, son of Creoda, King of Mercia, founded “Wibba’s Ley” as a defensive outpost against the Welsh in the 6th century. The first mention of a resident priest at “Wibbelai” comes in the Domesday Book of 1086.

(Pam informed us that the suffix  “-ley” indicates a clearing in a forest.)

A strange and sinister legend has attached itself to a large stone cross that stands in the yard of this church: If you walk around it backward, all the while reciting the Lord’s Prayer, you will summon the Devil. Read more about “The legend of Old Nick” at the Haunted Hereford site.


Located in the village of Kington just outside Hereford, Hergest (pronounced “Hargest”) Court exudes an air of melancholy. The original manor house dates from the thirteenth century. Toward the end of the 1400’s, Thomas Vaughan, also known as “Black Vaughan,” resided at Hergest Court. It is his ghost that is said to haunt the premises in the form of a large black dog. Alan Rickman, among others, believes that this is the dog that gave rise to the legend used so compellingly by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Alan Lloyd, our guide at Hergest and a friend of Alan Rickman’s, shares this conviction. (Read more about about “The demon death dog” on the Haunted Hereford site.)

In this video clip, our tour manager Nicky introduces Alan Lloyd. He in turn begins recounting to us the history and legend of Hergest Court and the surrounding area:

If you perform a search for “Hergest Court,” your results will include a number of ghost hunting sites (like this one). It’s prime ghost spotting territory. When we were there, it was cold and windy, with periodic lashings of rain -weather seemingly ordered up by central casting for  this particular encounter.

Here’s an eloquent appraisal by Richard Jones:

Hergest Court is now a shadow of its former glory. It is a sad looking house of white walls and dark timbers that exudes a weary air of detached indifference.

And yet, somewhat to my amazement, a family with young children were preparing to move in.

Though the house seemed bleak, the surrounding countryside was very beautiful:


Mention should  be made here of the Red Book of Hergest. This ancient volume dates from the fourteenth century and was owned for a time by the Vaughan family. Ultimately it was given to Jesus College Oxford, where it now resides. The contents of the Red Book – so called because of its red leather binding – provided some of the source material for the Mabinogion, a collection of tales both historical and mythological set primarily in Wales. A landmark translation of the Mabinogion from Welsh into English was done by Lady Charlotte Guest in the nineteenth century.

A page of the Red Book of Hergest


As we were getting ready to depart, Alan Lloyd hopped onto our bus. He wanted a final chance to persuade us that the ghost of Black Vaughan, in the form of a dog, was the original inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles:

He struck us as a man on a mission, with an almost inexhaustible supply of rhetoric. As you can see (and hear), he possesses a wonderfully declamatory style, which, we were assured, is characteristically Welsh.

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Just let me get this out of my system…

June 19, 2011 at 1:00 am (Family)

I was just there, you see. I took many pictures and even some video footage, to store up until my next visit. So, here goes:

Miss Marple always know when a journey is soon to commence.

Etta Lin, age eight months, with one of her favorite toys

Etta with another favorite toy (batteries removed - from Etta's remote, not Dad's!))

Etta standing!

Etta standing yet again!

Etta with Mom at a street festival - music was rather loud...

Etta has been working on her boogie dance technique – this is just the beginning!

After all the fun, time to clean up

Sometimes a girl's energy just gives out

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The joys of secondhand bookstores

June 9, 2011 at 1:28 pm (books)

In this past Sunday’s Washington Post Travel section, Lloyd Rose had a delightful piece on some exceptional secondhand bookstores he visited recently in upstate New York and Vermont:

“The Impulsive Traveler: The hidden pleasures of the secondhand bookstore”

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Stokesay Castle in Shropshire: “…quite simply the finest and best preserved fortified medieval manor house in England.”

June 7, 2011 at 12:44 pm (Anglophilia, History, To Britain and back 2011, Travel)

By the end of the thirteenth century a wool merchant named Laurence of Ludlow had become one of England’s richest men. In the way of the wealthy throughout history, he wished for a material representation that would stand as a  signal to the world of his new found prosperity. This was the result of that quest:

Stokesay Castle, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I could wax philosophical about the passage of time, the persistence of memory, ghosts in ruined castles and abbeys, but others have already done so with far more eloquence than I could ever summon. Instead, I offer our pictures as mute testimony to all of the above:

The north tower

Inreicate carving on the overmantel in the solar

The South Tower

The majestic Hall. Writing in the English Heritage Guidebook, Henry Summerson tells us that "The three great wooden arches over the hall are a rare survival for this period." (The third arch is just out of range of the camera.) Built in 1291, it stands essentially unaltered since that time.

The picturesque gatehouse, added on in 1640-41

Look out beyond the few outbuildings: the countryside, green and undulating, stretches out, seemingly without end.

              If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot


Click here for more on the history of Stokesay Castle, and here for more visuals.

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‘The tall, bare planes on the Green swayed solemnly like folkies singing Kumbayah.’ – Body Line, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

June 6, 2011 at 12:25 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Oh, the joy of yet another romp through the criminal underside of  Shepherd’s Bush in west London, courtesy of Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Once again, this author has crafted an intriguing murder mystery, but as always, the real joy in this novel comes from Harrod-Eagles’s colorful language and witty asides. Witty – but never silly.

The simile I chose for the title of this post is a good example of this proclivity. There are plenty more where that came from, especially as regards the chapter headings:

‘Witless for the Prosecution’

‘Hello Dubai’

‘Sex at Noon Taxes’

And my particular favorite this time around:

‘Beauty in the Eye of the Beer Holder’

This tale of a cunning charmer and the witless young women who fall for him never fails to delight!

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

(Since there is a story arc in these novels featuring Bill Slider, I recommend reading them in series order.)


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Post the Fifth; in which we travel to Shrewsbury in search of Brother Cadfael and have coffee with Edward Marston

June 4, 2011 at 1:13 am (Anglophilia, books, History, Mystery fiction, Spiritual, To Britain and back 2011)

Ellis Peters with her manager and her Dutch translator Peter Jones, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

Ellis Peters, real name Edith Mary Pargeter, was born in 1913 in Shropshire. An autodidact, she never attended university but manged to produce an impressive  body of historical fiction. She’s probably best known for the Brother Cadfael mysteries. These are set in Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire. Peters envisioned Shrewsbury Abbey as the monastic dwelling of her protagonist, a monk, a healer, and a skillful problem solver, the problem being as often as not  whether a murder has been committed, and if so, by whom.

Here is Cadfael, memorably played by Sir Derek Jacobi:

The journey from Ross to Shewsbury was a fairly long one, so Pam, our Blue Badge Guide, had plenty of time to fill us in on the history and legend of the region. My notes on her fascinating disquisition are alas, extremely scatter shot. The bus ride was somewhat rough, and one was continually distracted by the incredible beauty of the countryside. (Well, darn it anyway!) One notation informs that the Welsh flag is Europe’s oldest:  . Now let’s see what else… “Celtic Welsh were great guerrilla fighters. They wore only ONE SHOE! I was actually able to verify this bizarre fact, courtesy of a site called Castles of Wales. In a section called Medieval Welsh Warriors and Warfare, Jeffrey L. Thomas informs us that “Several manuscripts depict Welsh warriors as having only one shoe and their other foot bare – this probably allowed them to keep a balance on hilly or rough terrain.”

When reading the Brother Cadfael novels, one hears a great deal about King Stephen and Empress Maude (unhelpfully also known as Matilda). Pam gave us a quick rundown of the history of the British monarchy, starting with the Conqueror. It is a tale of fiendish complexity; I won’t even attempt to recount it here. (This site explains the cause of the conflict between Stephen and Maude, and its eventual outcome.)

We learned much about place names: the suffix “-caster” or -chester” denotes a Roman settlement. “Stretton” – as in Church Stretton – indicates a Roman road. There’s more, but it is of a fragmentary nature in my notes. So, let’s proceed to the main attraction on this segment of our journey:

This image graces the cover of the guide book.

The Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury was established in 1087 by Roger de Montgomery, newly named as Earl of Shrewsbury. The Abbey flourished up until the Dissolution, after which time it was allowed to fall into disrepair. A full restoration was begun in 1885; the work continues to the present day. Click here for more on the history of the Abbey.

Our guide informed us that the Abbey chooses not to emphasize its association with Brother Cadfael. No specific reason was given for this rather odd seeming policy. There is a Brother Cadfael window – or rather, a section of a window – with the initials E.P. barely discernible therein:  

The Shrewsbury Visitor Information Centre does provide a booklet entitled “In the Steps of Brother Cadfael.” These steps can quite literally be found embedded in the cobbled  streets of the town:

Here are more photos we took of the church’s interior:

In 1137, the remains of Saint Winefride were conveyed from her burial place in Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey. There, they were interred in the west end of the Abbey Church. The Guild of St. Winefride was established in 1487. In 1540, in the time of the Dissolution, the shrine was destroyed and the guild disbanded. In 1987, after a lapse of nearly five centuries, the Guild was restored. Among its other tasks, members are pledged to prayer and to assist in the maintenance and beautification of the Abbey.

Here is the St. Winefride Window:

Ellis Peters took the known facts about the Saint’s removal from Wales by the monks of Shrewsbury and fashioned a cunning mystery entitled A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first entry in the Cadfael series. 

During our visit to the Abbey, greatly to our delight, the organ was being played:

After this intensely pleasurable experience, we proceeded to the Prince Rupert Hotel to have coffee with Edward Marston.

Marston is the prolific author of several historical crime fiction series. Most relevant to our tour was the Domesday series, set in eleventh century Britain and featuring Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret. The title especially germane to our tour was The Dragons of Archenfield. Although the novel is short, I found the plot convoluted and somewhat hard to follow. Marston is a mesmerizing speaker; he put the conflicts of  the era in an understandable context. I would now like to revisit the novels in this series.

  The novel opens with a  memorable sequence  of events in which the image of the red dragon of Wales, pictured on the flag above and on this book cover, is brought to vivid, if terrifying, life.

Edward Marston spoke eloquently of Ellis Peters, with whom he had been acquainted. Her research, he averred, was flawless, to the extent that her books are now used in academic settings where medieval monastic life in England is being studied. Marston alluded with respect and affection to Peters’s “slightly Victorian prose style,” an attribute of her novels that many of us consider a major attraction.

(In 2006, we had the pleasure of meeting Edward Marston in London, at the conclusion of our Smithsonian tour. )

Ellis Peters also wrote detective fiction set in the Shropshire of her own time, featuring Inspector Felse and his enormously appealing son Dominic. I particularly recommend The Piper on the Mountain.

(In 1997, Marston published Murder in Perspective under his real name, Keith Miles. The protagonist is a Welsh architect, Merlin Richards, newly arrived in the U.S. in the 1920’s. The plot centers on Frank Lloyd Wright and a controversy concerning the building of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. The novel was based on actual events; I found it illuminating and enjoyable.)

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