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!

***********************************

4 Comments

  1. Janet Rudolph said,

    Loved your post, and isn’t John Curran wonderful? So knowledgeable. Lucky you to have him as your guide!

  2. Yvette said,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for allowing us to follow along on your wonderful tour. It’s like visiting England without leaving home. Of course, I’d rather be there, but these posts are second best and often, quite good enough.

    We spent three weeks in Great Britain once upon a time, long ago, and your posts are bringing it all back to me. We went to different places, but once or twice, I think we were in towns you visited this time out.

    If parts of Great Britain aren’t some of the most beautiful places on earth, then I don’t know what beauty is.

    Thank you.

  3. Nan said,

    Oh, what a wonderful piece of writing this is! I loved every minute. You led me to the Smithsonian article and I stayed and read the whole thing. Oh, and then I subscribed to the magazine. :<) Do you subscribe to (Give Me That) Old-Time Detection? There is always an Agatha section in it. A wonderful non-computer newsletter all about old mysteries. Info here if you are interested:

    oldtimedetection@netzero.com

    I so loved seeing the house and environs. I envy you your trip. Thank you very much for sharing it.

  4. Douglas D. Connah said,

    The painter of Agatha’s age-four portrait was my grandfather, Douglas John Connah, an American,who was 22 years old in 1894. He later was a well-known painter and art teacher in New York and New England. I’d love to find out how he came to paint that portrait.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: