It’s not often you get to stay in a house where a murder took place. Two murders in fact: one in the boathouse, the other on the battery, and both solved by the renowned Monsieur Poirot.
So it’s with some trepidation that I arrive late at Greenway, the Devon holiday home of Agatha Christie, which is now owned by the National Trust. It’s dark, there’s no wifi or mobile reception, and mine is the only human heart beating within a mile radius… or so I think.
My apartment is on the top floor of the Georgian mansion overlooking the River Dart, and though it’s pitch-black, I can still appreciate the tranquillity that Agatha must have felt when she arrived here for the summer. In the distance I can make out the orange glow of the Ferryboat Inn across the river at Dittisham. I can’t wait to see it all in daylight as it’s described in Dead Man’s Folly: “white and beautiful in its setting of dark trees… A gracious house, beautifully proportioned.”
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The magnolias are in bloom, and I can smell their fragrance as I walk down the driveway, their petals ghostly-white in the moonlight. Bats dart back and forth and as I reach for the key-lock, an owl screeches, making me jumble the numbers.
Eventually I master the code, and climb the winding staircase, past a life-size portrait of Agatha Christie, gracious like her house in a flapper dress, shawl and pearls. The main house is closed off, and the apartment has a separate entrance.
Just as I reach the top I hear a cough, then footsteps behind me, followed by the creak of a door. I freeze, my heart racing. I force myself to turn around. At the bottom of the stairs is a young woman with a cat entwined around her ankles.
Given that she smiles at me and is wearing a National Trust fleece, I decide she’s neither ghost nor murderer. I’m not, after all, alone on the property. She lives next door, and assures me that if I hear footsteps in the night it’s because Zebedee, her cat, just can’t decide whether to stay in or out. I don’t blame him; the next day I, too, am torn between exploring the house first or the gardens. I decide on the house, keen to get there before the crowds arrive.
Agatha Christie’s home is pretty much how it was when she left it to her daughter Rosalind, who then passed it to her son, Matthew Prichard, who gifted it to the National Trust. From the portraits on top of the Steinway piano, to the Harry Potter scarf from Matthew’s grandson, Greenway is a family home filled with happy memories.
In her 85 years Agatha Christie wrote more than 80 books, which to date have sold two billion copies worldwide. And it was in Greenway’s drawing room that she used to read her latest manuscript to the family, whilst her husband Max dozed in a chair.
In the sitting room there are Max’s journals and finds from archaeological digs, which Agatha accompanied him on; she wrote Come Tell Me How You Live in response to questions about their lives during these expeditions.
Matthew’s favourite room, however, is the library, which would be unremarkable if it weren’t for the extraordinary frieze, which was painted during the Second World War when the house was requisitioned by the US Coastguard.
The library at Greenway (images courtesy of the National Trust)
His grandmother would sit in the corner to do her day’s reading (she never wrote at Greenway, only edited). Although the battle images gave Matthew nightmares, she didn’t want the frieze removed as it was a part of the house’s history.
In the bedroom is a chest of drawers from Damascus, and Max’s own bed – an early fold-up design – that travelled the world with him, and eventually became Agatha’s bed, too.
The house is fascinating, but it’s the grounds of Greenway that I really fall in love with. Once the visitors have gone home, I explore the gardens at dusk, listening to the concert of birdsong, and watching herons fly over the estuary towards Dartmouth and Kingsweir. The footpath down to the river is fringed with monkey puzzle trees, narcissi, camellias and the tallest rhododendrons I’ve ever seen.
View of the Dart taken from the grounds at Greenway (photo by Ali Wood)
I pass the battery, the site of the murder in Five Little Pigs, and eventually come to Raleigh’s Boathouse, so named because Walter Raleigh, who was half-brother to former owner Sir John Gilbert, was a frequent visitor to Greenway. The boathouse is known to millions of readers as the place where Marlene Tucker was strangled in Dead Man’s Folly. It also appeared in the 2013 film adaptation, which was David Suchet’s last appearance as Poirot.
The interior of the boathouse
Greenway was chosen as the backdrop for Dead Man’s Folly because its rooms are evocative of the 1950s, in which the story is set. Apparently Suchet surprised National Trust staff and visitors by staying in character the whole week. He even popped into the shop, and had his photo taken with the volunteers.
That night, as I retire to my apartment, I glance at the row of servants’ bells that I hope (my imagination running wild) don’t ring in the middle of the night. I avoid the stare of the austere woman in the oil painting (not the lovely Agatha), and snuggle up on the sofa watching back-to-back episodes of the Miss Marple DVD collection (Poirot is just a bit too scary). The theme tune whizzes me back to my 80s childhood when I was allowed to stay up late watching the grey-haired sleuth solve the village murder. Having now graduated to Dexter and True Detective, I find Murder in the Vicarage quite therapeutic; like watching an episode of In the Night Garden with my toddler. That said, I still can’t guess the murderer.
After another visit to the house and garden, and spending a fortune in the shop on murder mystery memorabilia, it’s time for me to leave Greenway. On my way back home I stop in Torquay and explore the Agatha Christie Literary Trail. This author was born in this seaside resort and spent her honeymoon at the Grand Hotel with first husband Archie Christie.
I pass the railway station where Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple and David Suchet’s Poirot met in 1990 for the Centenary Celebrations; and Princess Pier, where Agatha used to go rollerskating. Torquay Museum is home to an Agatha Christie Gallery, and Torre Abbey to her Potent Plants Garden. The Princess Gardens feature in the ABC Murders and the Strand hotel is also recognisable in some of her novels.
It’s only a mile-long stretch of seafront, but so much of it played a role in the author’s life. Agatha’s father was a member of the Royal Torbay Yacht Club, and Beacon Cove in front is where Agatha went swimming and once nearly drowned. It’s here that I finish my tour, with a takeaway coffee from the Living Coasts Aquarium next door.
I sit on the curved concrete steps and look out to sea, trying to imagine 13-year-old Agatha flailing in the surf as she attempted to keep afloat. What if she’d failed? No Mousetrap, Miss Marple, Poirot or film adaptations of her books (the latest – Murder on the Orient Express – is due out this November). It’s a bleak thought indeed, and I say a silent thank you to the local boatman who hauled her aboard his craft and flushed the water from her lungs with what she described in her autobiography as “a bit of punching”.
The Greenway Apartment sleeps eight guests in four bedrooms on the first and second floors of Agatha Christie’s Greenway House. Prices start at £557 for a three-night stay off-season.
Guests have access to the gardens at all times and the house during opening hours. Guests also get free entry to Coleton Fishacre, Compton Castle and Bradley Manor, as well as receiving a discount voucher to be redeemed at the National Trust gift shop.