As befitted a trip back into the time when Agatha Christie wrote most of her crime novels, we arrived at Greenway on a vintage bus from Torquay. Alighting from it was something of a shock for surely we had seen the house in the not too distant past. Once the penny had dropped we realised it was the setting for the first episode of the recent Poirot series. Agatha Christie was born in Devon and along with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, she bought Greenway in 1938.
The three-storied white mainly Georgian house stands high above the Dart Estuary the focal point of an extensively wooded estate. It is the remnant of a larger holding dating from at least Elizabethan times when Sir Walter Raleigh is recorded as being a frequent visitor. She even featured it in at least two of her novels, as Nasse House in Dead Man’s Folly and as Alderbury in Five Little Pigs. Becoming very much part of the local scene, such as reading to children in the local primary school, she was always known as Mrs Mallowan.
Inside Greenway, visitors are immediately transported back to the time when she was writing her mystery novels, but apart from a fairly basic Remington portable typewriter and a vintage fax machine, there is nothing to show of where she worked. As she is recorded as saying in her 1977 autobiography, ‘all I needed was a steady table and a typewriter’. Even though there is no actual room showing where she worked, there are links with her and her family at every turn; favourite walking sticks still wait to be taken out round the winding paths down to the sea shore, American prints of old New York line the staircase, to relics of Max’s Middle Eastern digs, and favourite views over the Dart Estuary, but first and foremost are copies of her books. At the top of the staircase a specially commissioned bookcase holds paperback editions of all the great writer’s books. Agatha Christie was a woman of many talents, not only as a crime writer, but also an accomplished pianist who would only play in private; her Steinway grand piano stands in a corner of the drawing room where she last played for her family and friends.
Along with her mementos are scores of small items brought home from joint trips to the Middle East with Max, it was on one of his archaeological digs that she got the idea to write Death on the Nile. More poignant though is Max’s campaign bed which accompanied him everywhere; it sits somewhat incongruously in a corner of their bedroom. Along with the views over the treetops down to the Dart Estuary, a magnificent inlaid chest they bought in Damascus cost more to bring back to England than it had cost to buy. Everywhere there are little quirky objects, such as the picture in the fax room of the sad dog entitled ‘Out all night without a key’. This dog was the inspiration for the terrier in Dumb Witness’.
She loved lobster as well as blackberry ice-cream, two items usually served on picnics or more formal occasions, but being teetotal, alongside wine decanters and glasses on the dining table would be a jug of double cream which she preferred to drink. The extraordinary frieze running around the library is the work of US Navy Lt Marshall Lee in 1943. He painted it when Greenway was occupied by Flotilla 10 of the US Coastguard and it depicts all the significant events of the war, starting at Key West in Florida and ending with an image of Greenway perched high above the river with an Infantry Landing Craft floating downstream. Finally, among all the little things that bring the house to life is a Hogwarts School scarf lying discarded on one of the chairs near the back door. It was given to one of Agatha Christie’s great grandchildren who was a keen follower of the boy wizard’s exploits. Outside the house a cat’s cradle of paths led down through the extensively wooded grounds, paths that like her plots never seemed to be getting anywhere until the final twist.
It was only then that the whole vista of the River Dart came into view. Along with boats moored or cruising peacefully up and down river there was another building that seemed familiar. It was the boathouse where one of the murders in the Poirot film Dead Man’s Folly took place. The National Trust staff were still agog with the excitement of living through filming the version of Dead Man’s Folly. So recent was it all, that a marquee from the scene of the village fête still stood on the lawn of the walled garden. It was here that David Suchet as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot taxed his little grey cells. Here he was helped while discussing the pros and cons of the case by crime writer Ariadne Oliver, played by Zoë Wanamaker.
It is strange to discover that Agatha Christie, having invented the character of Poirot, never took to him as an imagined human being and secretly hated him. In Dead Man’s Folly the action takes place at Nasse House, clearly based on Greenway. The Ariadne Oliver character was based on Agatha Christie herself. It was therefore a clever idea on the part of the film company to use the real place along with the reincarnated writer in the recent production. Another twist in the tale is when one of the supporting actors, the one who is subsequently murdered in the boathouse appears on the scene. In the story she is staying at a nearby youth hostel and there actually is one nearby.
Called Maypool the splendid house was the writer’s next door neighbour so to speak and during Christie’s lifetime became somewhat run down. Fortunately she was quite a broad minded woman and does not appear to have been unduly put out by having it as her neighbour. It was while wandering round the walled garden that we found ourselves in one of the hot houses. In amongst the various tender plants that were starting to die back as autumn took over from summer, there was just one plant still in flower. It was a rather fine example of the Himalayan datura species, a plant whose sap is highly poisonous.
Thinking we had stumbled on another of Agatha Christie’s plots, we even managed to give it a title – Deadly Beauty, but the National Trust guide who was showing a group round greenhouse expressed his ignorance over the poisonous character of this lovely flower. In view of the current fashion of ghost writing novels by deceased authors, maybe it has the basis of a posthumous Agatha Christie murder mystery? Greenway is a National Trust property. Although there is a car park on the site, access is along narrow winding lanes. The best way to it therefore is by the vintage bus running from Torquay.