TRACKING DOWN AGATHA CHRISTIE ON THE ENGLISH RIVIERA
For most of my journey to Torquay aboard the 10.30 a.m. train out of London's Paddington Station, I have the first class coach to myself. And yet I am not alone. Across from me is the ghost of Mr Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, now comfortably reading The Times. And Vera Claythorne, a games mistress absolved of blame in the drowning of one of her pupils, but still ravaged by guilt. That's Captain Philip Lombard coming along the aisle now. Remember him ? Lived in Africa for a while. And there's sixty-five years old Miss Emily Brent, "enveloped in an aura of righteousness"....
All are heading to Soldiers Island, where they died. For all are characters in one of the most popular murder mysteries ever written: And Then There Were None.
In a couple of days I too will go to Soldiers Island (in reality Burgh Island) to see where the late Dame Agatha Christie stayed when she wrote her story set on a brooding island off the Devonshire coast in England's southwest. Along the way I'll encounter bustling ports and sleepy hamlets featured in so many of her best-selling thrillers, but my home base is in the seaside resort of Torquay, Devon, in an area pretty much unchanged from when the author lived here.
Agatha Christie loved Torquay. She was born on the outskirts of town on September 15, l890, at Ashfield, the Italian-style villa home of her parents, Clara and Frederick Miller. And in l938, she bought her own holiday hideaway here beside the picturesque River Dart.
By Pam Hobbs, with pictures by Michael Algar
Because of the region's balmy climate and scenic coast, it became fashionable at the turn of the 20th century for wealthy families to establish homes in and around Torquay. Close on their heels came the luxurious hotels, fine shops and theatres, parks to parade in, and a Pavilion concert hall that attracted celebrated musicians. Even Europe's royals booked long-term stays in Torquay when wintry winds blew back home.
The appeal of the place is obvious on sight. In late September, I am blessed with temperatures in the mid 20sC, cloudless skies, and brilliant sunshine. A bikini-clad swimmer floats lazily in my hotel's outdoor pool, and roses are in full bloom. Sub-tropical plants prosper in private gardens and public places, making it hard to believe that's the Atlantic and not the Mediterranean Sea out there beyond the Channel. No wonder then that this part of Devon is known as the English Riviera, and Torquay as England's Naples.
Like Christie and her characters before me, I left the train at Torquay's quaint Victorian station, with its slate roofs and iron crestings and fretted canopies above the platforms. Enhancing the Mediterranean feel of the scene, across the road the sprawling white Grand Hotel glistens in the afternoon sun. Typical of Europe's opulent seaside resorts of the late l800s, its bedrooms are spacious and service gracious, while public areas beckon with plump armchairs and sofas facing the sea..
As a young woman, Christie often attended social functions here. Then, following her marriage to Archie Christie on December 24, l914, she spent the first night of her brief honeymoon in one of its suites. It was wartime: Archie, a dashing young flight lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, returned to France two days later. Agatha went back to Ashfield, and her work in the local hospital. Needless to say, the Grand now has an Agatha Christie Honeymoon Suite.
On my first afternoon in Torquay, I went by taxi to Christie's holiday home, Greenway House, as she would have done when arriving by rail from London. The author's daughter, Rosalind, and her husband, Tony Hicks, lived here after her mother's death in l976. Now they're gone too, and the National Trust has taken over Greenway, with plans to open it to the public next year. Meantime the 30-acre gardens are a treat, wrapped around the hillside with seats handily placed so visitors can pause to enjoy magical river views. It takes roughly an hour to walk along the garden's footpaths, longer if you go down to the boathouse at the river's edge where Marlene Tucker was strangled in Dead Man's Folly, or sit awhile to ponder Christie's love of houses, and gardens, and Greenway in particular.
She was always a keen gardener whose knowledge of flowers shone through in several of her books. In Murder at the Vicarage, her character Jane is a well-informed gardener. So is the elderly detective, Miss Marple, who appears in 12 of the mysteries. Even dapper little Hercule Poirot - featured in 33 novels and 54 short stories - finds himself in a horticultural setting in the l969 Hallowe'en Party.
Although Christie's fans number in the millions worldwide, there were no plaques or memorials of any kind in Torquay until l990, the l00th anniversary of the writer's birth, when Rosalind unveiled a bronze bust of her mother. Also, while this town is crammed with sites frequented by Christie and her characters, the official Agatha Christie Mile Walking Tour was introduced only two years ago. "Agatha was a very private person," Nott explains, "and Rosalind was very protective of her mother's privacy."
I was fortunate to link up with Joan, a long-time resident of Torquay and and an authority on Agatha Christie. We met at the Torquay Museum, where Christie memorabilia includes Miss Marple's baggy tweed suit and Inspector Poirot's more formal outfit worn in movies based on the novels. Photographs lead us through Agatha's years as a bright-eyed inquisitive looking child at Ashfield, to times she spent happily working at archeological sites in Iraq with her second husband, Sir Max Mallowan. I am particularly interested in her hand-written "plotting book," in which she jotted down story ideas as they came to mind, for use whenever she needed one.
From the museum we walked down to the harbour, crowded now with pleasure craft and excursion boats, but still dominated by the handsomely domed seafront Pavilion. A talented musician herself, Christie was a great fan of the Pavilion and its concerts, and it was after attending a Wagner concert here with Archie Christie that he proposed to her. Unfortunately, 21st century encroachment has brought a shopping mall to the ground floor, but go upstairs and you can still experience some of its original grandeur beneath a barrel-vaulted ceiling and dome.
Over coffee and pastries on the Pavilion's sun-drenched terrace, Joan talked about the very first Agatha Christie Murder Mystery Week held a few days earlier. All events - her escorted walks, plays,a traditional l920s Tea Dance and a Murder Mystery Ball at The Grand - were sold out. In view of its resounding success, Murder Mystery Week is to be an annual event held every September.
From the harbour we tackled another of the town's seven steep hills, which took us up to the five-star Imperial Hotel, said to have changed little in appearance from the days when young Agatha would join her friends in the opulent Edwardian lounge for afternoon tea. Several of her novels are set in this hotel, advertised in l866 as being "Open for Families and Gentlemen." Now we're all welcome, so do at least walk through to the terrace where Inspector Poirot and his side-kick Captain Hastings were seated in the opening of the l932 thriller, Peril at End House. Look a bit harder and you might see the venerable Miss Marple on the terrace, unravelling the mystery of Sleeping Murder to Gwenda and Giles.
Christie loved to swim in the sea. One of her favourite spots was Beacon Cove, a "ladies only" beach just below the Imperial. Modesty was such, she and her friends would get changed in individual beach huts that were then wheeled down to the water's edge so their occupants could slip unnoticed into the sea. Since swimsuits of the day covered their arms and most of their legs, there wasn't a great deal to see. Still members of the neighbouring yacht club thought it worthwhile to watch them through their spy glasses.
My walk with Joan ended in Princess Gardens, where thick green lawns are interspersed with colourful flower beds and palm trees, and water from a fountain dances merrily just steps from the Pavilion. Here, harbourfront blackboards tempt with boat excursions to ports along the coast, most of them frequented by Christie and her characters. Instead, with too much to see in too little time, I opted for the services of affable Graham Light. Graham offers taxi tours customized to a client's requirements. Mine were simply to take the roads Agatha drove in her precious Morris Cowley, stopping off at sites featured in her books. And so we went, along lanes narrowed by hedges twice as tall as me, past red iron-rich soil reminiscent of Prince Edward Island, through chocolate-box villages where thatched cottages are nested in tropical gardens. Almost every house has a boat beside it, and all paths lead to the local pub.
You need a week at least to explore all the Christie sites on the English Riviera. Even without the connections to Agatha they are enchanting old places, begging exploration along coastal footpaths and in historic fishing ports with interesting museums and upscale shops. Beaches are wide and golden, and ancient pubs once busy with smugglers and fishermen are never far away. One of the oldest is Burgh Island's 14th century Pilchard Inn, said to be haunted by smuggler Tom Crocker, who roams the island every August 14th.
Burgh is a part-time island, cut off from the mainland when the tide is in, at which time a unique sea-tractor will carry you through even the roughest of seas to dry land. When the tide's out, you can walk across on hard packed sand.
In l929 Archibald Nettlefold, an eccentric millionaire, purchased the island and built a hotel which was basically a retreat for his celebrity friends. Edward brought Wallis Simpson here. Noel Coward stayed for three months, during which he penned some of his wittiest songs. Agatha Christie wrote most of And Then There Were None (originally titled Ten Little Niggers) and featured it in Under The Sun. Now Burgh Island Hotel and Spa is the ultimate destination for Christie enthusiasts.
Decor, artwork, even music played in the lounge is from the '20s and '30s. When we dropped by at Sunday noon, formally dressed waiters were serving pre-lunch pink gins under the fabulous stained glass dome of the Palm Court Cocktail Bar. Without reservations there is little chance of staying for lunch on weekends, so we went outside to look for dolphins. As I sat on a rock, my thoughts turned to the brilliant, adventurous, resourceful, shy woman who had drawn me here.
None too soon I realize a heavy mist has crept in, enveloping me in a cool grey shroud. No dolphins to be seen now. But hang on...something is drifting towards me through the gloom. By jove, it's my ghosts from the train, looking a little worse for wear I may say: Justice Wargove, dressed in his robes and judge's wig, with a bullet hole in his forehead...Vera Claythorne wearing the noose left ready for her in her bedroom...Philip Lombard, I can plainly see, has been shot through the heart....And who's this, still sitting upright in her dining room chair? Emily Brent, no less. Dead as a door-nail from poisoning by injection. I try to point them out to Graham, but he's not having any. He says it's time to find a nice noisy pub on the mainland.
THE QUEEN OF CRIME 1890-1976
Agatha Christie's first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in l920. Written during World War 1 while she was working in Torquay's hospital dispensary, it was rejected by publishers and rewritten often before acceptance. At the dispensary, Christie became so interested in medicines and poisons she later studied to be a pharmacist. Her victim in Styles was killed with strychnine - after which there was no looking back.
After the war, Agatha moved from Ashfield to London where she lived with Archie and their daughter Rosalind. Since Styles had sold a respectable 2,000 copies, she decided to write another book. Soon she was producing at least one murder mystery a year.
1926 was a bad year for Agatha. Her mother died,and Archie asked for a divorce. Then towards year's end she simply drove into the night and vanished. Her car was found abandoned in Surrey. Speculation was rampant. Had Archie done her in? Had she taken her own life ? Was it a publicity stunt by someone who shunned publicity ? Ten days later she was recognized, living under an assumed name in a Harrogate hotel. No explanation was given at the time, though it is believed now that she experienced short-term amnesia brought on by acute depression.
1928 was a time for renewal. Having granted the divorce and emerged from her depression, Agatha decided to 'get on with it'. This she did by embarking on an adventurous journey to Baghdad, with a side-trip to an archaeological dig being worked by Leonard Woolley and his assistant, Max Mallowan. Two years later, Agatha and Max were married. She was 39, he was 25, and by all accounts this was the beginning of a happy and fulfilling life for them both. Every winter for the next eight years they returned to the Middle East, where she worked as an excavation photographer - and wrote murder mysteries from her tent.
World War 11 brought a temporary halt to the couple's travels. Max was sent to Egypt; Christie stayed in London to work in a dispensary. Looking for a change of pace, she wrote the first of six romantic novels under the name of Mary Westmacott.
The l950-70s were golden years for the Mallowans. Agatha and Mx returned to Iraq often, and she was adapting her mystery stories for stage and screen.
Dame Agatha Christie was 85 when she died, by which time she had published some 80 whodunits and six romances, plus poems, plays, and collections of short stories. Her books have sold more than two billion copies in l04 languages - making her the best selling fiction writer of all time.
Thirty years after Christie's death, her books continue to enjoy new printings. In 2005 And Then There Were None opened in London's West End to great reviews, the Agatha Christie Theatre Company was launched with a successful version of The Hollow, and a new television series featuring Hercule Poirot is in the works. And how about this ? Christie's mysteries were so loved at Buckingham Palace she was asked to write a little something for radio in celebration of Queen Mary's 80th birthday. She wrote Three Blind Mice, which in l952 she rewrote as The Mousetrap for the stage. London's longest-playing theatrical production ever, it is currently at St. Martin's Theatre just off Leicester Square. In its 55th year now, and still at the end of each performance the audience is asked not to reveal the ending. So I won't.
IF YOU GO: The English Riviera Tourist Office: telephone 0870 70 70 010, www.englishriviera.co.u.k. Or VisitBritain at 1-888-847-4885, www.visitbritain.com
GETTING AROUND: For a taxi tour such as mine, telephone 07768 766941. A ferry service operates between Torquay harbour and Greenway House.
STAYING THERE: The Grand Hotel, Torquay, telephone 01803 296677 www.grandtorquay.co.uk
Burgh Island Hotel, Bigbury-on-Sea, 01548 810514. Www.burghisland.com