SNOOPING AROUND AGATHA CHRISTIE'S RIVIERA
"No seaside town in the south of England is, I think, as attractive as St. Loo – which reminds one forcibly of the Riviera."
Such is the opening line of Agatha Christie's ‘Peril at End House.' The thoughts are from Hercule Poirot's associate, Captain Hastings, the city of St. Loo is actually Torquay in South Devon, and the famous detective and his friend are sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Majestic, high on a headland, overlooking the sea. My wife and I sit on the terrace of the Imperial Hotel taking in the same magnificent coastal view, whilst enjoying a Devon cream tea, an afternoon ritual which includes a rather surprising delicious pastry, a mixture of jam and clotted cream on a tasty scone. The Majestic and Imperial are actually the same place, and today I am the marvellous detective and my spouse the somewhat blundering side-kick, at least in my own mind.
We had arrived in Torquay by train on a pleasant September afternoon and had booked in at the Grand Hotel next door to the station. The case we had undertaken was to snoop around this picturesque harbour town looking for clues about Christie's life here, intent on travelling through her world. Torquay was her birthplace in 1890, and today, September 15th, was in fact her birthday, a day when people travel from far and near to celebrate her legacy at the Agatha Christie Festival. Here, in South Devon on the sea, Christie spent many of the most important chapters of her life; the grand resorts, the landmarks and the local people inspired her writing, and provided a familiar backdrop to her fictional world. Fifteen of her books feature Devon locations. She honeymooned with Archie Christie at The Grand, where we will spend the first few days of our visit here, and she socialised at the Imperial Hotel, where we would settle for our final two nights.
The heart of Torquay arcs around the town's horseshoe harbour, marked by The Grand Hotel at one end and the Imperial Hotel at the other. Between the two hotels is a stretch known as the Agatha Christie Mile, so we set off on a gentle stroll armed with the appropriate leaflet from the local tourist office. The trail takes us along the seafront, with its palm trees and late Victorian architecture on one side and boats moored in the harbour on the other.
We wind our way past ancient Torre Abbey and Christie's garden of poisonous plants, to the Royal Pavilion, a once elegant concert hall, where Archie Christie had proposed to Agatha in 1913, just before his departure for the battlefields of World War 1. We meander along the quay through the quaint Princess Gardens and out onto the Princess Pier, where a young Agatha spent countless evenings roller-skating by the sea. On the trek we keep our eyes peeled for shifty-looking characters but pass nobody who looks remotely like a murderer. Perhaps this is a good thing, but we are a bit disappointed nonetheless.
We follow the narrow paths around Beacon Cove, the site of a near-drowning for teenage Agatha, and then carry on past the Imperial Hotel along a coastal trail, across Meadfoot Beach to picturesque Anstey's Cove. This tiny pebble beach was a favourite picnic spot for Christie and her friends. Sheltered and private, with its faded pastel changing rooms and endless shallow rock pools, it evokes a proper sense of mystery; you can imagine all manner of untoward happenings taking place here.
The next day we hopped aboard the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway for a picturesque tour along the spectacular Torbay coast, and then inland through the wooded slopes bordering the Dart estuary to Kingswear. Christie herself had enjoyed this journey, so much that she insisted on Poirot taking it more than once. We jump off our carriage at Greenway Halt Station, and follow a steep path twenty minutes through the woods to Greenway, Christie's beautiful holiday home on the banks of the River Dart
Greenway is a magical place, with its rich historical interior and the wildness and mystery of its gardens. Now run by the National Trust, the house is just as Christie and her family left it. In the library you can hear an audio clip of Agatha's grandson Mathew reminiscing about his childhood holidays here. The many rooms of the home are filled with interesting collectables; book manuscripts, her old Remington typewriter and scrapbooks filled with stories and photographs.
Agatha Christie set three of her novels here. In ‘Dead Man's Folly' it appears as Nasse House, and the boathouse was the scene of a murder. In ‘Ordeal by Innocence,' the house appears as Sunny Point House and the Greenway Quay bell is used to summon the ferry to Drymouth (Dartmouth). Even the Baghdad Chest in the hallway of the house makes an appearance in ‘The Body in the Library.' We re-join the steam train and carry on to Dartmouth, where we venture by river-boat up the River Dart to view Greenway from the water.
Further south along the coast near Bigbury-on-Sea we encounter the mysterious case of the disappearing island. Well, Burgh Island doesn't really vanish; it is just an island at high tide, when a unique water tractor provides access. At low tide you can wander to the island across the sandy beach flats. Christie used to frequent the Burgh Island Hotel when it was a private home in the late 1920's. Surrounded by dramatic cliffs and often shrouded in ominous mists, one can see why the unique tidal island intrigued the author enough to set two of her most beloved mysteries here, ‘Evil Under the Sun' and ‘And Then There Were None.' We don't stay at the charming art deco hotel, afraid perhaps that its guests might start dropping off one by one. If you have the chance, however, at least drop in at the island's rustic and romantic Pilchard Inn, (established in 1336), for a pint. The coastal region of South Devon has been dubbed the English Riviera because of it balmy climate and seaside location, and it is therefore no great mystery why the region is recognized as a wonderful travel destination. Yet it is in its steam trains, disappearing islands, clifftop walks, grand hotels, shimmering white villas and fashionable resorts, that the pervading presence of the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, arrests the senses, so much so that you expect to be joined in your rail car, at any time, by a certain moustachioed, egg-headed, Belgian detective.
Travel Writers' Tales is an independent newspaper syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com
IF YOU GO:
Agatha Christie is the world's best-selling crime novelist and most successful woman playwright, having sold an estimated two billion copies of her mystery novels worldwide. Even though she died in 1976, the endearing characters she created refuse to go away. Sir Kenneth Branagh will be directing and starring as Poirot in a Fox movie due to hit cinemas in November 2017, a new film version of Murder on the Orient Express.
Torquay – The town is thinly disguised as St Loo in Peril at End House, Hollowquay in Postern of Fate, and Cullenquay in Mrs McGinty's Dead. www.englishriviera.co.uk/agathachristie
The Imperial Hotel - The hotel provided the inspiration for the Majestic Hotel in two of Christie's novels, Peril at End House and The Body in the Library. In Sleeping Murder, Miss Marple's final case, the Imperial Hotel appears as itself. www.theimperialtorquay.co.uk
The Grand Hotel – Where Agatha spent her honeymoon night with Archie Christie on Christmas Eve 1914. The hotel still retains an Agatha Christie Suite. www.grandtorquay.co.uk/
Greenway - In 1938, Agatha bought the estate with her second husband Max Mallowan as a holiday home. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/greenway
The Agatha Christie Festival is a weeklong celebration of Christie's life and work, a biennial event that runs this September 2017. www.agathachristiefestival.com
All Images by Jamie Ross
1. Agatha Christie Bust
2. All Aboard the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway
3. Greenway, Christie's summer holiday home on the River Dart
4. Dead Man's Folly at the Greenway Boathouse
5. Hercule Poirot – (alias Sven from Germany) at the Agatha Christie Festival.Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com
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