Devon, glorious Devon – the idyllic background for Agatha Christie’s childhood, youth and later life, and the setting for no less than 15 of her novels.
Born in Torquay in 1890, the young Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller lived at Ashfield, a large Victorian mansion in the district of Torre, and led an elegant English Riviera lifestyle of society parties, dinners, concerts and outings. She would roller-skate along Princess Pier, and bathe at Meadfoot Beach and Beacon Cove - once a ladies-only beach but where bathers were sneakily spied upon from the Royal Torbay Yacht Club above. Her father Frederick was a frequent visitor to the yacht club where he would while away the afternoons playing whist.
Agatha would visit the houses of eminent families in the area, taking part in family theatre productions with the Mallocks at Cockington Court and no doubt moving in the same social circle as the Carys of Torre Abbey. She attended numerous balls at Oldway Mansion in Paignton, and at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, which featured in three of her novels – Peril at End House, The Body in the Library and Sleeping Murder - and she enjoyed many concerts at Torquay’s Pavilion. It was after one such concert that Agatha received her second proposal of marriage (the first being from Reggie Lucy whilst walking on Torquay Golf Course) from young subaltern Archibald Christie, who she had met three months previously at a dance at Ugbrooke House near Exeter. She rejected him initially, given that she still had an ‘understanding’ with Lucy – two years later she married Christie, on Christmas Eve 1914. The Grand Hotel on Torquay’s seafront was the venue for their honeymoon, and today forms the start of the Agatha Christie Mile, which takes in many of the landmarks pertaining to the author’s past and can be walked with the aid of a leaflet, available from the local Tourist Information Centre.
During the First World War, Agatha worked as a nurse at Torquay Town Hall, which had been converted into a Red Cross hospital where she acquired her knowledge of poisons – crucial in many of her books.
In 1938, Agatha bought the Greenway Estate near Brixham with her second husband, Max Mallowan. She led an active life in the nearby community, becoming a governor at the school in the village of Galmpton, and frequently dining with Lord and Lady Churston at their manor house in Churston village. With the proceeds of one of her books she donated a stained glass window to Churston Church.
Her writing was often inspired by the Devon towns and countryside of her home, along the coast from the English Riviera to Dartmouth and Salcombe, taking in the beautiful setting of Burgh Island for the novels And Then There Were None and Evil Under the Sun, to the Moorland Hotel at Haytor on Dartmoor, which provided the final push she needed to finish her first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
For the Agatha Christie fan, a visit to Devon will enthrall and delight. Her presence is felt strongly in this pretty corner of England, not just in the places made familiar in her books, but also in those places where the life of the lady herself was equally remarkable.
“The house isn’t – haunted, is it?” Despite her best efforts to modernise her new home, Gwenda Reed soon finds herself caught up in the past. Distraught, Gwenda turns to Jane Marple to exorcise her ghosts.
Dolly Bantry wakes in her beautiful home in the quiet village of St Mary Mead; everything is perfect until the shocking discovery of a body in the library. Who is the murdered young girl and who could possibly have killed her?
Poirot has to resort to subterfuge and cunning to solve this tricky case while on holiday. Who is trying to kill the helpless young Nick Buckley and why?
Masthead Photography: Joan Hickson image © BBC
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