Monday, 18 April 2011

Agatha Christie’s Greenway – “the loveliest place in the world”

This Muse Monday is cheating a bit, because legendary crime author Agatha Christie can’t do a guest post on this blog to tell you about her muse. But visiting Greenway, her holiday home on the River Dart in Devon, you can see where she found inspiration for her best-selling books.

The beautiful gardens bordering the river have been open to the public for many years, but the house has only recently been restored by the National Trust and opened its doors in 2009. It’s a bit tricky to get to, because there is only one narrow lane as access through a local village, so Greenway (appropriately!) encourages green transport by giving a discounted ticket price to anyone who manages to get there by foot, bicycle or ferry. There’s also a cool vintage bus you can catch from Torquay or Paignton. (Muse: My author rode me there, of course, disguised as an old bicycle.)

The house you see above was built in 1792, replacing an earlier Tudor mansion on the site. Agatha Christie arrived in 1938, and it has been restored as a lovely holiday home with hats piled up on the hall table, just as if the family have stepped outside for a day’s gardening. There are no roped-off areas or “do not touch” signs, though you are asked nicely not to handle things as you walk around.

Each sun-filled room with its windows looking out over the river has a local guide happy to show you scrapbooks, talk about the family, or play the piano as the mood allows. The warm and comfortable bedroom feels as if Agatha herself has just climbed out of bed and popped across the landing to use the water closet – complete with wooden toilet seat and a cheeky green frog sitting in the hole! In the wardrobe you can see her fabulous dresses, still hanging on the rails.

Downstairs, the library has a wonderful frieze running around the top of the walls, and the shelves are stuffed with all the books Agatha’s family liked to read, including many children’s books. It feels a bit like browsing the shelves at Hay-on-Wye, with a real mixture of older titles. The Muse spied books on gardening, Buddhism, and adventure stories by H Rider Haggard, one of Katherine’s favourite childhood authors. And of course there's a (locked) cupboard full of Agatha's own first editions.

In the drawing room, a taped recording of Agatha Christie’s voice comments on the process of writing:
“The main job is working out the story,"  she says. “And worrying about it. Then you just have to find the time to write it…” Quite.

Fortunately, Agatha Christie found time to write quite a few stories, with 200 published books to her name including the famous Hercule Poirot mysteries and Miss Marple.

Christie was actually her first husband’s name, but she kept it for her books because she was an established author by then. Her second husband was an archaeologist, who excavated sites in Mesopotamia, and Agatha had a lesser-known life travelling to Iraq and helping him on his digs. One of the rooms at Greenway contains samples of cuneiform – the earliest form of writing made in clay with reed pens. No doubt all this material fed her plots. She was also a talented musician, and the house contains many collections of pottery and art from around the world, showing her wide range of interests and curious mind.

This sense of fun continues into the gardens, with paths winding down the hillside through camellia bushes and magnolia to the river, where you’ll find an old boathouse and plunge pool (complete with sleeping bats). Sitting on the quay watching the river traffic, you can imagine the family taking to the river in their boats for a day out in nearby Totnes or Dartmouth. Dotted around the garden are statues and fountains and outbuildings, including a fabulous restored peach house – the longest in Devon.

If it’s possible to have a house as a muse, then I think Greenway would be Agatha Christie’s. It’s certainly the sort of place where you might see a unicorn one day, because now my author has got her hands on a local resident’s pass she’s threatening to take me down there again this summer to seek inspiration for her new series about King Arthur’s daughter. Would Agatha Christie have approved? I think she might.


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