Agatha Christie’s Greenway

12 August 2012

Greenway. Photo: my own.

After quite a few years of hopeless longing, I finally managed to visit Agatha Christie’s holiday home Greenway last week and it was every bit as magical as I could ever have anticipated. I’ve been a huge fan of Christie, or Mrs Mallowan as she was known to the locals of Greenway, for literally almost as long as I can remember. My grandparents discouraged me from reading children’s books but everything else was fair game, including my mother’s collection of vintage Agatha Christie novels, which I absolutely devoured when I was about eight years old. My favourite then was Death on the Nile and in fact that still remains one of my favourites to this day, although it’s been mostly surpassed by her Miss Marple books.

Although Greenway, which rests on a hill overlooking the river Dart in Devon, was not Agatha Christie’s principal residence, it is the one that is most irresistibly connected with her as it was here that she retired every summer after finishing her latest book and here too that she played hostess at house parties and celebrated birthdays and Christmases.

One day we saw that a house was up for sale that I had known when I was young… So we went over to Greenway, and very beautiful the house and grounds were. A white Georgian house of about 1780 or 90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart below, and a lot of fine shrubs and trees – the ideal house, a dream house‘ — Agatha Christie.

Although Agatha Christie, who had grown up in nearby Torquay, had been aware of the house which she would later describe as ‘the loveliest place in the world‘ since she was a child, the tale of how she bought it in later life reminds me of the beginning of her own novel Sleeping Murder, when the heroine Gwenda spies a small white Victorian villa through the trees just as Greenway, white and gleaming like a pearl, hides almost bashfully behind the trees on its prominence and immediately feels ‘a throb of appreciation – almost of recognition. This was her house! Already she was sure of it. She could picture the garden, the long windows – she was sure that the house was just what she wanted.‘.

Greenway. Photo: my own.

There’s been a house at Greenway since the sixteenth century when the dashing seafarer Otto Gilbert and his wife, Catherine Champerknowne who was the niece of Kat Ashley, Elizabeth I’s beloved governess and friend built a beautiful mansion Greenway Court on the hill with views across the River Dart. Otto and Catherine had three sons, all of whom were to become prominent favourites at the court of Elizabeth I, who appears to have had something of a weakness for west country sailing types. Who doesn’t?

After Otto’s death, his widow went on to marry again into another local family and became mother to Walter and Carey Rayleigh. Her Gilbert and Rayleigh offspring appear to have been very close and in fact it’s said that the infamous incident involving Walter, a smoking pipe and an over zealous servant carrying a pot of water occurred at Greenway when he was on one of his visits.

The Gilberts sold Greenway at the start of the eighteenth century when they moved to nearby Compton Castle and after this the property was owned by a succession of wealthy businessmen from Bristol and Cornwall before eventually being bought by Agatha Christie and her second husband, Max Mallowan in 1938. By the time that the Mallowans took possession of the estate, the original Tudor mansion was long gone and had been replaced in the late eighteenth century by the gracious and harmonious building that still stands today.

Agatha Christie in the library at Greenway. Photo: The National Trust.

It’s clear that both Agatha and Max were smitten with their new house and it’s easy to see why – the location is thoroughly picturesque and it manages to be both stately and comfortable at the same time, which is quite a feat. As we walked up the long drive to the house, it felt like we were going back in time and entering a more relaxed age of house parties, croquet on the lawn and cocktails in the drawing room before dinner. In short, it felt like we were walking into one of Agatha Christie’s own books. Not too much though – the National Trust clearly didn’t want to turn Greenway into some sort of Christie Theme Park so you aren’t knocked about the head with the connection but her presence is there all the same.

Although Agatha Christie is not known to have actually written any of her books at Greenway, it’s clear that she found the property inspiring – the boat house beside the river features in her book Dead Man’s Folly and as I walked through the gardens I was reminded of the house in Five Little Pigs, another favourite of mine which I’ve only just found out actually was based on Greenway so there you go. The thing is, I suppose, that like Miss Marple basing her deductions and readings of character on the places and people that she knows back home in St Mary Mead, Christie drew on the world around her to both inspire and then breathe life into her books. The comfortable, pleasure seeking lifestyle enjoyed by most of her characters is one that she too shared and so it is only natural that a visit to Greenway, the holiday home that she enjoyed in the balmy summer months should evoke thoughts of her novels.

We managed to pick a perfect summer day to visit Greenway and so the house was displayed to full advantage, shimmering palely in the bright sunlight and surrounded by lushly verdant trees and grass. There was not a single cloud to be seen in the deep blue sky overhead and in the distance the river Dart sparkled in the sunshine. I suspect that Greenway looks beautiful even when it’s overcast, raining or knee deep in snow but it really felt like the heavens were smiling down on us when we walked around the corner and saw the view laid out before us.

Greenway. Photo: my own.

My husband went off to have a picnic with the Three Year Old while I went around the house with the Seven Year Old, who loves going around old houses with me. I don’t know what he thought though when I burst into tears almost as soon as I had stepped over the threshold as I was so overwhelmed by the feeling of finally standing inside Agatha Christie’s own house. Oh dear.

The current visit to Greenway begins with the graciously elegant hall, which is a more formal entrance than the 1930s back porch, which is the one that Agatha Christie used in her time. However, although the cream painted and portrait lined hallway looks elegant, it’s made clear by the hats still hanging on the walls or perched on sculpture and the toys piled up at the bottom of the stairs that visitors are entering a comfortable family home.

All of the rooms at Greenway are painted in pale cream with white highlights, all the better to create an atmosphere of brightness, space and light and to display the thousands of curios on display in the house. Agatha Christie’s family appear to have been keen collectors and the fruits of their labours are on display here – vases, silverware, snuff boxes, ornaments, china are all in abundance and it’s obvious that the original owners took a great deal of pleasure in their spoils, with Christie herself remarking that ‘the only sad thing is that if you inherit a good collection of china and furniture it leaves you no excuse for starting a collection of your own.‘ The only thing for it, clearly, was to start one’s own collections.

The first room that I entered was the Morning Room, which is dominated by a 1894 portrait of the four year old Agatha reclining lazily on a very comfortable looking armchair, dressed in Victorian child elegance in broderie anglaise with a wide pink sash and clutching a rather malevolent looking doll to her side as she gazes out languidly and also rather curiously at the onlooker. The presence of this work is a reminder that Agatha Christie was born into the well off upper middle class echelons that tend to populate her books and in fact a lot of the beautiful old furniture in this room and throughout the house comes from her family home, Ashfield in Torquay, which was sold shortly before the purchase of Greenway.

The drawing room at Greenway. Photo: The National Trust.

Next door there is the lovely peaceful drawing room, where Agatha’s piano still resides. During her childhood ‘Confessions’ books were all the rage and facsimiles are on display in the drawing room at Greenway so that visitors can have a look. The premise is similar to the internet memes that still go about the place – participants are presented with a list of questions to answer, ranging from their favourite authors (‘Elizabeth Bowen‘) to their most admired qualities (in men: ‘courage and gentleness‘ and in women: ‘warm hearted and gay‘) to their idea of misery (‘the people I love to go away‘).

When asked what alternative career she would have liked for herself, Agatha Christie responded with ‘Opera singer‘ and in fact she was an extremely talented singer as well as pianist. However, she was also extremely shy about her talents and would insist upon only playing and singing while alone – making her family sit in a different room if they wanted to listen and immediately stopping when anyone entered the drawing room. On display there was also a copy of sheet music that she wrote in her youth and a pile of music that she enjoyed playing.

Also magical for me was the bright and airy dining room, which lies off the back hall and where Christie and her family would gather for more formal dinners and celebrations, which were probably a lot of fun if the enormous Nebuchadnezzer bottles of Veuve Clicquot in the butler’s pantry are evidence of anything. Music from the 1930s plays as you enter the dining room and the visitor is reminded that it was here that Agatha Christie celebrated her 60th, 70th and 80th birthdays. There’s even the menu from her 80th birthday party on the 15th September 1970 on display – avocado vinaigrette followed by her favourite Homard à la crème (lobster in cream) and then ice cream and blackberries à la Greenway.

The library at Greenway. Photo: The National Trust.

Next door there is the library, which is more of a cosy sitting room lined with a low bookcase. As usual, I hastened to check out what books Agatha’s family had enjoyed over the years, noting a Sherlock Holmes mystery, a Mapp and Lucia book by E.F. Benson and Vincent Cronin’s Louis and Antoinette amongst multitudes of others. There were also dozens of first editions of Agatha Christie’s own books all lined up neatly on display. Clearly though the family had a wide breadth of interests from horticulture to history to geography and religion while when it came to fiction there seemed a definite preference towards the comedic and adventurous.

Besides the books, however, the most notable feature of the library is the wonderful frieze around the top of the wall. It was painted by a Lt Marshall Lee while the house was occupied by Flotilla 10 of the US Coastguard during the run up to D Day in 1943. Before the house was returned to the Mallowans, the Commander contacted Agatha and asked if she would like the frieze painted out but she ‘hurriedly replied it would be a historical memorial, and that I was delighted to have it.’ It is indeed a charming and rather powerful piece of work – perhaps a little too powerful as her grandson, Mathew later said that some of the battle scenes in the painting used to give him nightmares when he was a child.

There are more treasures upstairs including Agatha’s own bedroom with tall windows that let light flood in and also offer wonderful views down to the river Dart. She was photographed sitting at her typewriter in this room, with all the furniture looking much the same as it does now. She didn’t actually complete any novels at Greenway but would write in An Autobiography in 1977 that:

I never had a definite place which was my room or where I retired specially to write. This has caused much trouble for me in the ensuing years, since whenever I had to receive an interviewer their first wish would always be to take a photograph of me at my work.
‘Show me where you write your books.’
‘Oh, anywhere.’
‘But surely you have a place where you always work?’
But I hadn’t. All I needed was a steady table and a typewriter.’

Agatha Christie in her bedroom at Greenway. Photo: The National Trust.

I stood for a long time at the window of Agatha Christie’s bedroom, in front of which she allowed herself to be posed looking thoughtful with one hand placed lightly on her typewriter. Who could fail to be inspired by the beauty of the Dart? I am sitting right now in my bright study on the first floor of our house, which is where I write the vast majority of my blog posts and books – the view from my window is across an overgrown old railway line and then across to the spires and tower block of modern Bristol, the sounds of which float to me across the air along with the cries of seagulls overhead. Even though I write predominantly about the past, I find the sounds of the modern bustling city invigorating and inspiring. When I stood at Agatha Christie’s bedroom window I was touched by the beauty and tranquility of the scene that she would have surveyed had she actually written in there.

Alongside the bedroom there is a small dressing room, with wardrobes still crammed full of Agatha’s own clothes including fur coats, hats and also rather sumptuous evening gowns. There are also dressing up clothes that would have been worn by her family during games of charades.

Along the corridor there is her husband Max’s writing room, which is filled with notes and exhibits pertaining to his archaeological career as well as facsimiles of Agatha’s notebooks, complete with plot points, notes about different types of poisons and details about the characters. Visitors are encouraged to poke around in the drawers, in one of which there is a display of envelopes addressed to Agatha with such idiosyncratic addresses as ‘Agatha Christie, the greatest living writer, Devonshire, England‘ or ‘Agatha Christie, by the river Dart, England.’ It is testament indeed to her fame that they actually managed to arrive at Greenway.

Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan at Greenway. Photo: The National Trust.

After this we went back down the stairs and said a sad goodbye to the house before taking a walk down through the gardens to the famous boat house, which has a small old fashioned swimming pool in its bowels. We then sat for a while and enjoyed the view across the river before climbing back up through overgrown paths to the main gardens, where croquet had been laid out on the lawn to the delight of my sons.

Greenway. Photo: my own.

The gardens at Greenway perfectly compliment the house – they are beautiful but not overly formal with a decided lean towards lushly green shrubs rather than fussy flowerbeds. I took a short walk up to the two walled gardens, one of which contains the longest peach house in Devon, a lovely old structure that was recently almost completely restored by the National Trust. I noticed that Agatha’s daughter Rosalind Hicks, who owned the house after her, would determinedly work her way through the glut of peaches produced by the house in its heyday and was reminded of Christie’s wonderful Ariadne Oliver and her passionate love of apples.

I could have happily spent all day, weeks in fact, at Greenway but after buying a ‘Murder at the Vicarage‘ mug it was time to leave, albeit with a vow to return again one day. I’ve longed to visit Greenway for so long that I was worried that it would be a disappointment but in fact it was even better than I could ever have imagined. I really recommend that my fellow Christie fans make the journey to see it for themselves as it really does bring both Agatha and her books to life in the most amazing way.

I ought to add that there is a holiday apartment in the top floors of the house that sleeps ten people. If I ever get rich, that’s where I am heading with my trusty Macbook, Kindle and a pile of books. Oh and they also do small weddings there, which is handy to know as I slowly plan my vow renewal – would could be more perfect than an intimate 1930s styled ceremony in the dining room at Greenway?

Further reading:

Agatha Christie at Home

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