I fulfilled a long-held dream today, when I visited Agatha Christie’s Devon home, Greenway. Now a National Trust property, it was never Christie’s official residence, but was where she and her family spent their holidays – Christie being keen to stay as close to her Devon roots as possible.
There are several ways in which you can travel to Greenway, but I chose the most nostalgic: a steam train from Paignton to the village of Kingswear, followed by a ferry to Greenway. I loved travelling on the ‘Devon Belle’, which dates back to 1951, and I was glad I’d paid the slightly higher fare to sit in its Observation Car; not only is the seating all sofas and armchairs, but the floor-to-ceiling glass windows afford wonderful views of the Devon countryside.
I enjoyed sailing on the ‘Agatha Belle’, too: as we approached Greenway pier it put me in mind of the opening scenes of the recent TV adaptation of ‘And Then There Were None’ – the difference being that I was hoping to survive and make the return journey home.
As we made the short walk up to the house, I didn’t know what to expect. I was very much hoping that it wouldn’t be your typical ‘stately home’ but aware, also, that Agatha Christie’s success made her exceptionally wealthy and wondered whether this would be reflected in how she lived.
In fact, the reverse is true – in the nicest possible way. Greenway is a modest size and still feels like a family home: the National Trust, together with Christie’s grandson, Mathew, have done a magnificent job in maintaining a house into which it feels as though Agatha Christie could walk at any moment.
Before I go any further, I must tell you that this was one of the most blissful days out I’ve spent in a long time. One of those days when the stars aligned: the weather, the mode of transport and the warmth of the Greenway volunteers, all of whom are extremely knowledgeable about Agatha Christie – and who are committed to ensuring that visitors experience the house and its gardens in the way that Christie would have wanted.
Where to begin? The photo below depicts my first glimpse of Greenway, serenely beautiful on this exceptional spring day. What you can’t see are the deckchairs on the lawn overlooking the River Dart, occupied by visitors intent on making the most of the good weather. Tempted as I was to join them, I was determined to make the most of my time here and, accordingly, trotted straight into Greenway itself.
After a friendly and informative welcome, in which I learned that Greenway remains just how it was when Christie’s daughter, Rosalind, and her husband Anthony lived here, I moved directly into the Morning Room. This was used by the family to house their collection of art; the Christie-Mallowan clan collected everything from ceramic figurines, watches and quill work boxes to books, silver and Mauchlinware.
Next door is the Drawing Room, notable for hosting Agatha Christie’s Steinway piano which, to my astonishment, visitors are actively encouraged to play. While I was in there, a young girl who could have been no older than 14 or 15 sat down and played a Beethoven sonata so beautifully that all of the adults in the room were left surreptitiously dabbing at their eyes. Agatha Christie was a supremely talented musician who trained at the Sorbonne and was considered gifted enough to forge a career as a professional pianist or singer – but suffered such crippling stage fright that she decided against it.
This is where the family gathered, of an evening, for music, games and first readings of new manuscripts: board & card games and dominoes are scattered around the comfy armchairs and sofas. It’s also where much of Rosalind and Anthony’s silver is kept: their passion, they aimed to own a piece from every year from the mid-17th century to the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837.
It was a wrench to tear myself away, but eventually I wandered through the Winter Dining Room, noting Agatha’s DBE (hidden, when she was alive, at the back of a cupboard), into the kitchen. In any house I visit, I’m always interested to see the kitchen; I think it tells you so much about its residents. Greenway’s is well-lit and airy and its Aga is used to this day for special occasions. The cage belonging to Rosalind and Anthony’s parrot resides on the window sill – and the cookery books containing Agatha Christie’s favourite recipes retain pride of place.
Upstairs, you learn even more about the family. Rosalind and Anthony moved up here in the latter part of their lives – and it really does feel as though they’re still there. Their sitting room was originally used by Max as a bedroom/writing room and it contains a portrait of Agatha aged 20 plus lots of family photos, including one of Slipper, the last cat to live at Greenway. This is where Max completed work on his notes from various archaeological digs – aided by Agatha who, I was thrilled to learn, used to clean the pottery shards they found on their digs with her favourite face cream.
Moving into Agatha’s bedroom, I was astonished to find that many of her clothes remain there – as do Rosalind’s. It’s is a lovely room, filled with books by Agatha’s favourite authors (Bowen, Greene, Benson), an exquisite Damascus chest and Max’s campaign bed – used by him when an officer in the military and then on archaeological digs in the Middle East.
It’s adjoined by what you might call the most practical room in the house: the ‘Fax Room’ – named after the fax machine installed by the Hicks (endearingly the most modern innovation in the house). It’s surrounded by a collection of silk-embroidered Stevengraphs, first edition Agatha Christies – and the typewriter used by Max to write his memoirs.
I couldn’t leave Greenway without exploring its Library and Dining Room. The former is Mathew’s favourite room and houses over 5,000 books: everything from philosophy to children’s novels. During the Second World War, Greenway was requisitioned and Lt Marshall of the US Coastguard, painted a stunning frieze, starting to the left of the room’s chimney breast and going clockwise around the room. Its unexpectedness makes it all the more magnificent.
The Dining Room, blessed with lovely views, was filled with sunshine when I entered. More formal than the remainder of the house, it was used for family celebrations. Again, there are lots of personal touches: the glass cream jug from which Agatha used to pour herself double cream to drink (her equivalent of alcohol: she was teetotal), family photo albums and even a lobster dish – a symbol of Agatha’s favourite food and the very same one used at her 80th birthday party (the full menu features in one of the scrapbooks kept in this room).
I so enjoyed my time at Greenway and am conscious that I’ve said little about its beautiful, rolling gardens and woodland, which are such a joy to explore. This is already quite a long post, so I will content myself with saying: please do visit Greenway – and do so when the weather is good, if you can. You’ll find the house fascinating whatever the time of year, but what makes Greenway, in Agatha Christie’s words, “The loveliest place in the world” is its exterior – still enjoyed to this day by local primary school children who, continuing a long-established tradition, come here to plant vegetables and plants and learn about agriculture.
Agatha Christie would approve, I am sure, of how Greenway is used today and how it retains a prominent role in the local community (its summer film nights are a big hit, so I hear). She would be delighted by how the National Trust, in close collaboration with her grandson, have rehabilitated and continue to cherish this iconic Devon landmark. Above all, this most unassuming of authors would, I think, be overwhelmed by the fact that, every year, millions of tourists flock to the inspiration behind so many of her dearly-loved books.