She honeymooned with her first husband, Archie Christie, at the Grand Hotel – still a rather elegant edifice with a Victorian calm tangible in the spacious lobby. On 11 September 2015, it’ll fill up with bookworms, crime fiends and wearers of vintage dress for this year’s International Agatha Christie Festival — which commemorates the author’s 125th birthday with a feast of talks, tea dances, exhibitions and readings.
Events will be held across Torquay, with a festival ‘hub’ at Torre Abbey, the medieval-cum-Georgian landmark whose gardens the young Agatha wandered around. Given that poisoning was a favoured means of dispatching her fictional characters, visitors will interested to note that amid the many lush blooms are flowers and plants used to make cyanide, morphine and ricin.
These sites feature on Torquay’s ‘Agatha Christie Mile’, which also takes me to see Princess Pier (also 125 years old), where the young Agatha liked to roller-skate, the manicured Princess Gardens, which she used in her 1936 novel The A.B.C. Murders, The Royal Torbay Yacht Club, where her father, Frederick, was a member, and Beacon Cove, where she swam — and on one occasion almost drowned. The water on the day I visit is calm and more likely to murder by freezing than anything else.
I find the handsome Agatha Christie Bust by Dutch sculptor Carol van den Boom-Cairns down at the harbour, but the most popular of all Torquay’s Christie connections is the dedicated gallery at Torquay Museum — which is packed with paraphernalia and now features furniture from the sets used in ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot series.
The festival also hosts events at Greenway, the holiday home of Agatha Christie and her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. I travel there on a boat operated by the Greenway Ferry company. It’s a suitably slow, serene trip across sunny Tor Bay and then up the River Dart to the splendid Georgian mansion where the couple spent many summers and Christmases with family and friends. After a short informative talk on arrival I’ve plenty of time to explore the rooms, which are filled with artifacts, artworks, bone china and, of course, books, as well as an ancient mobile phone and fax machine. Although Agatha came here to relax, not to write, she always had messages to collect from her many foreign publishers.
Greenway was Christie’s holiday home until her death in 1976 and was then used by her children. Now run by the National Trust, it’s a glorious setting for a picnic and a paperback, with grand, tiered gardens and views over the Dart Estuary. A short walk gets you to Greenway Halt, from where there are steam train services through to Dartmouth on Torbay.
I’m going south, though, this time by taxi, to perhaps the most atmospheric Christie stop in South Devon: Burgh Island. Only the very well-heeled stay at the posh, all-suite hotel that’s located on this tiny tidal island, but we’re all free to roam around its rocky, surf-splashed edges. This lonely islet inspired the setting of the novel And Then There Were None. Said to be the bestselling thriller of all time, it tells the story of 10 guests invited to stay at an island off the Devon coast, each of which perishes one by one in mysterious circumstances. The reader’s challenge as always is to guess whodunit.
The International Agatha Christie Festival runs from September 11-20. agathachristiefestival.com