Tuesday, 19 April 2011

A visit to Greenway House (Agatha Christie's holiday home)

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

When I was a teenager, I discovered an Agatha Christie on my Mum's bookshelves. I can't remember now which one I read first, but I enjoyed it and wanted to read more. I clearly remember my Dad going to a jumble sale one Saturday and coming back with a couple of cardboard boxes full of Agatha Christie books so that I could pick out the ones that I hadn't got. I now have all her books (except the ones written as Mary Westmacott), although I haven't read any for a while. When I was a teenager I wanted to write mysteries like she did.

A couple of years ago I heard that her holiday home, Greenway House, near Dartmouth, had been donated to the National Trust and was being opened to the public. As Mark and I both have this week off, it seemed like a good opportunity to finally visit Greenway - so we booked a parking space to visit on Tuesday morning (and if you do want to drive, you do need to book a parking slot in advance as parking is limited). Greenway is laudably being run on environmental principles, and they try to encourage tourists to reach Greenway by public transport (for example, there is a ferry from Dartmouth,or a vintage bus service from Torquay). The restrictions on driving to Greenway are also intended to minimise its impact on Galmpton, a small village through which you have to pass if you visit Greenway by car. In retrospect I think that travelling by public transport might be the preferable option, as the parking slots (we had 10.15 to 1.15) are tight to be able to explore the gardens as well as the house. Entry to the house is also governed in time slots to try to ease congestion - although you are timed in but not timed out, so you can spend as much time as you would like in the house once you have entered.

Greenway is not your average National Trust property. In the entrance hall you are given a very brief talk and told that, unlike many other National Trust properties, there are very few roped off areas. Although you are asked not to touch items, you can be given the opportunity to play her beloved piano, and in one room there are a couple of sofas that visitors can sit down on. The effect is more intimate than the average National Trust house; Greenway is endearingly cluttered with Agatha Christie's collections of china (not to my personal taste!), boxes and archaeological oddments. It's a fascinating insight into the things that she cared about, and each room has scrapbooks that you can leaf through containing photographs and quotations from her life.

Unsurprisingly, my favourite room was the library (and I don't think I was alone in this, as this was the room that seemed most congested). I love looking at other people's bookshelves, so the chance to look at Agatha Christie's book collection was irresistible. I was slightly taken aback to see Michael Palin's "Himalaya," but this collection has been supplemented by other family members who had lived in the house subsequently. Most interesting to me were the vintage detective books by other authors in her collection, as well as vintage copies of her own books. In particular I felt quite nostalgic when I saw a Julian Symons on her shelves - he was a crime writer who, like Agatha herself, I loved as a teenager but haven't gone back to as an adult. I really should try reading some of his books again. I even have a letter from him somewhere because, as a teenager, I wrote to him asking for advice on becoming a writer. The library also has an interesting frieze, painted in 1943 when the house was occupied by Flotilla 10 of the US Coastguard, which shows significant events from their experience of the war. When Christie bought the house it was suggested that it could be painted over, but she chose to keep it as an historical record of events.

Unfortunately, due to the restrictions on the parking time and because we wanted to get back home to pick up our new cat, we ran out of time to look at the grounds. Greenway overlooks the river Dart, and has beautiful views from the house and extensive grounds. We didn't get the chance to explore the tennis courts, walled gardens or ornamental ponds. I did make a point of going down to Ralegh's Boathouse, on which the murder scene in "Dead Man's Folly" was based. The walk down there, passing an enchanting bank of bluebells on the way, has some stunning views over the river.

Anyone who has read any of these blogs will not be surprised to hear that I came back with a new book - which they offered to brand with a Greenway ink stamp as a memento (nice touch). I hadn't heard of the book before; "Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks." These were documents, discovered in Greenway and edited by John Curran, which show an insight into her writing methods and the plotting of ideas. I look forward to re-reading some of her novels, and reading this book alongside them (as the literary equivalent of watching the DVD extras after the main feature). This book also contains a couple of unpublished stories that I look forward to discovering.


  1. I must look into visiting again.

  2. Maybe we could both get the train to Torquay one day, meet up, and catch the vintage bus out there?