Sunday, August 16, 2009

Agatha Christie at Greenway

When I first arrived in Plymouth I asked around about the area's literary heritage. People paused, and eventually came up with Daphne du Maurier (across the county line in Fowey) and Agatha Christie, who took her summer vacations in a home she bought near Dartmouth.
We spent a few days in Fowey last month, running a workshop for the British Council at the Eden Project. Daphne de Maurier's home is not open to the public, but occupies a splendid site down by the bay. Since that was ticked off, yesterday was the turn for the Agatha Christie pilgrimage.
Dartmouth, home to the Royal Naval College, makes for a handsome starting point, a range of individual houses and stores going back to medieval times steeped along the hillside that rises from the river. A ferry runs the 25 minute cruise along the River Dart to the pontoon below the house, Greenway, a National Trust property opened to the public after major renovation this Spring. Agatha Christie used to look up from the river and term this house 'the loveliest place on earth', and took the opportunity to buy it when it came up for sale in 1938.
The house has been left as a home, hats piled up on a table and photographs on a sideboard, rather than turned into a themed literary heritage walk. It's appealing how no area is roped off. I entered the dining room and felt curiously at home - since home in my teenage years had a similar style, underground passages running out from the wine cellar, the house a steady accretion on top of its medieval foundations (Oliver Cromwell was schooled there, and the writers Dorothy Hartley and Cecil Roberts had childhoods there before mine, their and my bedroom one of twenty-seven rooms in the house). As two homes sell (one in Santa Fe, the other in Plymouth) it was comforting to be spilled back into the memory of an earlier settled time that Greenway evoked.
The frieze around the top of the room in the picture was painted by American forces when they requisitioned the house in World War 2. It's intriguing that Agatha Christie was so open to narrative that she was happy to live with this intrusion into her home thereafter.
It seems just two of Agatha Christie's novels stemmed from her occupation of the place, without being written there, which suggests summers were a time for reading, walking, gardening, gazing above the magnolias from her bedroom window to look downriver and dream up a plot or two. It's tempting to follow her example and down tools for the summer - indeed this blog posting is a Sunday morning evasion of the novel that's open in another window. I'm in the middle of dreaming up another household, this a Bavarian townhouse of 1938. I've penned in a scullery and a billiard room so far, the main livingroom still somewhat hazy on the far side of the hallway.

(The photo of Dame Agatha and myself comes from the seafront at Torquay, where she was brought up)


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