It was a scene straight out of a Harry Potter book. The chocolate and cream-coloured steam train pulled by a green engine looked just like the Hogwarts Express. Except that instead of Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross in London, I was at Paignton Station in South Devon, ready to board the 12.15 p.m. Dartmouth Steam Railway. And instead of a world of wizards and witches, I was on my way to a place which has inspired some of the world’s most famous crime fiction. My destination was Greenway Estate, the erstwhile holiday home of Agatha Christie, the undisputed “Queen of Crime.” The house where she spent many holidays for nearly 40 years is now run as a museum by U.K.’s National Trust.
Being a crime writer myself, I had unhesitatingly accepted the influence of Christie’s work on my novels. This is why I was at the 2015 International Agatha Christie Festival in the town of Torquay, celebrating her 125th birth anniversary. Greenway Estate was an hour’s train ride from the festival venue and I couldn’t resist visiting my idol’s home.
Taking the ticket inspector’s advice, I shelled out an extra £1.50 for a seat in the Pullman Observation Carriage at the front of the train. Sitting in the charming glass-fronted carriage, I watched the countryside unfold around me, about to realise a life-long dream. This was exactly how Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famous detective, had arrived at the fictional Nasse House (modelled after Greenway Estate) in the 1956 book, Dead Man’s Folly.
The train chugged and whistled its way along the borough of Torbay, the famed Riviera along the English Channel. A light haze hovered over the calm grey-blue sea and smooth green cliffs, creating a magical landscape.
Twenty minutes later, I alighted at Churston Station and boarded the shuttle bus to the estate. It was named “Miss Jane Marple” and was covered with pictures of Hercule Poirot and the house, thus setting the mood. An 11-minute ride through English country lanes brought us to the entrance of Greenway Estate. Immediately my heart began fluttering in anticipation. My ears filled with the sound of my feet crunching on the long, gravel driveway flanked by trees. Passing a quaint coffee shop, I followed the path as it curved along the hillside to reach the house. Perched atop the green hill above the River Dart, it offered a wonderful panorama of the English Riviera.
Christie and her second husband Max Mallowan had bought this elegant, two-storeyed white Georgian house and garden in 1938. The family spent wonderful holidays here, enjoying the river and playing golf and croquet on its expansive lawns. Christie used the house as the setting of at least three of her novels. After her death in 1976, her daughter Rosalind Hicks lived at Greenway. The house was handed over to the National Trust in 2000, and opened as a museum in 2009.
As I wandered from room to room, I felt a strong connection to the writer. With each new detail I learnt, I felt there were strange parallels between her life and mine. From her childhood to her first published book, from her likes and fears to key life events like her father’s death or her marriage to Archibald Christie, there were parallels that seemingly informed both our lives. All this made my time at Greenway extra special.
Agatha Christie’s personal effects around the house—childhood portraits, the piano she was too shy to play in public, her collection of silver cutlery—held a distinct charm and transported me to a bygone era. But what completely captured my imagination was her bedroom with its polished wood floors, huge fireplace, cosy bed, and cupboard filled with clothes. A BBC Radio interview of the writer played on a small recorder. Standing there, surrounded by her things and listening to her voice, the writer felt startlingly alive.
Each and every article in the house is preserved with great care and brings out details of Christie’s life, which are delightful for a fan like me. In Max’s study, I came across a painting of a sad dog titled, “Out All Night With No Key,” which had inspired the terrier in Christie’s 1937 novel, Dumb Witness. During World War II, the house was requisitioned for use by 51 officers of the U.S. Coast Guard and they used the library as a recreation room. One of the officers, Lt. Marshall Lee, painted a frieze on the ceiling depicting the fleet’s six-month journey to Greenway. When the house was returned to Christie in 1945, she kept the mural as “a historic memorial.” In one corner of this library is Agatha Christie’s favourite chair. Apparently, this spot, with its fabulous views of the lawns, is where she sat while correcting drafts.
Stepping out of the house, I took the slippery footpath that wound through the woods and down the hill to the boathouse. The River Dart played hide-and-seek between the trees. I was super excited to finally see the boathouse, because I already knew its fictional counterpart. This was the place where the body of the first victim was found in Dead Man’s Folly. The boathouse also featured in the TV show, Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
A steamer passed by on the river as I stood there revelling in the wild beauty around me, imagining how every inch of beautiful Greenway must have been a source of infinite inspiration for Christie. Reluctantly, I tore myself away from the spot and retraced my steps up the hill to the walled garden next to the house. A huge curled moustache was embedded on the lawn and a sign invited children to follow the path of the “twirly tips” from top to middle. It added a dash of fun to an already impressive home.
At the front of the house, I flopped down in one of the armchairs placed there for visitors. There were other people too, some basking in the sun, others reading, or simply enjoying the stunning view. Greenway Estate is a dog-friendly place, so many visitors had brought their pets and the animals and their owners rolled happily on the lawn. Gazing at Greenway dappled in the evening light, I experienced a strange sense of déjà vu. As if I had been here before.
Getting There Greenway Estate is located near Brixham, Devon, in southwest England (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/greenway). It is 7 km/30 min from Paignton Station (£8.50/₹800 return fare including the shuttle bus). Paignton Station is about 3 hr from London by train. If driving, call ahead to book parking as there are restricted slots (www.nter.org.uk; £3/₹283). Another way to get here is to get off the train at Greenway Halt and trek 30 min to the house.
Open The Estate is open 10.30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, February to October.
Entry Adults £10.90/₹1,027 and children £5.45/₹514.