Devon: a dreamy land of cream teas, quiet coves and murder in cold blood. It’s not a slogan you can see being employed by the tourist board, but travel the county through the eyes of the world’s best-selling author and you’ll encounter felony in the hills, subterfuge on the beaches and iniquitous ruses on the English Riviera. Bodies, you’ll notice, have a tendency to drop like flies. All things considered for us visitors, it’s fortunate that the razor-sharp detective skills of the likes of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are so often without flaw.
No fewer than fifteen of Dame Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries are set in, or otherwise linked to, Devon. The irony, of course, is that in basing so many of her crime novels in the county, the writer was actually paying it the fondest of tributes. “One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is to have a happy childhood,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I had a very happy childhood.” She was born here, spent much of her youth in and around Torquay and grew so attached to the South Hams countryside that she went on to call it home for the majority of her life.
Born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller in 1890, she passed the best part of five decades living in the family home of Ashfield, a now-demolished mansion on the fringes of Torquay (the spot where it stood remains marked by a blue plaque). We know that as a young lady she enjoyed roller-skating on the pier, bathing on local beaches and, naturally enough, experimenting with short stories. Later, in 1938, she moved with second husband Max Mallowan to Greenway, a large Georgian house sitting high and handsome above the River Dart. She described it as “the loveliest place in the world”.
As any reader of her novels can attest, she also had an eye for exotic lands. But despite her numerous overseas journeys – which included visits to France and, perhaps most famously, travels around Egypt and the Middle East on archaeological trips with Mallowan – her heart remained in the West Country. As a writer, her output of two to three novels a year was prodigious, and Devon provided her with rich subject matter. She knew its railways and its hotels, its bays and its villages, its winter secrets and its summer finery. How lucky she was.
Seven places to trace the steps of the sleuths
Now owned by the National Trust, the grand riverside house of Greenway sits just outside the village of Galmpton and remains a wonderful place to visit. The richly decorated interiors have been preserved much as they were when Christie lived here, complete with Steinway piano, writing desk and champagne magnums. The mansion was actually requisitioned by American troops during the war, and a vivid officer-painted mural still adorns one room. Its gardens, too, are a treat to wander. “So many paths… and trees, trees everywhere,” says Hercule Poirot in Dead Man’s Folly, talking about the extensive grounds that lead down to Greenway’s boathouse, where – in the same novel – Marlene Tucker is strangled with a clothesline.
www.nationaltrust.org.uk/greenway 01803 842382
Paignton to Kingswear steam train
There’s much to enjoy about trundling through the mellow hills of south Devon in a bluster of steam and whistles. Poirot made the half-hour rail journey from Paignton to Kingswear at least four times in the novels, and the welcome news for modern-day visitors is that the line can still be travelled by steam. Stopping en route at Goodrington, Churston and Greenway Halt – from where passengers can disembark to visit Greenway – the heritage locomotive then rolls on through the oak-covered slopes of Long Wood before arriving at Kingswear. The terminus station features prominently in the TV adaptation of Peril at End House.
www.dartmouthrailriver.co.uk 01803 555872
There’s arguably no finer sight on a sunny Devon morning than the town of Dartmouth, its timbered quay buildings and pastel-coloured houses gazing out over the water from a hill above the Dart Estuary. The settlement’s long history encompasses everything from medieval crusaders to Mayflower pilgrims, and in fiction it appears in three different Agatha Christie novels – Ordeal by Innocence, Dead Man’s Folly and The Regatta Mystery. The last of these sees diamond trader Isaac Pointz mooring his yacht here during the Dartmouth Royal Regatta of 1939. Almost 85 years later, the town’s annual late-August regatta remains a colourful time to come calling.
www.discoverdartmouth.com 01803 834224
Broadsands & Elberry Cove
Two of South Devon’s most picturesque beaches, Broadsands and Elberry Cove, are separated only by a grassy headland. They’re different in character – Broadsands is, as its name suggests, wide and sandy, while lesser-known Elberry Cove is shingled although no less beautiful – but both were regularly visited by the Queen of Crime on her bathing excursions. Broadsands these days hosts the Agatha Christie One Mile Sea Swim each September, a fundraising event for local charities. Elberry Cove’s links to the author are more pertinent still: the body of Sir Carmichael Clark was discovered here in The ABC Murders, “overlooking the sea and a beach of glistening stones.”
www.englishriviera.co.uk 01803 207975
Like all good settings for drama, tiny Burgh Island has more than one mood. When the tide’s out, its rounded green slopes remain linked to Bigbury-on-Sea Beach and the rest of the mainland by a sandy causeway. At high tide, however, it becomes a place cut off, being only accessible by high-bodied “sea tractor”. Today it’s best known for being home to the art deco Burgh Island Hotel, a stylish property where the guestbook includes not only Christie but Noel Coward and Winston Churchill. The island was also the inspiration behind the settings of both And Then There Were None and Evil Under The Sun.
www.burghisland.com 01548 810514
A common trick employed by Christie was to lightly disguise Devon localities by altering their names. The village of Galmpton, for example, appears as “Nassecombe” in Dead Man’s Folly, while Dartmouth’s popular Royal Castle Hotel is portrayed as “The Royal George” in two different books. Another spot to receive this treatment is the riverside village of Dittisham, which stars in the opening chapter of Ordeal by Innocence as “Gitcham” and witnesses a character ringing the hand-bell on the quay to summon a ferry. Visitors today can still employ the same method to call a boat, although you won’t want to rush away from the place – far better to enjoy a pint or two at the small but perfectly formed Ferry Boat Inn.
Imperial Hotel, Torquay
Two of Torquay’s hotels have close links to Christie. The Grand Hotel is where she passed her honeymoon night in 1914, shortly before her first husband, aviator Archie Christie, returned to service in France – today the property still has a themed Agatha Christie suite. At the opposite end of town, meanwhile, the Imperial Hotel appears in several books (sometimes as “The Majestic”), namely Peril at End House, The Body in the Library and Sleeping Murder. “The gardens of the hotel lay below us freely interspersed with palm trees,” she writes in Peril at End House. “The sea was of a deep and lovely blue.” It still grants a fine view across Torbay.
www.thehotelcollection.co.uk/torquay 01803 294 301