Myth & Moor update
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Time-traveling on the Devon coast

Dead Man's Folly, at Greenway

Greenway House

I'd never read much of Agatha Christie's work until our daughter, a big Christie fan, sharpened my interest a few year ago. Then I finally sat down and read all the Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries one after another, marveling (as readers have done since the 1920s) at Christie's extraordinary skill in piecing plots together like intricate jigsaw puzzles. Christie grew up in Torquay, on the south coast of Devon, and later owned a country estate called Greenway in Glampton, on the River Dart. The estate is now owned by the National Trust, and we've long talked about visiting it one day. Last month, on the weekend before our daughter's birthday, we finally did.

Agatha Christie's Miss Marple (Geraldine McEwan)The countryside around Greenway is still quite rural, approached by Devon's famously narrow lanes, and in Agatha's day, when motorcars were few, it was a remote country haven indeed. The best way to get there would have been by the steam trains routes that once ran all across the West Country -- and in fact one of those trains remains, running down the coast from Paignton to Kingswear. Since these trains are such a feature of  Agatha's fiction, that's how we decided to go.

In addition to Victoria, we took along two of her friends: a trio of women now in their 20s who have known each other since childhood. I think of them as the Three Graces, for in intelligence, talent, and beauty (inner and outer) they could teach even those Greek goddesses a thing or two -- but they will appear today only in this acknowledgement of their lovely presence on our journey, as I don't want to infringe on their privacy by posting their pictures without permission.

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The Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway at Paignton Station

Terri Windling photographed by Carol AmosWhen we left the house, it was autumn on Dartmoor, but the season shifted back to late summer as we drove south to Paignton...and then time itself shifted as we boarded the train, taking us back to the 1930s. One of my dresses happens to be from that era (bought years ago at a vintage shop), so I wore it that day in Agatha's honor and imagined our party as characters in her books...preferably without the murderer or murder victim in our midst.

The train runs along the edges of the southern coastline, winding between the fields and beaches of Torbay. The views are rather spectacular, and the steam trailing past and the hooting of the whistle seem familiar from so many old films...

south Devon coast

Torbay

Torbay

Torbay

Howard on the train journey

The train makes a stop at Greenway Halt in the valley below the Greenway estate. Howard and the Graces exited there, then continued on foot through the Greenway woods -- but, alas, I was walking with a cane that day, so I caught the decidedly less romantic shuttle-bus instead. I'd read Janet Morgan's biography of Agatha just the week before, so I thought about her remarkable life as I made my own up to the house. I imagined her beside me, with her much-loved dogs, walking and talking with the formidable energy she sustained into old age...and since this was my daydream, I was hale and hearty, walking just as energetically too.

The view of the Dart from the entrance to Greenways

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, née Miller, came from a privileged background (her father had inherited a fortune) and was raised in a large house in Torquay, a seaside town more elegant and exclusive in her day than it is in ours. Although a large portion of the money was gone by the time her father died when Agatha was 12, she was nonetheless used to a world of large houses, servants, and friends with titles before their names...a world she would later portray (and dissect) so well in her various books. She was a shy, quiet girl who loved animals, music, and the Devon countryside; she loved to swim (and did so all her life) and to tramp across the wilds of Dartmoor. She never had a formal education (and barely any schooling at all), a fact that somewhat embarrassed her. Instead, she educated herself by reading her way through her father's library, and then trained as a pharmacist as part of the war effort during the years of World War I. (This gave her a useful understanding of toxic substances!)

Agatha Christie in childhood and youth

Agatha left her beloved Devon for London during her first marriage to Archie Christie, a pilot and war hero -- but the marriage ended abruptly and traumatically when their only child, Rosalind, was seven. Agatha's mother had contracted an illness and died, and while Agatha reeled from this sudden loss, Archie announced he was in love with someone else and wanted a divorce. Divorce was still uncommon then, so this involved public scandal as well as heart-break. In a state of shock from both of these blows, Agatha disappeared for ten dramatic days following a mental breakdown in which she'd lost all memory of who she was. Since she was already a popular novelist at this point, the newspapers went wild over her disappearance -- even going so far as to speculate that the whole thing was a publicity stunt, although this intrusively personal publicity was precisely the kind she loathed.

Agatha with her first husband, Archie Christie, and newspaper coverage of her disappearance

Agatha's second marriage, to archaeologist Max Mallowan, was a much happier one. She'd been very young when she married Archie Christie on the eve of World War I (a time of many over-hasty marriages), and in Max, she'd found a partner who was considerably more compatible: intellectual, adventurous, and interested in everything, just like Agatha. (Archie, by contrast, was a stockbroker whose only real passion was playing golf. He left Agatha for a fellow golfer.)

Agatha and Max met on an archaeological dig in southern Iraq: she was there by invitation (a friend was running the dig); he was a member of the working team. She was 39 years old and already famous; he was 26 and at the start of his career. This unlikely couple fell in love while sharing a harrowing train-and-boat journey back to England, married later that year, then forged a long and successful life together -- divided between periods in Oxford (where he taught), London (where she wrote for the theatre), summers with Rosalind and her family at Greenway, and winters at Max's archaeological digs in the deserts of Syria and Iraq. (Agatha could work anywhere, and simply took her typewriter along.) He went on to become as well regarded in his field as she was in hers, and received a knighthood for it.

Agatha and her lovely second husband, Max Mallowan

Agatha Christie, Max Mallowan, and their dogs

Greenway House (photograph by Derek Harper)

Max and Agatha bought Greenway in 1938. "‘One day we saw that a house was up for sale that I had known when I was young," Agatha wrote in her autobiography. "So we went over to Greenway, and very beautiful the house and grounds were. A white Georgian house of about 1780 or 90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart below, and a lot of fine shrubs and trees -- the ideal house, a dream house...."

In the gardens at Greenway

Greenway

Autumn flowers at Greenway

Although they didn't live there year-round, Greenway was always bustling with life: Rosalind and her family spent a great deal of time there, family friends were urged to go and stay (Agatha had always been generous this way), and the staff was encouraged to make use of the whole house whenever the family wasn't around. Agatha often said that Greenway was her true home.

The family room at Greenway

Agatha writing in the corner of her bedroom, and her bedroom today

Agatha died at the age of 86, world famous, much loved, and with her family around her. Max died two years later, and the Greenway estate was passed down to Rosalind and her son. They, in turn, passed the house and all its contents to the National Trust, under strict conditions: It was not to be turned into a commercial "Agatha Christie theme park," but left to look just as it did when Agatha lived and worked there -- the same books on the shelves, the same art on the walls, the same dishes in the cupboards of its large country kitchen, the same black typewriting poised on the desk, ready for her next story

Although grand from the outside, when you step through Greenway's door it doesn't feel like a show piece; it still feels like a warm, cluttered, book-filled family home...albeit the home of an unusually well-traveled family, stuffed with curios and artifacts gathered from all around the word.

A corner of Agatha Christie's library

Agatha's clothes, and family pictures on the piano

Agatha Christie's books

Despite Greenway's spaciousness, Agatha's office is squeezed into an endearingly small room...although in fact she wrote all over house: in the library, in the corner of the bedroom, in the living room amid the tumult of family life.

One of the things I admire about her is that she wasn't precious about her writing. She took it seriously (and expected others to do so too), yet she was always a consummate professional: she simply sat down and worked -- in trains, on boats, in hotel rooms, in tents under the Middle Eastern stars. Wherever she was, she observed life around her, took it all in, and then sat down and turned it into stories.

"There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional," she wrote in her autobiography. "I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you're writing, and aren't writing particularly well."

But she always wrote well, at least until the final years when her powers began to fail -- and even then, she concocted characters and plots so vivid that even her lesser works are engaging, suspenseful, and well worth reading.

Books above Agatha's desk

Agatha Christie's desk

Agatha's typewrite

Agatha Christie's typewriter

Agatha Christie's office window at Greenway

After wandering through the house, Howard and I found a bench outside and sat in the warmth of the lowering sun, while from the house we could hear the faint notes of someone playing Agatha's piano. We wondered aloud what it would be like to live and work in place so peaceful, so beautiful....

And then we remembered that we do. Okay, ours is a plain little house, a simple, sturdy workman's dwelling from the Edwardian era, so small that the entire thing could probably fit into Agatha's living room. But we, too, are surrounded by the green beauty of Devon; and we, too, step through the door into a warm, cluttered, book-filled family home...albeit a much more humble one.

And suddenly we were eager to head back there. We gathered the Graces, and made for the train.

Leaving Greenway

Terri Winding & Howard Gayton on the Paignton Dartmouth Steam RailwayPhotographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The majority of the photographs are mine, but when they're not, credits are listed. A related previous post: "On Poirot and the Pup" (2012).

Comments

read all the Agatha Christie mysteries back to back when I was 15 & hardly ever guessed who dunnit in over 60 books!

Thank you for the ride, and company. Agatha's Poiret has been a long long time companion. To see her space and read her writing through your visit was a treat. The naming of your daughter and her friends as the Three Graces recalled the Saguaros from your Wood Wife ... which I have just reread for the ump-teenth time. So in all my morning visit to Myth & Moor was the best sort of time-traveling!

What a wonderful, nourishing treat to have walked beside you, in a way, in this post. Made my day, as I sit in a NYC cafe writing. I'll have to take this trip myself when I come to Devon again next year. Many thanks.

Thank you for a lovely trip to a place I now feel like I know.

Thank you for this post! I am an unabashed Christie fanatic. Have you read her autobiography, Terri? I think you would really enjoy it.

What a treat! The photos, the quotes, your essay--I want to settle down in my comfy chair and read through all her books once more. Thank you for taking us along on this adventure, Terri.

Thank you for lovely post! I have quite a number of Christie's books but haven't read them for some time. Guess I'll work my way through them again. It was good to hear about the joy of her later life with Max Mallowan.

How silly of me, I just read the entire blog post again and you've obviously read it...

Despite going to secondary school just up the road from Greenway I didn't visit the property until adulthood and what a magical place it is, the orangerie and boat house are stunning as well as the main house and I found the most amazing smelling rose in the gardens!

The books, the gardens, the train ride- this space you have here never fails to inspire.

I so enjoyed taking this trip with you. Thanks so much!

How delightful! I love this post!!!!! I'm a big Christie fan as you may have guessed. You've made my day.

Thank you for the link to the Poirot & Pup post at the end. I missed it the first time 'round and it's delightful too. Another place I'll have to visit next time we come to Devon. There's a real sweetness about your family that comes across in these posts, and the 'seal dog' too.

Love Agatha and have loved her long--A stunningly interesting life so full of life it became a touchstone of perfect sense. Your choice of quotes delight. This is a brilliant essay Terri....and I love the ending!

Thank you so much, everyone. I'm glad you enjoyed the journey!

Hi Terri

Wonderful shot of you and Howard and also breathtaking shots of the train ride to greenway. I loved the captured scenes of the gardens, Agatha's library and grounds. What a beautiful and inspiring place. I adore trains and especially the old kind. I think of them in her novels as well as the Classic Russian Novels like Anna Karenina and others. There is something indefinable about a train journey, something that slips right into the soul and the imagination. Again, thank you this beautiful journey through text and pictures. I was there vicariously and thoroughly enjoyed it!

Take care,
Wendy

Love the post, but especially love the quotes in the picture captions.

I couldn't have been more surprised when I opened Myth and Moor and was met by Hercule Poirot. I so appreciate your delightful post (as I do almost every day!) and the opportunity to travel with you and your family. I've gained a renewed appreciation for Agatha Christie (I imagine you've seen the Dr. Who episode "The Unicorn and the Wasp," which offers its own explanation of those missing ten days?) and will now acquaint myself with her autobiography. Although I am but a distant admirer of you and your work, I send my very best wishes and hopes that you are doing well--and that Tilly is recovering.

My friend Rob co-wrote a musical called "Vanishing Point" that has Christie as one of the three characters, all women who disappeared at some point in their lives.

http://www.vanishingpointthemusical.com/Home.html

Here is a performance of Christie's big solo piece, it was amazing to see this live and wonder how the actress ever caught her breath.

https://youtu.be/4_Nx_6Rt-Tw

Thank you for taking us along on your travels!

AH! This post is exceptional! I'm catching up on Myth and Moor while sitting beneath autumn oaks in rural Virginia. I'm on a writing retreat with some dear friends and feeling incredibly lucky and alive. I can't tell you what a sublime experience it is to read your words and discover Christie's wisdom in this setting. Thank you, Terri!

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