On a placid river bank in Devon, tucked away from inquisitive eyes, stands a Georgian mansion once owned by Agatha Christie.
Greenway House was a “dream house” and “the loveliest place in the world” according to Christie. It was a place where ‘The Queen of Crime” could retreat from the public eye and surround herself with family and friends.
Devon itself had a special place in her heart because it was where she was born. She maintained a house there throughout her life although she and her husband also had a home in Berkshire.
She often used her characters to extol the beauty of the region. ‘Devon is so beautiful, those hills and the red cliffs,’ Vera Claythorne says in And Then There Were None.
And the county’s hills, islands and coves inspired the characters and locations of many of her novels. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple both ventured to the area around Torquay (the town of Christie’s birth) to solve heinous crimes.
Greenway itself featured prominently in the 1956 murder mystery Dead Man’s Folly. In the book it is described as a small, white, one-storey building set back from the road with a small railed garden round it. The internal layout is that of Greenway as are the paths that wander through woodland and gardens down to the riverside quay.
The book’s description is so close to the reality that Greenway was used as the setting of the 2013 television adaptation of Dead Man’s Folly, with David Suchet in his last performance as Poirot.
A Bargain Home That Lasted A Lifetime
Agatha Christie bought Greenway in 1938 when she noticed it was up for sale. In her autobiography she described it as ‘a house that my mother had always said, and I had thought also, was the most perfect of the various properties on the Dart.’
She and her husband, the noted archaeologist, Max Mallowen, went to view the property. It was as idyllic as she remembered from her childhood. The couple were astounded to learn the asking price of £6,000 was so low.
They drove away excited by their visit. She records she told her husband: ’It’s incredibly cheap,’ I said. ‘It’s got 33 acres, it doesn’t look in bad condition either, wants decorating, that’s all.’
Greenway was never Agatha’s primary residence, it was the family holiday retreat—a place where the family gathered for Christmas and Easter, and where she spent her summers. Locally she was always known as Mrs Mallowen .
In 1940, while Mallowan was working for the Anglo-Turkish Relief Committee in London, Agatha Christie used Greenway as her base. The danger presented by German air attacks did not deter her from her work. She wrote to her agent Edmund Cork: ‘A great deal of air activity here – bombs all round are whistling down!’
War Disrupts the Peaceful Retreat
The Christies had to move out in 1943, when the house was requisitioned for use as officers’ quarters for the US navy. In January 1944 a flotilla of twenty four landing crafts together with their commanders and support staff, arrived in the River Dart from the USA. More than 50 captains and members of the planning team stayed in the house until just before D-Day.
When they were allowed back into their home after the end of the war it was to find two additions to the property. Agatha Christie was deeply unhappy about the 14 lavatories she had been left and went into battle with the Admiralty to get them removed.
The second addition was much more welcome. The library in the house was as a recreation and ‘mess room’ by the officers. During their six-month stay a landing craft captain who was a graphic artist, painted a frieze on the walls, depicting places visited by the flotilla in the 11 months it took them to reach Greenway.
The Admiralty offered to paint it over, but Christie refused, saying that it would be a historic memorial and she was delighted to keep it in her house. She enjoyed the ‘slightly glorified exaggeration of the woods of Greenway” and a representation of a pin-up girl in the nude “which I have always supposed to represent the hopes at journey’s end when the war was over.’
Agatha Christie at Home
In 1959 Greenway was made over to Christie’s daughter, Rosalind, who moved to live at the estate with her husband in 1968. After Christie’s death in 1976, Rosalind took on the role of safeguarding her mother’s work and reputation. The family donated the house to the National Trust in 2000 giving fans of the writer the chance to walk in her footsteps.
I visited Greenway in 2018. The National Trust has done a fabulous job in preserving the spirit of the place (working closely with her grandson). As you walk through each room there are signs everywhere of how the Mallowen family spent their time at Greenway.
There are dominoes and card games laid out in front of the fire in the drawing room which also boasts a Steinway Piano. The hallway is festooned with picnic baskets and walking sticks and of course the library is walled with bookcases.
Agatha and her husband seem to have been great collectors. There are little silverware items on a bedside table, lots of china in display cabinets and – the most wonderful assembly of lacquered and wooden boxes. Every room looks as if the family has just left and will return in a few moments.
It’s a delight to wander through the house but if you decide to make your own trip there, do make time to take in the gardens. I was there in the midst of a very hot summer’s day but if you go in spring you’ll apparently find a magnificent display of rhododendron and camellias. If ever there was a good reason for me to pay a return visit, this would be it.
This is part of a series in which I look at the homes that provided shelter, solace and inspiration for some of history’s greatest literary talents. If you’ve made a literary pilgrimage do leave a comment to describe your experience.