Friday 20 September 2013

Cream teas and First Editions at Greenway

In true British fashion, we were greeted by a torrential deluge of rain as we arrived in Torquay and drove along the harbourside.  The rain couldn't dampen my spirits though...we were going to visit Greenway, Agatha Christie's holiday home in Devon.  "The loveliest place in the world," according to the Queen of Crime herself.

We arrived in Torquay with some time to spare, so after coffee and cake at Jade's Coffee House (giant lattes and glorious lemon drizzle cake), we wandered along to find Hoopers department store as Michelle told me that I shouldn't miss their Poirot gorilla. (Part of the Great Gorilla trail all over the English Riviera.)

Poirot the gorilla in Hoopers shop window. What a dapper gorilla!
Another heavy shower of rain put paid to our plans for a stroll around the harbour (and my plans for some pretty photos with palm trees).  I'm told that Torbay is also known as "Torbados".  I'm afraid that I didn't see much of a similarity between it and Barbados, other than the palm trees.  I stuck my hand out into the rain and it wasn't even warm!  We retreated into the Golden Palms Amusements Arcade and Dave wallowed happily in nostalgia.  (He was last there when he was 17 with a freshly minted driving licence and a thirst for arcade games.)

We waited for the bus to arrive at Cary Parade with one eye firmly on the skies and the other on the three Agatha Christie fans who had dressed up as Miss Marple, Poirot and Hastings.  Never in my life did I think I would see Agatha Christie cosplay!  They were rather fabulous and Poirot tipped his hat in a very dignified manner at everyone who waved.

Finally our chariot arrived.  The Greenway Vintage Bus, resplendent in classic racing green.

A few minutes later, we were off on our adventure!

It was immediately apparent why this vintage charabanc was called a "jiggle jerk".  Despite the jerking every time the bus changed gear, and the occasional bump or pothole launching me into the air, it was quite a comfortable ride.  We were told that our bus, Barnaby, dated from 1947 and had appeared in episodes of both Poirot and Miss Marple.

After much merriment, we arrived at the gates to Greenway Estate and passed a lovely little lodge.  As we trundled along Greenway's long drive, our driver pointed out Sir Walter Raleigh's boathouse, one of two boathouses on the estate.  This was the scene of poor Marlene Tucker's death in Dead Man's Folly where Greenway was thinly disguised as Nasse House.  I am really looking forward to seeing this story air later on this year as part of the final series of Poirot--they filmed on location at Greenway, so it is extra-special!

I caught the occasional glimpse of the River Dart through the trees, but then all my attention focused on Greenway as it hove into view.  The white stone shimmered in the sunlight against the bright blue sky, the river sparkled a blueish-green between the was beautiful.

GiGi gorilla enjoys the view over the River Dart
As we pulled up to the door, a special treat as this was an exclusive closed doors event, we were met at the door by Lucinda, the head conservationist, and Ken, one of the National Trust volunteers for Greenway.  They were both dressed for the occasion in fabulous 50s style outfits.

From the moment you cross the threshold and enter Greenway, it is clear that this was a family home.  Hats are casually left on an old chair (and jauntily perched on a sculpture), a tall metal pot bristles with a collection of umbrellas and walking sticks—I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t the classical elephant’s foot; good news for the elephant though--and the day’s post sits on a table alongside a vintage mobile phone.  It felt as though the family could come back at any time, perhaps from a day on the river.

Amid all the collectible items in the hallway sits the Baghdad Chest, which featured in The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest (1939), later expanded and slightly rewritten as The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (1960).  A wicker basket of Visitor Guides to Greenway sits atop it now.  There was also a large gong which featured in her short story The Second Gong.

(We took lots of photos while we were at Greenway and I really wish that I could show you some of them, but we had to promise that we wouldn't publish them anywhere.  It was quite a treat to be able to take any photographs at all, as this is normally forbidden, but they allowed us to take photos as a personal souvenir of the event.  The National Trust website has some lovely photographs, though.)

We were guided through the house by Ken who gave us a lovely glimpse into Agatha’s life by highlighting objet d'art which were particularly important to her.  We passed into the sitting room, which was painted a pale cream, like the rest of the interior of the house, with light streaming in through the large windows.

Ken explained that Agatha and her family were all collectors, and it became rather competitive between them all.  Agatha ended up specialising in papier mache furniture and ornaments “as nobody else would collect them”.  Interesting examples of her particular collection can be found throughout the house, but none so large as the lacquered table in the sitting room.

While Agatha never wrote at Greenway, she did read her just-finished manuscripts to the family while sitting at her bureau in the drawing room.  Apparently Max, her second husband, would often drop off mid-way through, and when Agatha paused and asked, "Whodunnit?" he would wake up and invariably guess correctly, much to Agatha's annoyance.

I was drawn to the magnificent Steinway grand piano in the corner of the drawing room where sheet music written by Agatha herself was on display, as well as a selection of family photographs.  I had no idea that Agatha was a talented pianist and singer!

In the winter dining room we were shown Agatha’s Dame Commander of the British Empire medal. When the National Trust volunteers were cataloguing the contents of the house, they found that the old larder in the winter dining room was stuffed full of boxes.  In one of these boxes they found Agatha’s Dame Commander of the British Empire medal, stuffed right at the back of the cupboard.  It strikes me that Agatha didn't put much stock in honours!

The library was perhaps the most exciting room in the house.  An extraordinary fresco runs around the top of the walls, painted by a US Naval Officer when the house was requisitioned during the Second World War.  When the American Navy returned the house to Agatha after the war, they offered to paint over the fresco.  Agatha requested that they leave it as it would become a piece of history.

Next door to the library is the formal dining room, which was laid for a formal dinner. Crystal sparkled on the table and an old glass punchbowl served as a vase.  The door was held open with a bronze spitting cobra door stop, its forked tongue and fangs covered by a cork.  It had snagged Rosalind’s stockings once too often, and she tried to throw it out, but Agatha insisted that it must say and simply shoved a cork over the offending part.  It remains that way to this day.

The tour of the house finished in Agatha's bedroom which was flooded with sunlight and had an amazing view of the Dart.  An intricate chest of drawers, covered in a mosaic of mother of pearl and bone, the Damascus Chest, that Agatha paid more to ship to Britain than it actually cost to purchase!

Ken turned on a small radio and we listened to a short recording of Agatha talking about her writing process, and asserting that there was no secret to it.  I loved these recordings that were dotted through the house.  They really brought it to life.

We were then ushered into what I believe was a secondary library upstairs and shown the first editions which had been selected for us to handle.  We washed our hands in Agatha’s bathroom (!!) and then very carefully leafed through the books, taking note of the inscriptions in the front of each copy.  Agatha signed most of the books to her daughter Rosalind.
The precious first editions that we handled
After we’d all had our fill of the first editions, we trooped downstairs into Agatha’s own kitchen—warmed by a huge old Aga—where we were met by tables that positively groaned under the weight of the immense scones that were piled upon vintage wire stands.  Dishes of Devon clotted cream, thick golden crust mixed in with the gorgeously gooey cream, were brought to the table along with huge Willow pattern teapots.  We slathered cream and jam on scones and feasted.

Agatha herself loved cream teas, especially the cream part of them.  At her 80th birthday celebration, which was re-created in a very special dinner that opened this year’s Agatha Christie Festival, she dined on hot lobster in cream, followed by blackberry ice cream served with fresh blackberries and plenty of cream.  She noted in her diary, when writing about her birthday dinner, “a special treat—half a cup of neat cream for ME while the rest had Champagne.”

All too soon, it was time to return to the 21st century.  We climbed back into Barnaby and waved a sad farewell to Greenway.  One day we’ll come back…

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  1. I think we call it Torbaydos to make ourselves feel better! I've never been to Greenway though, after reading this think I will try and to make the trip!

    1. It was beautifully sunny by the time we left Greenway. I'm just glad that I'm so mistrustful of the weather and there's always a brolly or two about!

      Greenway was fabulous. I am still ridiculously excited that I got to wash my hands in Agatha's own sink :P

      Thanks for stopping by, Rosie x

  2. Love this. Shamefully I've never ventured out to Greenway either *slaps her own wrists* but I will 100% make the effort to go.
    And yeah, Torbaydos might be slightly misleading...
    Come back to our neck of the woods soon, it's not too shabby!
    M x Life Outside London Blog

    1. Heh. People probably oooh and aaah over the sunny weather in Torbay if they haven't been to Barbados. My Mum's from there, and I've been several times, so it was kinda lost on me :)

      I think that if you're even slightly interested in Agatha Christie you'd have a great time at Greenway, M! I don't think my words can do the place justice. It could so easily have been turned into something theme-parkish with merchandise everywhere, but instead it's a lovely family home with bags of personality.

      We'll be back next summer, for sure! I am intrigued by the Gooseberry Pie Fair in the village just before Greenway, and I want time to explore Torquay properly, too xx


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