Clive: Hi there.
National Trust Manager: So you’re in very, very good hands. This is Caroline, have you ever listened to the Shedunnit podcast?
Music fades up, dialogue continues in background
(No, you got to do it. It’s gripping. It’s all about female, or detective writers, but mainly Agatha. So you are here just to explore? Yeah. No, you’re presenting at the festival tomorrow. Right. So it may very much record you and ask some questions. Okay. Yes. Well just, I’m going to look around, so any, any favourite bits you wanna tell me about? Yeah, that would be amazing.)
Caroline, voiceover: I’m arriving at Agatha Christie’s home, Greenway. I’ve wanted to visit for a long time, and last year I finally got the opportunity. It’s a beautiful September day and the sun is peeking through the clouds as I step into the hallway. Agatha first encountered this Georgian manor house on the banks of the River Dart in Devon as a child, when her mother took her along while she paid a social call on its then owners. In 1938, after nearly two decades of literary success, the author purchased it and the surrounding 33 acre estate for what she considered the bargain price of £6,000 (around £300,000 today). Over the following decades, it became a treasured home for Agatha and her extended family, as well as inspiring the locations of several of her novels. And now, you’re going to come with me as I look around.
Music and background noise fades up
Caroline: So this is, this is the main entrance for right so you’re coming in front door? This is what you see and-
Clive: It’s her, Agatha’s great grandparents who were American, and they came over back to the UK and they had the house in Torquay, Ashfield, which was the family home, of course. And that’s where Agatha, two generations down, that’s where Agatha was born. Hence the connection. We got, uh, Madge, which is Agatha’s sister.
And then her brother, Monty.
Caroline, voiceover: This is Clive, by the way. Greenway is now looked after by the National Trust, and he’s one of the volunteers here, and he offered to show me around. My friend Elizabeth, who was visiting from America at the time, also joined me in going round the house, so you might hear from her too.
Clive: Yes. So, uh, just move here. I keep one eye on the door. Yeah, of course. Uh, Agatha, aged four with her doll, Rosie. And then, we got Rosie here on the chair. Yeah, we, uh, I wasn’t around, but allegedly when the, uh, National Trust first took over, they found the doll wrapped up in storage upstairs somewhere. Yeah.
And then there’s Agatha’s, around the corner here. Her cousin, Jack.
Caroline, voiceover: That piano you can hear playing in the background is Agatha’s piano, and it’s in the drawing room just off the hall, which is where we’re going next. The National Trust leaves the piano open for visitors to have a go on it, if they like. This room is richly furnished and clustered with beautiful objects, but it’s also cosy — the sofas are squashy and look like the perfect place to nestle in by the fire and get lost in a book for a few hours. Which is exactly what Agatha intended when she arranged them like this, I think.
Clive: We were very fortunate in the layout of the drawing rooms, we’ve got photographs. Right. Of course, Agatha sitting at one of these sofas here and we were able to lay out all things on the ornaments exactly, exactly as Agatha had it.
And when the house was gifted to the National Trust, all the things were as well.
Yeah. But it was always, always Agatha’s intention that it came to the National Trust. So Agatha died in 1976. Um, but in the meantime, uh, she handed- Agatha handed it, the property, over to her daughter Rosalind and her husband. Um, which was the arrangement, and then up until their death, um, Rosalind died 2004, her husband 2005, and it was handed over to the National Trust. Everything, the house, the contents.
Caroline, voiceover: After a lot of restoration work, the house was finally opened to the public in 2009.
Clive: Also in here we’ve got Agatha’s grand piano. She was an accomplished pianist, but she didn’t like, um, playing to people other than her husband. She was a bit shy.
Caroline, voiceover: In fact, she was more than a bit shy. It was this paralysing fear of playing in front of other people that led Agatha, at the age of seventeen, to abandon her teenage ambitions to become a concert pianist. Her teacher felt that she had the talent and with the right training, could have done well, but that she did not have the temperament for a life of public performance. She continued to enjoy music for the rest of her life, though, hence the presence of a baby grand piano here.
There are lots of little glimpses of Agatha’s personality around this house. As we move towards the kitchen, Clive points one of them out.
Clive: Here, we’ve got Agatha’s CBE. Agatha was a very private and shy person and she kept that all closed up behind the crockery in here. So, in deference to that, to an extent, the National Trust, at least they brought it forward and opened it up so you can see it.
Caroline, voiceover: A CBE is an honour awarded by the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom, and Agatha received hers in the 1956 New Year’s Honours. The actual award is a medal in a box, and she kept it stuffed in the back of this kitchen cabinet which is absolutely full to the brim with china. And I mean, full — there are plates right up to the very top, to the point where you would really struggle to get one out. She was a very keen collector of ceramics, and I suppose at a certain point you just run out of room to put it all.
But lest we forget that Greenway is a country house, not just a cosy family-sized home, there’s a little remnant of that Downton Abbey, upstairs-downstairs life on display as we make our way towards the stairs.
Clive: The bells here, they were connected to each room. So if the member of the household, they wanted a servant or something, they pull the cord and it would ring the bell. Now each bell has got a different note. So the members of staff, which would be in the kitchen here, they would know by the the note of the bell, which room they gotta go to.
Caroline: So very musical, no tone deaf servants.
Caroline, voiceover: Upstairs, there are lots of souvenirs and pieces from Agatha and her archaeologist husband Max’s travels in the Middle East.
Clive: Again, items of note, a Damascus chest, which was bought by Agatha and her husband from Damascus because they used to have a house in Damascus, circa 1900, we think. Inlaid with shell and bone.
Caroline, voiceover: But it wasn’t just artefacts from their travels that they installed at Greenway.
Clive: The small bed. People often ask for why the small bed, and it’s a campaign bed that comes apart that, uh, Max, her husband used to take with him on his archeological digs. He found it particularly comfortable. So when they used to come to stay at Greenway, he would bring his own bed with him.
Caroline, voiceover: This, of course, is in Agatha’s bedroom. And just off her bedroom is one of the most popular areas of the house for visitors, according to Clive.
Caroline: And this is her wardrobe?
Clive: This is her wardrobe. Yes. All the clothes are Agatha’s, though some of them are Rosalind’s. Fur coats there, of course, from a different era now.
Caroline, voiceover: It was fairly tidy in there, of course, because the National Trust curators have put everything to rights. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wardrobe so absolutely stuffed with items. Agatha, and then her daughter Rosalind, certainly liked to have plenty of options when getting dressed in the morning. But we can’t linger in here too long, there’s so much more to see.
Clive: This room here is, we call it a fax room only because Rosalind and her husband used to use this. It’s got a fax machine, like back in the days.
Caroline, voiceover: This is a small office, squeezed in between two of the upstairs bedrooms. But the fax machine is not all it contains. There’s a full set of Agatha Christie first editions, all hardbacks with their dust jackets, and…
Clive: This was a, a script when they did Dead Man’s Folly in this building, yeah. So, um, that’s a script signed by Suchet. They only filmed about two or three sets, you know, scenes. But you’ve never seen so much- trucks, you know, catering trucks up the road up there.
Caroline, voiceover: The novel Dead Man’s Folly was first published in 1956, and it’s one of several Agatha Christie books to feature a house heavily based on Greenway. (The others, in case you’re interested, are Five Little Pigs, Ordeal by Innocence and Towards Zero.) In this one, it becomes Nasse House, the country estate to which Hercule Poirot is summoned by his friend Ariadne Oliver so that he can assist with a “murder hunt” she is organising at the summer fete. Like Greenway, Nasse House is also an elegant, white painted mansion overlooking a river — the fictional river Helm, in this case. The Greenway boathouse down on the river also features heavily in the story. A film adaptation was made in 1986, starring Peter Ustinov, but that was shot at a different location. When it came to be done for television, for the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, the producers decided to use the authentic location, and shot it at Greenway. The filming was done in 2013, and it was actually the last episode of the entire series to be filmed, although when it aired later that year it wasn’t the last to be shown. But I imagine it felt fitting for the cast and crew, many of whom had been working on the show since the late 1980s, to finish at Greenway.
After the break: the Americans come to Greenway.
Agatha Christie bought Greenway, a house that she described in her autobiography as “the most perfect of the various properties on the Dart”, in 1938. She had just finished remodelling it — adding bathrooms and demolishing the Victorian wing that had been added to the original Georgian structure — when the Second World War began the following autumn. Greenway was in a rural part of the country, so Agatha started off by taking in friends’ children to keep them safe from bombing raids, and Max joined the local Home Guard. Agatha also refreshed her dispensary training at the hospital in Torquay, so she was once again qualified to volunteer making up medicines as she had during the First World War. Then the air raids began in Devon, with boats on the river Dart being attacked from the air, perhaps because of the proximity of the big naval college at Dartmouth. The children were sent back to their homes, and Agatha and Max moved into one of their London houses, where they felt they could be more active with war work. Greenway was first used by evacuees from London, and then was requisitioned by the Admiralty for use by the American Navy and Coastguard.
Overall, Agatha felt that they took very good care of her house — she had expected that it would be bombed to ruins in the raids, and so anything better than that was a bonus. The Americans did leave her two mementos of their stay, though. They added 14 toilets in the larder, which she had great difficulty in persuading the Admiralty to remove, and they partly redecorated one of the downstairs rooms.
Clive: So during the second world war, the house was requisitioned by the American Navy in preparation for D-Day. It was occupied by the 10th flotilla of Landing Craft. Um, the artist was a Lieutenant Marshall Lee, who was a landing craft commander, and there’s of his lane, I think it was 323, I think that was the one he used.
Yes, but it depicts his exploits in the Navy during the Second World War, finishing up over there at the Dartmouth and Greenway house at the top of the hill. He’s painted the house with too many windows.
Caroline: Yes. It’s not quite that wide is it?
Clive: The young lady and the cherubs. We’re not sure where that fits , but that was-
Elizabeth: The end of the journey!
Clive: That was painted after Lieutenant Lee left.
Caroline, voiceover: The “young lady” that Clive referred to there is a pin up style picture of a woman, surrounded by cherubs. The commander of the men stationed at Greenway wrote to Agatha at the end of the war and offered to repaint the room and restore it to its original state, but she declined — she later described it as a “war memorial” and was proud to show it and the house to any relatives of American servicemen who visited in later years.
This mural is in a room that the family used as a kind of library, and this is probably my favourite part of Greenway, not least because it offers a chance to poke around Agatha Christie’s book collection.
Clive: All the books here would be Agatha’s reading. A lot of her, her books here in different languages. Um, then we’ve got here six books under the name Mary Westmacott. Now this is Agatha, but they’re romantic novels, so she only got to write six. Probably preferred her crime ones.
Caroline: We’ve got some other crime writers here as well. Tied up in Tinsel. That’s Ngaio Marsh.
Clive: Contemporaries, yeah. Yeah, there’s got quite a few of those. Yeah.
Caroline: Very good
Clive: Up here also, we’ve got this collection, the Greenway Collection of Agatha’s books. Is it 32? Is it? Yeah. Mm-hmm. Um, these are the favourite books by Agatha of Rosalind, her daughter.
Clive: And these were Rosalind’s favourite, so she commissioned this set.
Caroline, voiceover: Reluctantly, we’re now leaving the library and moving into the dining room, which is a huge and impressive room with a massive table laden with fancy china and silver. But before we get to that, there’s something by the door that Clive wants to show us.
Caroline: One of your colleagues was telling us about the cobra with the cork on its fangs.
Clive: Yes. Yes. Agatha always had the cork on. It used to snag her stockings as she walked past so she, but you know, people nick the cork.
Caroline, voiceover: The cobra is a knee-high silver ornament that Agatha seemed to use as a doorstop, and it has a sharp tongue that sticks a few inches out of its mouth. Clearly, this was a hazard for a lady’s stockings, so she solved this problem in a highly practical way — by putting a wine cork on the end of the tongue. This is one of the fun things about visiting the house: it is very much as Agatha left it, fully of her things and her idiosyncratic ways of dealing with the small irritations of daily life. I’m not quite sure why people like to pinch this cork particularly as a memento of their visit to Greenway, but there’s no accounting for taste.
On the dining table is another example of Agatha’s personal tastes — a small jug by the place where she used to sit. In this, she used to have her favourite meal time beverage, which was, surprisingly enough, cream. She did not like to drink alcohol, but she really, really liked cream. Indeed, she says in her autobiography that “There is no doubt about it, my favourite thing is, and probably always will be, cream.” She grew up not far from Greenway, in Torquay, in a county that is well known for its thick, luscious cream, and she seemingly never lost her taste for it. Sometimes, as a concession to health, she would drink it diluted with one part milk, but she never gave it up entirely.
The dining room is also a good place from which to appreciate the changes that Agatha made to the house when she first bought it, Clive says.
Clive: On this side of the house, behind these doors was an extension, a Victorian extension, which didn’t really fit the, the architecture of the house. So when Agatha came, eventually she had it pulled down. One of the reasons she liked to have it down was because it had a snooker table in, and she used to be annoyed when they, everybody’s sat for dinner and the men used to get up and go into the snooker room and, she didn’t like that.
Elizabeth: So she could’ve gotten rid of the table, you know, you didn’t have to like, get rid of the whole section of the house.
Clive: That’s right. Yeah. Um, so we, we are left with these two curved doors. A lot of people remark on these curved doors, but they’re just cupboards now.
Caroline, voiceover: The curved doors certainly are very impressive, on either side of a feature alcove in the wall. It does look like if you go through them you’ll be going into yet another impressive room, but they are now, as Clive says, just cupboards for storing yet more of Agatha’s endless china collection.
And that brings us to the end of our tour. I hope you enjoyed this audio glimpse inside Agatha Christie’s house, and all of the traces of her life and personality that are still present at Greenway. Unfortunately, Elizabeth and I can’t take you with us as we head to the teashop to eat scones, or stroll about the gardens overlooking the river, so you’ll just have to imagine what that part is like. I think Agatha Christie would approve of the amount of cream we’re going to consume, though.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and hosted by me, Caroline Crampton.
Special thanks to Clive and everyone at the National Trust for making me and my microphone welcome at Greenway, and to Sarah Thrift for arranging it. I’m also grateful to my friend Elizabeth Minkel, who spent the afternoon doing this even though she has only read one Christie novel in her whole life. She has her own podcast, Fansplaining, which I highly recommend.
You can find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/athomewithagathachristie. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
If you’d like to hear the audio of my full tour around Greenway, that will be released as a bonus episode for members of the Shedunnit Book Club very soon. Join now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join and get access to this and three years’ worth of extra podcast episodes.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan McAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening.