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In Devon on the trail of Agatha Christie...

Brilliant article from Nicolas Ungemuth, Le Figaro Magazine

Agatha Christie likes Devon very much
In Devon on the trail of Agatha Christie

The writer who sold two billion books (only the Bible and the Koran do better), and whose five million novels are still sold every year, never ceased to use his native region to set the scene for his many crimes. Forty-five years after his death, how is Devon faring? Le Figaro Magazine investigates...

It's from Exeter's tiny airport, where you arrive by propeller plane, that you reach Torbay, the official name of a region covering, from south to north, the towns of Brixham, Paignton and above all Torquay, where the Christian enthusiast goes first. This is where it all began.

In Devon on the trail of Agatha Christie

The hub of Agatha Christie's world and a very popular seaside resort when the author lived there, it is now a quiet, modest town, inhabited mainly by retired people from the north of the country who enjoy the climate. The lower part of the town, which borders the sea, is fairly modest, but the hills overlooking the north of the town above Babbacombe Beach reveal middle-class neighbourhoods with charming architecture. It was in this area, around the superb Osborne Hotel for example, that Agatha Christie loved to go swimming at Meadfoot Beach, her favourite beach.

Torquay, her birthplace, is an open-air museum

Agatha was born Miller in Torquay on 15 September 1890. For her readers, Torquay is an open-air museum: several of her novels (Drama in Three Acts, Mrs McGinty is Dead, Unwanted Witness, The Rocking Horse, The Yew and the Rose, Murder in the Sun) are set in her home town and Poirot and Miss Marple used to have tea there at the Imperial Hotel, where the author used to go dancing. The Imperial, a superb building overlooking the sea, built in 1866 and frequented by King Edward VII and Napoleon III alike, was later covered by a cement shell by a mad architect, and the terrace where Agatha used to sunbathe has been transformed into a modern extension.

Inside, however, tourists can still admire the period ballroom and lobby. Agatha Christie used the venue in three of her novels: The House of Peril, A Corpse in the Library and The Last Enigma. A little further on, Princess Gardens, where the writer loved to stroll, illustrated scenes from A.B.C. against Poirot. Still facing the sea is the marvellous Grand Hotel, which, luckily, was not destroyed. It was here that Agatha spent her honeymoon on 24 December 1914 with her first husband, Lieutenant Archibald Christie, an aviator in the Royal Flying Corps, whom she divorced in 1928. The Grand Hotel, with its sea views, superb bar and spacious rooms - the Agatha Christie Suite is highly recommended - offers guaranteed vintage charm.

A short drive north of the Grand Hotel takes you to the fairytale village of Cockington Court. A hamlet of thatched cottages that came out of a dream where Agatha had friends, the Mallocks, to whom she went to act in amateur plays. It's a magical place, surrounded by almost fluorescent green countryside, and the little road leading from Torquay to the village, criss-crossed by an arch of vegetation - in the UK, the trees have not been cut down on either side of the tarmac and their branches frequently meet, giving motorists the delightful impression of driving through a tunnel of greenery - is an enchantment in itself.

Back on the heights of Torquay, a marvel: Kents Cavern, a series of caves that have been inhabited for over 350,000 years, with wild natural sculptures - you sometimes think you're in Alien - where classic stalagmites and stalactites formed two million years ago stand side by side with nightmarish organic forms impeccably displayed: it's one of the most beautiful Palaeolithic sites in the world. Agatha, who had been struck by the place, brought it to life in The Man in the Brown Suit.

Devon and Agatha Chritie, a love story
In Devon on the trail of Agatha Christie

Devon and Agatha Christie, a love story!
In Devon on the trail of Agatha Christie

Devon, beautiful views admired by Agatha Christie
In Devon on the trail of Agatha Christie

Devon, beautiful views
In Devon on the trail of Agatha Christie

To follow in the writer's footsteps, leave Torquay and head south along the coast. Ignore the uninteresting town of Paignton and visit Brixham, a delightful little enclave town which today, despite its modest appearance, is one of England's most important fishing ports. It was here that William of Orange, the future King William III, landed with his Dutch army on 5 November 1688.

Agatha Christie regularly went there to shop at the famous fish market. To do this, she took a steam train and alighted at Churston station (which appears in Poirot Plays the Game), next to Brixham.

The line, closed in 1963, has now been reopened: a steam train, impeccably preserved in its original state and maintained by volunteers, continues the tradition and carries passengers along the coast to Dartmouth, the most beautiful town in Devon, not far from where Agatha Christie bought her vast estate in 1938 when she became famous...

Spread out on either side of the wide River Dart, Dartmouth is distinguished by its two shores: on the north bank, old fishermen's dwellings in multicoloured pastel shades overlook the river. On the south bank, just a few hundred metres from the imposing Britannia Royal Naval College, where Queen Elizabeth II met Philip Mountbatten, the future Duke of Edinburgh, there are cobbled quays and, behind them, sumptuous half-timbered houses dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. It was on this bank, at the Royal Castle Hotel (whose history dates back to 1639!), that the writer lived before buying Greenway, and the place appears as the Royal George Hotel in Unwanted Witness. To cross from one bank to the other, cars embark on a barge for a two-minute journey: here, no one would have thought of building a bridge...

The town is a haven where you'd love to spend several months: it's the pearl of Devon. Next door, Agatha's beloved Torquay seems like a modern city, and it's easy to see why the author decided to settle there when she visited it. But the writer was not going to settle in the town with her second husband, the archaeologist (who passed on to her a love of his science) Max Mallowan.

Greenway, a beautiful Georgian-style property. For the fan, it's an obligatory stopover

Now living in London, the star of the crime novel chose a beautiful Georgian-style estate, which she had known since childhood, as their summer residence.

Thanks to her phenomenal success in the 1930s, undoubtedly her most fruitful period (Murder on the Orient Express, A.B.C. v Poirot, Death on the Nile, Ten Little Indians), she was able to buy Greenway, which served as the setting for the novels Five Little Pigs, Zero Hour and Poirot Plays the Game: in the latter, the famous crime scene takes place in the Boathouse, a small house overlooking the river (currently being restored). Overlooking the Dart, surrounded by woods, gardens and greenhouses of all kinds, Greenway, bequeathed by Agatha's grandson, Mathew Prichard, to the National Trust, is now a museum where you can visit the author's house as it was when she lived there.

Nothing has changed, from the kitchens and toilets to the library and study. For fans, it's a must-see (you can now live there, in one of the four cottages available to rent), especially as the park offers timeless walks over the sleeping Dart.

To cross the Dart, ring a bell on the quay and a motorboat instantly appears to take you across the river to the tiny hillside village of Dittisham (Gitcham in Poirot plays the game). A pile of delightful old cottages climbing up a narrow, winding street, impassable by car, above the river. Dittisham is so enchanting that the entire village now belongs to very rich and distinguished owners: the fishermen must have deserted it. Overlooking the water, the Ferryboat Inn pub (also known by its acronym FBI), with its view of Greenway on the other bank, is the ideal place to grab a bite to eat after visiting the glorious house.

To the north-west of Dartmouth lies the vast Dartmoor National Park, which Agatha Christie appreciated and knew well for some time: she used to visit it when she was still living in Torquay. The author had good taste: it's the local treasure. Nearly 1,000 square kilometres of wilderness, alternating between moorland worthy of Scotland and forests imported from Canada. Here and there are tors, hills topped by generally rounded granite formations lying on green grass where the famous wild Dartmoor ponies trot among the sheep.

Agatha used to stay at the Moorlands Hotel, one of the few places to stay in the park, and where she wrote her very first crime novel, The Mysterious Case of Styles. From the hotel, she could walk to Haytor Rocks, the most spectacular tor in the area.

In the same park, which also inspired Conan Doyle to write The Hound of the Baskervilles, is the mythical Dartmoor Prison, long reputed to be the toughest in the country. Fascinated by this place, which can be as enchanting on a sunny day as it is sinister in the mist, the writer used it in two of his novels, The Holiday of Hercule Poirot and Five twenty-five.

Further south, almost in Cornwall, lies the dream of every Agatha maniac: the Burgh Island Hotel. This Art Deco splendour sits on a tiny 8-hectare island linked to the coast by a strip of sand that is flooded with sea water several times a day.

To reach the island, you have to climb into a kind of tractor with giant tyres that literally rolls into the sea for a few minutes. Once there, a car picks up passengers and luggage and takes them to the legendary hotel. For fans, Burgh Island is the setting for Ten Little Indians (in the UK, the novel was renamed And Then There Were None, the title of the original American edition: political correctness has had its day) and Murder in the Sun.

An episode of the Hercule Poirot series starring David Suchet was filmed here. The place is a madhouse: here, time really has stood still...

Purchased in 1927 by millionaire Archibald Nettlefold, the island was virtually deserted until its new owner built the superb white house to which he invited prestigious guests such as Noel Coward, Lord Mountbatten and the Duke of Windsor. In 1933, he decided to turn it into a hotel. Agatha Christie stayed there several times and had the idea of using it as the setting for her most famous novel. After Nettlefold's death, the hotel declined and was converted into flats for rent.

At the end of the 80s, Tony Porter, who had made his fortune in the 60s with the legendary Biba shop in Swinging London, decided to buy it back and faithfully restore it, and today the hotel is a relic. Every object, every piece of furniture, every lamp, everything from the bar to the glass dome is Art Deco. Even the telephones in the rooms are made of Bakelite, and the baths and taps are exact copies of those found in the 1930s.

During the day, guests can linger on the terrace or take a dip below in a sublime natural seawater pool set into the rocks. In the evening, everyone is in dinner jackets for cocktails and dinner. The sound system plays exclusively music from the 20s and 30s. At the impossibly beautiful bar, Gary has been preparing cocktails for over twenty years. The atmosphere is unreal: it's like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

A few addresses

1/ Hotels

● In Torquay.

  • The Grand Hotel (0.800.005.2244); Osborne Hotel ( +44.1803.213.311);The Imperial Hotel ( +44.1803.294.301).

● On Burgh Island.

  • Burgh Island Hotel ( +44.1548.810.514).

2/ Restaurants

● In Torquay.

  • The Elephant, 3 & 4 Beacon Terrace (+44.1803.200.044). One of the best gourmet restaurants in town. Lots of seafood.

  • Bistrot Pierre, Abbey Crescent, Torbay Road (+44.1803.221.213). French cuisine adapted for English customers.

  • Cary Arms, Babbacombe Beach (+44.1803.327.110). Magnificent thatched cottage decor with sea views for top quality gastro pub cuisine. Taxi required as access by car is very complicated.

● In Brixham.

  • Rockfish, Brixham Fish Market (+44.1803.850.872). Superb restaurant in the old harbour with sea views. The menu displays around ten different fish, and you are offered those that have been caught in the morning. Freshness guaranteed!

3/ Must-See

  • Kents Cavern (+.44.1803.215.136).

  • Greenway, the Agatha Christie Museum (+44.800.1895).

4/ A guide to Dartmoor

Alex Graeme knows the region like the back of his hand. He offers à la carte packages depending on number of days required. Unique Devon tours (+44.7585.928.070).

5/ Useful


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