E .B. White famously wrote his wonderful 1949 essay “Here Is New York” sequestered in a hot and sweaty hotel room in Manhattan. But usually, writers, it appears, seem to have a certain pastoral longing as a part of their artistic temperament. Even if they are writing about matters urban, they seem to find solace in the quietude of the countryside.
The quintessential “writers’ retreat” is rarely perched in a skyscraper or squeezed inside a shopping mall. Instead, it is, almost always, a quiet little house with large windows through which dappled sunshine soothes the troubled writer’s mind. It is usually found at the end of single-lane paths and has a quaint name like “The Birdcage” or “Lagoon House”. In the city, you are inspired; in the country you perspire.
Perhaps, like White, you perspire in the city after all. No matter. Because when this writing yields fortune, writers and their fortunes are often drawn, as if by bucolic magnet, to the countryside. Annie Proulx’s ordeal with moving to the Wyoming countryside was so strenuous that she was driven to write a book about it: Bird Cloud. Agatha Christie, fortunately, did not have such trouble. Her holiday home, called Greenway, gave the crime writer and her family many years of joy. In 2000, many years after her death in 1976, Greenway was handed over to the UK’s National Trust, which has since renovated, with great sensitivity, the property and the surrounding landscape.
Greenway House sits on an estate overlooking the Dart river. Across the river is the picturesque village of Dittisham, best pronounced Dit-sham, and further downstream is the popular tourist town of Dartmouth. Past Dartmouth, the Dart makes one final turn past Dartmouth Castle and then empties into the English Channel in the south-west of England.
Dartmouth is situated in the county of Devon and is one of its many tourist highlights. Thus, a visit to Greenway House has much more to offer besides a thrilling pilgrimage for Christie fans. Greenway, Dittisham, Kingswear, which lies across the river from Dartmouth, and of course Dartmouth itself, all sit surrounded by areas of outstanding natural beauty. And that is meant quite literally. To the south is the region designated as the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and to the north-east is the East Devon AONB. Christie chose her holiday home well.
In the summer of 1938, Christie and her second husband, Max Mallowan, were informed that Greenway House, a white Georgian building built near the Dart river in the late 1700s, was up for sale. At the time, Christie owned a Victorian mansion called Ashfield in nearby Torquay. But she was beginning to grow increasingly un-fond of the house she had grown up in. Ashfield was no longer the country haven it used to be. A secondary school had come up next door, and then a mental nursing home. The noisy children were one problem, but the patients wandering around in Christie’s garden were a whole different level of botheration. “A brawny colonel in pyjamas appeared,” Christie wrote in her autobiography, “waving a golf-club, determined he was going to kill all the moles in the garden; another day he came to attack a dog who had barked.”
Not only that, Greenway House came at an attractive price: “It’s incredibly cheap,” Christie told her husband of the £6,000 (now Rs5.2 lakh) price tag. “It’s got 33 acres. It doesn’t look in bad condition either; wants decorating, that’s all.” Christie bought it. And then had it extensively remodelled to match her Georgian tastes. “Christie hated anything Victorian or Roman or ancient,” a docent in the library told me, rolling her eyes at some bookshelves that, after her death, had been finished with Roman fluted columns. The library is also home to a set of two murals on the walls. One is by a soldier. Shortly after Greenway was purchased, World War II broke out and the house was requisitioned for military use. In January 1944, the US Coast Guard’s Flotilla 10 moved into the house to prepare for the D-Day landings. One of the sailors, Lieutenant Marshall Lee, painted 12 murals in Christie’s library in four colours: blue, khaki, black and white.
Later, after the sailors had left for France, someone else—it is not known who—added a second mural: a reclining nude and a cherub playing the violin. This mural is of decidedly inferior quality. “But she did not have it removed,” the docent explained. I wonder why.
Greenway House, as it is presented to the visitor today, seems deceptively small. In fact, however, it’s quite large and the estates, expansive. This was the antidote to everything that was wrong with Ashfield. Christie could expect to find splendid isolation at Greenway.
The docent at the front door told me Christie did not, however, do any of her writing at Greenway. She did edit her manuscripts here while on holiday and occasionally read them out to the assembled family in the ground-floor living room. This is the second room you see after you step in through the front door and pick up the small guide.
The house is maintained much as Christie would have enjoyed it when she holidayed there. There is copious memorabilia all around. Scrapbooks in each room explain the highlights. But what is perhaps most notable is the family’s exquisite and eclectic taste in furniture. This is a very personal home, crammed with things that the family truly cared for. One shelf in the upstairs “Fax Room” is full of signed first editions. Christie’s bedroom features numerous objects collected on digging trips—Max Mallowan was a keen archaeologist and Christie often accompanied her husband. But what really stuns you, much like Hastings after a Poirot revelation, is when you peer into a closet and see several hangers draped with the great writer’s coats and gowns.
“Take a notebook,” another docent tells me, pointing to a box. The box is full of slim notebooks and pencils, with a sign encouraging visitors to try some writing of their own as they wander around Greenway. “Why, thank you very much,” I say. You can also find old mechanical typewriters here and there on the property. Free for use if you are prepared to type gently and slowly.
Later that evening, I lay on the grass outside the estate contemplating literary thoughts while my daughter ran around picking up green apples that fell from a tree. She is much too young for Agatha Christie right now. But soon her time will come. “What is this, papa?” she asks, pointing towards the house. “Agatha Christie’s house.” “Who is Agatha Christie?” “She wrote books.” “Like Peppa Pig books?”
I laughed and laughed. And so did she.
You could drive up to Greenway House from London, but parking is limited. The ferry up from Dartmouth is more picturesque and relaxing. There are plenty of trains between London and Dartmouth.
Barrington House is a Victorian estate that features three properties for week-long, self-catering hires. The views are spectacular. The Best Western hotel just outside Dartmouth offers comfortable accommodation, a beautiful golf course and a spa. You can also stay in one of four cottages right on the estate. And the prices aren’t criminal at all.
Seafood is the way to go in Dartmouth for obvious reasons. Afternoon cream teas are the other local speciality. The Seahorse was recently rated one of England’s best restaurants.