Hideout in Devon

Tom Adair detects another side of Agatha Christie in her beloved summer estate.

Agatha Christie leaned towards mystery, towards the deliciousness of secrets. Much has been made of her flight to Harrogate in runaway anonymity at the height of her career. But in deepest Devon on the English Riviera where she grew up she hid away annually, at the holiday house she called Greenway, her summer retreat for 38 years until her death in 1976.

Greenway is Georgian, solid, appealing. It stands on a slope above the lazy River Dart, with views of Dittisham on the opposite side of the estuary with its sailboats and dipping jetty.

As far as we know, Christie never wrote here. Yet Greenway inspired her the strangled body of Marlene Tucker in the boathouse in Dead Man's Folly and elsewhere a corpse, dispatched in the woods that are clearly the grounds of Greenway's demesne.

The house was occupied after Christie's own death by her daughter, Rosalind, and her husband, Anthony Hicks. They gave Greenway to the National Trust nine years ago and the house was opened to the public earlier this year.

You approach this shady corner of Devon exactly as Christie did, veering down twisting narrow lanes that grow ever tighter, entwined by shadows and olive light into deepest dapple. You feel you have reached the end of the world.

A man with a clipboard proffers a smile. He asks your name (it is essential to book ahead if you come by car). You park; you walk 450 metres into the fairytale expanse of trees and bushes, seeing the ticket desk, the tea rooms. (Hemlock quiche? Deadly nightshade meringue? Your imagination cannot help it.) You enter her world.

The cream facade and ornate portico overlooking the water are exactly as they were in Christie's time. She purchased Greenway in 1938 for a then substantial sum of £6000, and began at once to fill it with fripperies, with collections of papier mache, family portraits, porcelain, books. If you want to hide something, make it conspicuous. What she concealed here was nothing less than her private self.

Which is why this property is unique. The house is a many-roomed curiosity shop, giving glimpses of the author as she was. Not Christie the writer, the doyenne of crime, but Mrs (later Lady) Mallowan, wife of the distinguished archaeologist Max Mallowan, whose passion for buried things she shared.

The National Trust is determined to make the house feel like a home. It has painted the rooms in the Devon cream that Christie favoured, restoring the decor to its former post-war glory. Restoration continues apace.

What is striking when you enter is the immediate absence of barriers roping you off from the precious, authentically Christie exhibits. The place remains homely, ostensibly lived in, as if the occupants have simply popped out to the shops and will shortly be home for a cup of tea or a hand of bridge.

Greenway's top floor has been converted into a modern holiday let (a self-contained flat with five ample bedrooms and three modern bathrooms, with separate entrance), which accommodates up to 10 people. Fans of Christie who have cash to spare may dream the Christie dream. The trust will even lay on a butler for special occasions.

The average visitor, though, has to sidle through the rooms perusing the objects and be content. The strong sense of presences is reinforced by the ragged pile of gardening hats sitting wonkily on a table in the entrance hall.

I finger my way past the grandfather clock and surfaces crammed with Christie's collection of lacquered papier mache, including a skull with a tiny frog poised to leap from its brow. Outside sits the leather Baghdad chest in which a corpse is found in one of Christie's novels; there, too, hangs the dinner gong, now silent from its ritual evening call.

Overseeing most of the rooms are guides whose purposes are clearly to keep an eye on the objects and answer questions. Inside the dining room, the door of which is wedged open with a silver cobra, we're told how Christie entertained friends and that the trust is prepared to offer the room for dining to its holiday-making residents.

The room itself is a dazzle of polished surfaces, a stark contrast to the softly furnished morning room where Christie kept her collection of tiny shell paintings, made by sailors as keepsakes for sweethearts, a hint of sentiment repeated in some of the paintings from which the Christie family eyes you rather beadily; there's a portrait of Scottie the terrier, upstaged when you reach the library by a mural painted boldly by a serving American officer in 1944, when the house was requisitioned by the armed forces.

The mural captures scenes of battle, local hamlets and a voluptuous, come-hither nude in the style of a 1940s starlet. Christie insisted the mural be kept when the soldiers left. But the paintings of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin above the fireplace were erased. She declared herself nervous in their presence. You hear her actual voice when you venture upstairs, a bonus that no one not least the National Trust had expected. But in the attic a couple of months ago, dictaphone tapes were unearthed and there she was.

Visitors listen to the strangulated tones, the clipped delivery, anxious to tell us a little of how she worked her ideas up into mystery tales that would captivate half the world. Next door is the bedroom: the grand double bed and the tiny fold-up bed for Max, who had a bad back and brought it everywhere he travelled.

I slip away to savour the garden: the rhododendrons and camellias, the marvellous glimpses of smuggler's England through the ash and Monterey pines, as the grass falls away to meet the greeny-blue slick of the river. All this was hers, her imagination's, no longer a hideaway or a retreat. Unlike the house, which is frozen in time, it feels timeless, universal. As are her words.

Christie adored this corner of Devon. It catches the sun. It is bright and breezy. She honeymooned in Torquay and almost drowned here at Beacon Cove. Today this strip of sandy nostalgia (with 20 beaches) is regaining popularity and the grandiose hotels and palm-fringed, chintzy, painted guest houses seem as vibrant as in the halcyon 1950s and '60s when Basil Fawlty opened his doors to flay his guests with tirades of abuse.

Today's visitors come for the atmosphere, to stroll the Victorian pier, or to take a boat trip down to the fishing town of Brixham.

There are Stone Age caves to explore, a zoo and seafront charm to be found, where fudge shops, candy floss and amusements serve to divert you from the breezes, one of which may be from Christie's teenage roller-skating ghost as it zips along her favourite pier.

FAST FACTS

Finnair flies to London Heathrow from Melbourne and Sydney via Hong Kong and Helsinki for about $1952 including taxes. Flybe flies from London Gatwick to Newquay for $74 one way including taxes. Greenway is about three kilometres from Galmpton, Devon, and about 100 kilometres from Newquay. There is no parking in Galmpton and limited parking at Greenway; advance booking for parking is essential. Visitors using "green" transport (boat, bus, bicycle) receive discounted entry. There are ferries from Dartmouth, Brixham and Torquay.

- Greenway is open Wed-Sun 10.30am-5pm until October 25 and on Tuesdays until August 30. Entry £7.45 ($15.20) adults, £3.75 children, £18.65 family. See nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-greenway.

- Weekly rental of The Apartment at Greenway costs from $1580. See www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk.

- The Agatha Christie Festival in Torquay is held on September 13-19. For details of the Exploring Agatha Christie Country Car Trail and the Agatha Christie Mile in Torquay, see englishriviera.co.uk.

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