Friday, August 27, 2010

Ahhh, Greenway . . . A Dame's Hideaway

By Hannah Dennison

My parents were avid readers. Every other Saturday, we’d troop to the library to select our next read. Naturally, Agatha Christie was often among the stack of books we brought home to devour.

Greenway was Agatha Christie’s summer home in England and is just five miles from where my mother lives in Totnes, Devon. Mum has worked as a volunteer for the National Trust for 30 years and last summer, she added Greenway to her ever-growing list of things that keep her busy. Not bad for someone who just celebrated her 80th birthday.

We’d known for ages that Greenway had been undergoing a massive restoration process — to the tune of $7.8 million. The house and glorious woodland garden were given to the National Trust in 2000 by Agatha Christie’s daughter Rosalind and her second husband, Anthony Hicks, and Rosalind’s son, Mathew Prichard. When Rosalind and Anthony passed away in 2004 and 2005 respectively, Mathew took the generous next step of gifting virtually the entire contents to the National Trust.

Mathew said that his parents were fiercely protective of the Greenway legacy. His greatest wish was for people who visit Greenway to feel some of the magic and sense of place that he felt as a child in the 1950s and 1960s. Hence the house has been recreated in the style of those years that Mathew remembers as his happiest — during his grandmother’s heyday.

The current house was actually built in 1790 by an American from Boston named Roope Harris Roope. Over the years, Greenway was rebuilt, altered and extended by various owners, including local MPs, merchants and bankers, until Agatha Christie — known locally as Mrs. Mallowan — or just “Mrs. M” — bought the house for £6,000 in 1938 with her second husband, Max, the famed archaeologist.

They, too, made changes — although Christie was to remark later that she wished she’d had the foresight to add a small kitchen next to the dining room. It had never occurred to her there would come a day when there was no domestic help!

Shortly afterwards, World War II came. As part of the preparations for D-Day, the Admiralty eventually requisitioned Greenway for the use of the United States Coast Guard. Greenway became the Officers Mess for the 10th US Coast Guard Flotilla based in the Dart Estuary. Among them was Lt. Marshall Lee, who was to become an unofficial Greenway war artist. He created a vividly poignant frieze around the walls of the library that can still be enjoyed today.

The National Trust has kept their promise to Mathew Prichard. Greenway remains in a 1950s English time warp — right down to the thick Bronco medicated toilet paper in the Victorian lavatory.

Greenway is not a museum with “do not touch” signs and roped-off rooms that provide mere glimpses of the treasures beyond. It feels more like an open, private home where the owners have just popped out and will be back shortly.

Anthony Hicks’ hat collection is stacked on an oak gate-leg table, family photographs are scattered throughout and an antique drinks tray is set up, ready for an evening cocktail. Visitors are invited to play the grand piano in the drawing room and use the tennis court. The dining room can also be hired for private dinner parties. Some of the chairs can be sat on, making it more comfortable to leaf through wonderful scrapbooks filled with anecdotes. I particularly enjoyed the “Confessionals,” listing each family member’s favorite flowers, pet peeves, cherished values and fears. In fact Greenway is such a warm and welcome place to visit, my mother related a story that caused much merriment among the volunteers. One afternoon, a four-year old girl was discovered, snuggled under the duvet, fast asleep in Agatha Christie’s bed. She’d even taken off her shoes.

The Victorians were great collectors and Agatha Christie — born in 1890 — was no exception. The mind-boggling collection of antique furniture, house wares and accouterments at Greenway span five generations. They include Tartanware, Meissen, Maunchlinware, papier mâché, enameled boxes, Bargeware, Verge watches, Stevengraphs, Treen and Tunbridgeware. Many items were collected from trips Agatha Christie and Max made to the Orient. I nearly fainted when I saw a camel from the Tang dynasty sitting happily on the sideboard, instead of being protected under reinforced glass.

The highlight of my visit was reading facsimiles of Agatha Christie’s notebooks. It is of great comfort to know that even the Queen of Crime, with more than 80 books under her belt, said, “To begin with I had no joy in writing, no élan. I had worked out the plot – a conventional plot – I knew, as one might say, where I was going, but I could not see the scene in my mind’s eye and the people would not come alive. I was driven desperately on by the desire, indeed the necessity to write another book and make some money.”

Another Agatha Christie gem is a tape recording of an interview she had with a BBC radio program in 1955. When asked to describe her writing method, she said “…the real work is done in thinking out the development of your story and worrying about it until it comes right. That may take quite a while. Then, when you’ve got all your material together, all that remains is to find time to write the thing!”

Unfortunately, if anyone is expecting to see her writing room, they will be disappointed. Robyn Brown, Greenway’s Property Manager who has overseen the entire rebirth of Greenway, said that Agatha Christie wrote when traveling with Max on digs throughout the Middle East. Greenway was a family summer retreat and the place where she celebrated finishing a book. 

Greenway was clearly the inspiration for many of her plots. Dead Man’s Folly (1956) was set at the late Georgian, early Victorian Boat House — complete with plunge pool — overlooking the River Dart and the Scold’s Stone, supposedly where disobedient wives were trussed up to drown in medieval times.

As my mother and I finished our champagne and ate the last of her birthday cake, a certain chill came over me. The dark waters of the plunge pool seemed to glimmer ominously. Was something lurking beneath the muddy waters, or were our eyes tricked by the dappling sunlight pouring in through the half-opened door?

Now there’s an idea for a story …
Hannah Dennison writes the Vicky Hill mysteries. Her third book, Expose! will be released this month. Visit her website.  Hannah is a member of the Killer Characters blog and posts every 12th of the month.
Getting to Greenway
Greenway is 200 miles southwest of London. This year there have been 80,000 visitors — the house is small with a lot to see. If traveling by car it is essential to pre-book a parking spot. There are no exceptions as it is physically impossible to park on the narrow roads leading to Greenway and you will be turned away. The recommended route is either by old-fashioned steam train from Paignton or Dartmouth or even better, the “Green Way” along the tranquil River Dart. Ferries run from Dartmouth, Torquay or Brixham. On disembarking at Greenway jetty, it’s a very pretty short walk up to the house. 

For opening times and events, check and ferries For diehard fans, one floor of the main house has been turned into a five-bedroom apartment available for rent — so continuing Greenway’s legacy as a holiday retreat.


Mary Jane Maffini said...

Hannah, what a spectacular post! I am reading Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks now and you have made Greenway come alive. Thanks for the tour of a stately home that has special meaning for all mystery readers and writers.


Closet Confidential: a Charlotte Adams mystery

Heather Webber said...

What a wonderful post. I loved learning about Greenway, and of course, now want to go visit it myself. Thank you for sharing!

Hannah Dennison said...

Thank you MJ. So happy you liked the article. I love it there and since Mum works as a docent, go a lot when I'm "Home." I'm also reading the Secret Notebooks - they are amazing. Her autobiography is inspiring too.

Heather - a big thank you too. There is an Agatha Christie festival held next month which I've never been to but want to.

G.M. Malliet said...

Thanks so much for reviving the fond memories. I visited Greenway two summers ago and it is as lovely and peaceful as the photos indicate. Half the fun is getting there - you almost have to go by boat because parking is limited. We journeyed from Torquay, making it an all-Agatha, all-the-time kind of day.

Deb Baker said...

I'm going to London in November and after reading your post, have to take a road trip!

Hannah Dennison said...

Heather - yes, going by boat is a great way to enjoy the beauty of the River Dart (as long as it's not raining ...sigh). Luckily, Mum has a parking permit - it's quite a long walk otherwise!

Hannah Dennison said...

Deb - it's quite a trek from London but really worth it. Hiring a car is best. There are some great places to stay - Marcia Talley's new Hannah Ives mystery is set in nearby Dartmouth. She has some great recommendations for B & B's etc.

Paige Shelton said...

Fascinating, Hannah! I bet your Mum loves being a part of such a wonderful place. "Secret Notebooks" and the autobiography sound like must-reads. Thank you for sharing.

Leann Sweeney said...

How I wish I could visit that house. Maybe one day. Wonderful blog. Agatha is my hero.

Patg said...

Fabulous post and on my 'to do' list for years. Combine an Agatha tour with a Janite tour, and it's down right perfect.

Hannah Dennison said...

Thanks everyone for your lovely comments. I have a question - Patg --- what is a Janite tour?

Margaret Maron said...

Delightful post. I'm going to poke Carolyn Hart to come read it because she's such a Christie enthusiast. How lucky you were to experience all this, Hannah

Misha Crews said...

This was a wonderful post! Thanks so much, Hannah!

hannah dennison said...

Hi Mary Jane - glad you enjoyed my post ... I am also reading AC's Secret Notebooks - aren't they fabulous? There is an annual festival in Devon called (no surprise) ... The Agatha Christie Festival. It's held every September in Torbay aka the "English Riviera." I hope to go next year.