Agatha Christie’s English Riviera

For one solid week – September 12-18, Torquay celebrated the 120th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth. As a lifelong Christie fan, I was looking forward to every minute of the promised “murder, mystery and mayhem,” which all turned out to be the kind of innocent fun of a bygone time.

In this quiet, almost pastoral part of England, there are many remnants of years past, as well as reminders that the world’s best-selling novelist is also the best-loved daughter of the English Riviera.

The anniversary festival opened with an old-fashioned fete, featuring costumed stall-holders, a jazz band belting out period music and the Agatha Christie Dancers, who did the Charleston with energy and style. Actor Martin Gaisford as Hercule Poirot, Christie’s most famous detective, mingled with the crowds, posing for pictures and answering questions from fans. Though David Suchet has been the “official” film Poirot for 19 years, Gaisford is a convincing lookalike, with a formidable mustache that is just as Christie described it in the Belgian detective’s debut novel, “The Mysterious Affair in Styles.”

Christie’s grandson, Mathew Pritchard also appeared at the fete, telling stories about his celebrated grandmother-and assuring fans that Agatha Christie, with millions of books in print, along with DVDs, comics, games and downloadable products, is still a star in this digital age. (Pritchard recently signed a 10-year deal with publisher Harper Collins for worldwide distribution of Christie’s books.)

Also making an appearance at the fete were the two Chinese winners of an Agatha Christie competition, along with several Chinese journalists. The prize was a trip to the festival, personally escorted by Matthew Pritchard.

A 23-year-old member of the group who identified himself as “James,” told me the first film he had ever seen after China opened up to Western culture was “Death on the Nile.” The second was “Evil Under the Sun.” After that he went on to read Chrisite’s books. “I was just amazed by Agatha Christie,” he said, “she writes a good story, with simple language, good dialogue and good puzzles.” He went on to predict that Christie’s fan base “will be great in China.”

My Christie pilgrimage included a remarkably fresh performance of “Witness for the Prosecution” by the Agatha Christie Theatre Company and a visit to the Agatha Christie Gallery of the Torquay Museum, where I discovered a long list of actors who had played Poirot, starting with Charles Laughton’s 1928 West End performance. (My least favorite was Albert Finney, who turned in a near-cartoonish performance in the 1974 Hollywood version of “Murder on the Orient Express.”)

The museum is part of the Agatha Christie Mile, a meandering route that traces landmarks in the life of the Queen of Crime: the Princess Pier, where she roller-skated, Beacon Cove, where she swam (and once nearly drowned) and 800-year-old Torre Abbey, where head gardener Ali Marshall has created a year-round garden of all the poisonous plants used by Christie in her 80 novels.

Dame Agatha had pharmaceutical training as a young woman, so poison was her preferred murder weapon, and she famously wrote: “Poison has a certain appeal…it has not the crudeness of the revolver or the blunt instrument.” Ali Marshall shares Christie’s enthusiasm for poisons found in nature, and her own guide to the plants is prominently displayed in the garden. I learned that cyanide is found in peach kernels and that hyoscyamine (or henbane) is not an easy plant to find-Marshall sourced hers from witchcraft sites.

A highlight of my visit to the English Riviera was the tour of Greenway, the 400-year old holiday home Christie purchased in 1938 for £6,000. To reach the house, which is located on the River Dart, I took the vintage Greenway bus (reservations necessary); the house is also accessible by ferry and by car (advance parking reservations necessary).

Greenway was gifted to the National Trust by Christie’s family, and after a £5.4 million restoration, it was opened to the public in 2009. Stuffed as it is with weird and wacky and wonderful things, the Georgian house is warm and welcoming and very much alive, as if Dame Agatha herself might still be in residence.

A pile of gardening hats belong to her son-in-law rests on a table in the entrance hall, along with a (really) vintage mobile phone that looks as if it weighs 10 pounds. Her personal collections: papier mache, pottery, ceramics, pictures, books and more, fill the rooms, which are light and airy, creating a 1930s setting with a modern (1950s) overlay of amenities. In each room are scrapbooks filled with Christie’s writings, records of parties and entertainments, dinner menus, as well as the sweet trivia that filled the days at Greenway, which she described as “the loveliest place in the world.”

Dame Agatha’s presence is felt throughout the home, especially when a recording of her voice is played, in which she talks about her career in a matter-of-fact way, saying she made notes on plots as they occurred to her-but then had to find time to do the writing.

Near the end of my tour, I had lunch in Christie’s own kitchen, dining on chicken that was cooked in a vintage Aga, followed by a luscious bread pudding. (Lunch is priced at a modest £15 for two courses.)

Before leaving Greenway, I checked out the section of the house that had been turned into a five-bedroom rental apartment that sleeps 10 (rent is about £2700 a week in high season, much less in winter). The furniture here is from the Christie collection and the kitchen is pure 1950s, making this a dream spot for fans who are also lovers of all things retro.

The most elegant event of the week was the September 15 birthday party held at the Grand Hotel, where Christie honeymooned with first husband Archie. Actress Jane Asher, known also as a celebrity baker, created the recipe for the “Delicious Death” cake from ingredients mentioned in “Appointment with Death.”

The guest of honor at the gala was Julia McKenzie, the newest Miss Marple. McKenzie greeted guests, posed for pictures and spoke of her trepidation at being given an iconic role, particularly after the late Joan Hickson established herself as the one-and-only Miss Marple. “But,” she says, “I like to play the story line, rather than over-thinking it,” depicting Miss Marple as “a person you’d like as a friend, someone you’d trust.”

And then, with a twinkle in her eye and a hint of mischief in her smile, she asks: “But would you invite her anywhere? There’s always a murder wherever she happens to be.”

The party ended with a bang, but there were no murders, just an eye-popping display of fireworks on the beach below the hotel.

Torquay on the English Riviera throws birthday bash for Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime

In September of this year, Agatha Christie fans from all over the world will converge on Torquay to celebrate the 120th anniversary of her birth in a week-long festival of murder, mayhem and mischief.

With two billion books in 50 languages in print, Christie is the most-published novelist in the world; online games based on her mysteries have had 30 million downloads. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1971 and her summer house, Greenway, was gifted to Britain’s National Trust in 1999, and opened to the public last year.

(Agatha Christie Bust unveiled by her daughter on September 15th, 1990 to mark Christie’s 100th birthday.)On September 12, Christie’s grandson, Mathew Prichard, will launch the festival with a re-creation of an English country fête of the 1920s and ’30s, with period costumes and a jazz band. A Hercule Poirot lookalike will be on hand to solve any mysteries that might arise. The festival’s 40-odd events will include murder mysteries aboard a train and a vintage bus, treasure hunts, fireworks, productions of Christie’s plays and films, and even a charity swim along the same beach where Christie herself used to bathe. (Dame Agatha was certainly no sissy — the water temperature hovers around 55° F in midsummer.)

Like millions of Christie’s fans, I’ve “traveled” with Agatha — in a beach chair, on trains, on planes, whiling away the hours with the 80 ingenious whodunits that featured her engaging detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. So I’ll be joining the crowds at Torquay to enjoy the celebration and to sample the attractions of the English Riviera.

Dame Agatha herself was an intrepid traveler and explorer. She visited Egypt and the Middle East and met her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, while visiting an excavation. In her imagination, she saw crime everywhere she went. Result: Murder in Mesopotamia, They Came to Baghdad, and Death on the Nile.

Christie rode the famous Venice-Simplon Express to Istanbul, and, like all upper class Britons of the time, stopped at the Pera Palace. She may even have written Murder on the Orient Express here. Her room, 411, is now called the Agatha Christie Room, and the hotel’s new international restaurant will be called the Agatha Restaurant when the Pera Palace reopens on September 1 after an extended renovation. The Pera Palace will also observe its famous guest’s birthday with a party on September 15.

Back in England’s capital, Brown’s Hotel will be offering a special Agatha Christie Afternoon Tea, September 12-19. Brown’s was the inspiration for the too-perfectly-English-to-be-true hotel in At Bertram’s Hotel. While in London, fans can take in The Mousetrap at St. Martin’s Theatre in the West End, where it continues its incredible world-record run of 58 years and counting.

But it was the people and places of her own hometown of Torquay, in the idyllic rural county of Devon, that really fired Christie’s murderous imagination, resulting in no fewer than 15 mysteries, some set in her gracious Georgian home, Greenway.

(Greenway, Christie’s Georgian-style home, and the setting for Dead Man’s Folly)

In Christie’s time, Torquay was a fashionable seaside resort, with stately hotels, sandy beaches and a glorious harbor; the 1948 Olympic sailing events took place here. Britain’s upper classes came for the sea air and a bit of golf or cricket.

Today, the palm-lined promenade and seafront gardens give a nod to the French Riviera; the international marina is a recreational hub of sailing, water-skiing, and diving. Occasionally there’s even a pirate sighting — as when Johnny Depp sailed into Torquay on the Black Pearl (aka HMS Bounty).

(Torquay Harbour and the new harbour bridge)

Stroll along the sea front and you can’t miss the Grand Hotel, an aptly named Victorian-era pile with an Art Deco flourish. Agatha and first husband Archie Christie spent their honeymoon at the Grand in December 1914. During the festival month, the hotel has a special package that starts at £159 (about $246) per room (three-night minimum) and includes a full West Country Breakfast daily, nightly dinner in the AA Rosette Gainsborough Restaurant, one complimentary Devon Cream Tea, and tickets to several Christie attractions.

The Grand Hotel is also the start of the Agatha Christie Mile, which takes in many of the landmarks pertaining to the author’s past and which can be walked with the aid of a leaflet, available from the local Tourist Information Centre.

(Grand Hotel, where Christie and her first husband, Archie, spent their honeymoon.)

In her youth, Agatha roller skated on Princess Pier, attended concerts at the Torquay Pavilion and went to balls at the Imperial Hotel, featured in three of her novels — Peril at End House, The Body in the Library, and Sleeping Murder. Built on the top of a cliff, the hotel commands a sweeping view of the coastline from its well-known Regatta restaurant as well as 77 of its 152 rooms.

High on my sightseeing list are the Torquay Museum, which has an entire gallery dedicated to Christie and the Agatha Christie Potent Plants Garden, which opened last year. Call it a “green” attraction, but fans will instantly recognize the garden as a cornucopia of grow-your-own murder weapon choices: dwarf peaches and nectarines, whose fruit stones produce cyanide, used in Sparkling Cyanide; deadly nightshade, the murder weapon in The Caribbean Mystery; and aconite, which dispatched several characters in 4.50 from Paddington.

If time permits, I’ll visit the prehistoric caves at Kents Cavern. Though Christie never chose the caves as a setting for murder, they are perhaps Torquay’s most mysterious places, pre-dating proper British society by about half a million years and said by some visitors to be haunted by ghosts of Stone Age man.

You can travel to Torquay by train from London’s Paddington Station; it’s an easy three-and-a-half hour ride. A number of hotels and guest houses are offering special festival packages.

Stay tuned for more from Agatha Christie Country.