My Authors’ Places

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Crime writer Mary Tant Mary Tant writes about the places that her favourite authors lived in and knew well.

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Greenway, Agatha Christie's country house

Agatha Christie as I never knew her from her writing. That's what I find whenever I visit Greenway, one of the places where she was chiefly Mrs Mallowan. I first went to visit it soon after the National Trust opened the place, Agatha's Devon home, and go back as often as I can. I can almost feel Agatha is there too, ringing the bell for the ferryman, travelling across the curving Dart in his little boat with the shining waters of the river reflecting the cottages of Dittisham.

I'd known little detail about Agatha's life before I came here, but the house and garden is full of atmosphere and creates her background vividly. Entering the house I am surrounded by portraits of her family, and row upon row of the things they collected. There are boxes – Tunbridge ware, Treen, snuffboxes and pillboxes. Framed enamelled miniatures mingle with other tiny objects, and include one of Napoleon Bonaparte – who chose that, I wonder? There are pictures of all kinds. And silver and china, jumbled in huge quantities into cupboards, as well as displayed on every possible surface.

There are many books, of course, other than her own first editions. But in the library my eyes are always drawn to the frieze painted by an artist among the American Coastguard forces who used the house during World War II. He painted all the significant events they had taken part in – look for the picture of Greenway, with the landing craft in the river below.

Agatha's presence is pervasive throughout the house, from the portrait of her as a sprawled little girl clutching her doll Rosie, to the sound of her voice, telling us how she wrote. The piano is heard softly in the drawing room, where she herself played it, when she wasn't writing at the desk or gazing out of the many windows down onto the river Dart below.

Upstairs is her precious Damascus chest, reminder of the excavations she worked on with her husband Max Mallowan. And her clothes still hang in the dressing room beside her bedroom. Colourful dresses, ones with exotic patterns, they are crammed into the cupboards, where they felt her hands sorting through them, choosing what to wear.

This house was Agatha's escape from writing, from work that she carried out in her other homes in Wallingford and London. And it has the feel of a place where she was happy and relaxed. A place where she could wander in the gardens above the river, enjoying the smell of the sea and the sight of the gulls flying upriver towards the village of Dittsham.

On many occasions I've explored the garden that mainly runs along looping paths above the river. And I walk here not just in Agatha's footsteps, but those of murderer and victim, fictional author and famous detective. In the garden she could hear the sound of the bell that still summons the Dittisham ferryman. That bell, and the garden, but most especially the boathouse above the Roman bath, were woven into her story Dead Man's Folly. I can imagine Agatha pacing here, perhaps taking tea on the upper floor of the boathouse, the plot growing in her mind as she scribbled down her ideas, looking across at the Scold Stone, watching the boats passing.

What I find most fascinating of course is the thought of her bathing in the subterranean tidal swimming pool. But here I can begin to imagine it, as here there grows a picture of a more light-hearted woman, one who wasn't just an author. After all, she must have been one of the first women surfers. And she faced lots of difficult and no doubt adventurous moments on Max's digs.

She was a person of many parts and here at Greenway Agatha has left a deep imprint of herself.


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