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The beauty of Devon

PUBLISHED: 17:07 30 April 2009 | UPDATED: 16:09 07 September 2010

There is no mystery about why Agatha Christie bought a summer house on the River Dart – it is one of the most beautiful places in the world, writes Barry Reynolds I owe a lot to Agatha Christie. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was the first adult fiction

There is no mystery about why Agatha Christie bought a summer house on the River Dart - it is one of the most beautiful places in the world, writes Barry Reynolds

I owe a lot to Agatha Christie. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was the first adult fiction I picked up from the library shelves to read for pure enjoyment. While I had read plenty of non-fiction, it was only when I was forced to read Australian fiction for school after arriving in that country in the 1960s that I longed for something that would remind me of England.

An Agatha Christie mystery was ideal and it was close to the beginning of my search, after finding nothing in the school library under A or B. It would be years until I got to Gladys Mitchell or Josephine Tey, and the school did not stock Raymond Chandler, which would have taken me on a completely different tack.

The people described in her books may have been totally alien to a working class boy from the Midlands, but there was something comforting in the nostalgia for a landscape that may never have really existed. It was then a small leap to more "serious" fiction and characters I could identify with. But I will always be grateful to Agatha Christie for sparking my interest - total immersion - in reading fiction with a special interest in murder mysteries.

But if on closer reading, I believed that the world described by Christie, and brought to life in numerous films and TV series, did not really exist, driving and walking through Devon explains why the author came to think of England as a series of quaint villages, large art deco hotels, and tea and cakes on demand.

There is a St Mary Mead around every corner.

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller, born on September 15 1890 in Torquay, never strayed too far from home. She married her first husband, Archie Christie, in 1912, spending her honeymoon at the Grand Hotel in Torquay.

And when it came to buying a summer house with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, she moved only a few miles away, to Greenway on the estuary of the River Dart.

She and her family moved to the house, perched on the cliff a short ferry journey from Dartmouth, in 1939. They lived there until 2000 when it was left to the National Trust. It has taken until spring this year to bring the house back to a state where it can open its doors to visitors.

The gardens have been open for some years, and while visitors wait for their timed entry (the rooms are reasonably small), a walk around the paths reveals an idyllic setting, not just for a country house murder weekend, but for its views of the Dart estuary and the surrounding countryside.

Arriving by ferry from Dartmouth will garner the visitor points for arriving the "green way" as well as slowing them down to a pace that suits the venue.

The weekend we toured the area being sunny, early spring, we took the short drive from Dartmouth, via the car ferry, to Churston Court Inn, which sits on the cliffs above Brixham. Again, it shows that Christie did not move far from home, even for her plots.

The 12 century manor is the setting for Murder on the Links, and while sitting at the bar, at least two people walked in, who were so well known that their drinks were waiting for them by the time they had moved across the dark-panelled room.

I wouldn't have been surprised if the landlord had addressed one on them as "Major".

From there we drove through Paignton, once the venue for many a summer holiday, but now another down at heel seaside town, running second best to the sunnier climes of southern Europe.

Then on to Torquay, where the ambience of the Grand Hotel is definitely 1950s, which suited me, a feeling reinforced when we came to down to go out for dinner. The lobby was filled with men in formal evening dress and the ladies in long ball gowns, milling around like there was no millennium.

Our room on the third floor gave brilliant views of Torbay, looking toward the town, which has reinvented itself as a conference centre. The downside is that it also attracts stag parties, easily avoided if you walk past any pub offering happy hours or cheap drinks.

The room still had what looked like its original sash windows, while the beds were made up with good, old fashioned blankets - none of those foreign duvets for the good folk of Torquay.

There was also a smell of lavender that had me looking around for Miss Marple.

This was a room originally designed for people who expected to spend more than one night - the main (bed) room was large, with a table and easy chairs in the window alcove.

The tea - that came with a proper pot - was Twinings. Obviously.

I felt slight odd not wearing tweeds as we made our way to the centre of town along the shore, but it soon faded when I was in the Hole in the Wall pub - the oldest in Torquay - with a pint of Otter Ale in my hand.

A pint of Bays bitter later, we were in the Man Friday's for dinner. After being turned away at No. 7 (a local recommendation), we found this place in an alley off Beacon Terrace. Brilliant, and a touch of the 21st century to round off the weekend.

o Stay in a double rooms at the four star Grand Hotel on Torquay's seafront from £140 per night in mid season (April to May and October to December), and from £180 per night in high season (June to September), includes breakfast. For reservations call 0844 502 7587 or visit www.grandtorquay.co.uk.

o Greenway is open daily Wednesdays to Sundays from 10.30am-5pm. Entrance to Greenway costs £8.20 for adults, £4.20 for children and £20.50 for a family of four. From more information and opening times www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

o For more information on holidays in Devon go to www.visitdevon.co.uk.


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