Agatha Christie’s Torquay

by DJ Coode

Throughout her long life, one place in particular remained close to Agatha Christie’s heart. Tucked away in the southwest corner of England is Torquay, a picturesque seaside resort. Not only was it where she spent a happy, memorable childhood, but also where she learnt about poisons and found inspiration for settings in her stories. Even the idea for her famous detective Hercule Poirot came from her hometown. I knew that to capture the essence of this most famous crime writer, I had to travel west.

Bathing and beaches

With plenty of places to visit, I chose to focus on those that were important to her, that she had fond memories of and that meant something extra special to her. So my first morning I headed for the sea. “Bathing was one of the joys of my life,” she writes in her autobiography, “and has remained so almost until my present age.” As a fellow devotee I completely understood her love of bathing in the sea: I even planned to venture in myself. The beach most prominently featured is Beacon Cove, known in those days of segregated bathing as Ladies Bathing-Cove. Using the Yacht Club as a landmark, I found the cove sandwiched between the Imperial Hotel – which became the Majestic in Peril at End House – and the penguin attraction. Perhaps because it was tucked away, there was no one else around, so I sat on the pebbles under the summer sun and allowed my imagination to wander.

The bathing machines had of course long gone. Mrs. Christie describes them as gaily-painted striped boxes in where bathers undressed from their regular clothing into bathing suits. The problem though was, without warning, the elderly man in charge would decide it was your turn to go into the water. She recalls the frantic rocking as the bathing machine used to grind its way slowly over the loose stone, a movement she likened to a Jeep traversing the more rocky parts of the desert. I picked up one of smooth grey stones next to me and held it in my palm. Could the same stone have been on the beach more than a hundred years earlier? I wanted to believe it had.

The easy option at that point would have been to merely sit and enjoy the warmth but I was determined to swim. Gingerly wobbling over the pebbles I waded in and took the plunge. There was an initial cold shock which quickly became refreshing and invigorating all in one. Agatha recalls shivering all over, with hands and cheeks died away to numbness, though she soon warmed up and I knew I would too. Back then she loved swimming out to a raft, especially since she used to pretend not to hear her family call from ashore. The raft was also where she nearly drowned. That day she was carrying her young nephew on her back, but the sea was rather choppy and there was a swell. She struggled to reach safety and vividly remembers not being able to get any air into her lungs. Twice in the past I had been knocked down by powerful waves and fought to catch my breath, a sobering experience that is hard to forget.

Around the harbour

Along the harbour side was where the annual Regatta fair took place and which the author calls “her looked-forward-to-joy in life” and lists with great clarity many of the rides and shows. I walked past the clock tower where the first trams ran until the magnificent Pavilion with its gleaming white tiled facade and elegant canopies came into view. I guessed it had changed little since it was built. The interior with the vaulted ceiling and sweeping staircase were much the same as when Miss Agatha Miller, and a young man by the name of Archie Christie, attended a Wagner recital not long before the first World War.

The Princess Gardens was yet another of Agatha’s favourite places. The views over the bay that day were stunning as the waters sparkled and the sailing dinghies glided to and fro. I could see why she loved walking there and in fact used it as a setting in the ABC Murders. Christie and her friends used to roller skate on the pier when it was much in vogue. She remembers the surface being extremely rough and falling down a great deal but it was great fun. Above the cry of the gulls, I could almost hear the laughter and the giggles and the noise.

The imposing Grand Hotel sat beyond the long sweep of Tor Abbey Sands. This is where the newly married Mr. and Mrs. Christie spent their one night honeymoon before he went off to war. The railway station nearby was where they arrived late on Christmas Eve after their hastily arranged marriage. All her life she loved trains and I imagined the newly wedded couple emerging from the crowded train on a cold, dark night, the huge steam engine hissing loudly behind.

To help with the building of All Saints Church in Torre, Mr. Miller had donated a large sum of money about the time Christie was born. Not only did Agatha become a founder but she enjoyed church services on Sunday very much. I had half hoped the door might be open, but alas, it was not.  I had to be content to note the times of services.

Her beloved home

I neared my goal. In Victorian times Torre was known as Tor Mohun — “tor” meaning a small hill. In this less fashionable part of town, Agatha Miller was born at Ashfield the family house. Her American father had a private income which ensured life generally was comfortable whilst she was growing up, yet it was Ashfield itself that remained her great love. Despite owning other houses and travelling widely, she writes wistfully in her autobiography “it has been my home, off and on, nearly all my life.”

At this point it would have been wonderful to tell how I visited her birthplace, how I touched her early life but I knew it could never be. Ashfield was demolished long ago. With palpable sadness, Christie describes how, in the 1960s she was told it was to be demolished. She offered to buy the house and transform it into an old people’s home but it was too late and, more than 18 months passed before she felt able to visit Torquay and drive up Barton Road. Looking all around, she discovered to her horror that “there was nothing that could even stir a memory, no scrap of garden anywhere, no blade of grass, all was asphalt..”

Knowing she had not been able to determine where Ashfield had once stood, there was no chance for me. I simply stared at the same jumble of mean and shoddy little houses, and felt just a touch of her anger and distress as she searched desperately that day for some reminder of her beloved home.

Ashfield might have gone forever but all was not lost. I learnt that many of the Victorian villas had survived – albeit with bits missing and ugly extensions – especially in the leafy suburbs of the Lincombes and Warberries.  I headed there next.  Amidst the wooded hills and winding roads, I realised it was possible to capture the peace and gentility that had existed a hundred years ago and to glimpse into Ashfield’s past. Set behind thick stone walls and wrought iron gates were substantial villas, grand and stately with gardens to match. And it was the grounds and in particular the trees that were as important as the houses in Agatha’s young world. She climbed them, she sat in their branches and played amongst their mystery, terror and secret delight.

Wandering the roads, I watched squirrels scamper up pines, searched for tall Wellingtonias. I listened to the birds in the beeches and even found a monkey puzzle tree. But would any of today’s children enjoy their hidden pleasures as the future Mrs. Christie had done?

Poirot and poisons

I knew it had to be a Thursday morning for my final destination: the Town Hall. In 1913 many young women in Torquay started attending First Aid and Home Nursing classes – Miss Miller included – and she recalls how enthusiastic they all were. Once the number of war casualties began rising, it was decided to convert the Town Hall into a hospital and she recounts in fascinating detail what life was like. The reason for Thursday was the market, held there most weeks and therefore the best chance I had to see inside. Instead of two rows of twelve beds, the clank of bed pans and the smell of disinfectant, I was greeted by tables laden with second hand books and china and clothes. Yet when I closed my eyes, the buzz of activity could have been a busy nursing ward. Hundreds of wounded servicemen must have stared at the same arched ceiling from their hospital beds.

Agatha thoroughly enjoyed nursing and described it as one of the most rewarding professions that one can follow. She was therefore rather frustrated to find, when returning to work after a spell of illness, she was to transfer to the new dispensary, a job she did not particularly like. However, she began studying for her pharmaceutical exams. While working in the dispensary, she conceived the idea of writing a detective story. Being surrounded by poisons led her to decide it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method chosen.

And the rest as they say is history. Except that we must not forget Hercule Poirot and how he came to be. After the war groups of refugees came to Torquay, including many from Belgium. She often observed them whilst riding on the trams and thought “… why not make my detective a Belgian?”

So my quest into Mrs. Christie’s early roots came to an end. And what a pleasure it had been, a delight as the great lady would have said. I was so happy to discover how much of her past was still on show. I certainly liked the person I had found and even felt we had much in common. Why, we could have gone swimming together and she might have offered me some advice on writing a book.

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