Christie's Devon

Agatha Christie was born in the seaside town of Torquay, on the coast of Devon, in 1890. The beautiful seascapes, rolling farmland and rugged moorland of the county were to provide the ideal settings for many of her mystery stories, and the area remained close to her heart for the rest of her life.

Childhood locations

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller grew up in the handsome Victorian villa of Ashfield, then situated on the outskirts of Torquay within walking distance of both the seafront and the countryside. Today, the site where the house once stood on Barton Road is marked with a blue plaque.

Her parents were intending to settle permanently in America where her father Frederick was from, but her mother Clara – while her husband was in New York on business - had fallen in love with, and purchased, Ashfield. They quickly settled into the fashionable resort of Torquay, hosting large dinner parties and attending social gatherings, and Frederick Miller became a member of the Royal Torbay Yacht Club on Beacon Hill by the harbour. He was also a member of the Torquay Cricket Club and the Torquay Natural History Society at Torquay Museum. The museum now houses the only gallery in the UK dedicated to Agatha Christie.

Young Agatha was born on 15th September 1890 and christened at All Saints Church, which itself was completed just before her birth. Frederick paid a sum of money to the church so that Agatha could be a founder. Apparently her parents arrived upon her first name when they passed a friend named Agatha on the way to her christening!

She passed a very happy childhood, and her autobiography is full of charming anecdotes from her time growing up at Ashfield. As the age gap between her elder brother and sister was ten years, she found ways to occupy her vivid imagination including creating imaginary friends. Her father sadly passed away in 1901 when she was just 11, but persuaded by her children Clara managed to retain Ashfield and Agatha regularly lived there until she was forced to sell it in the late 1930s.

Youth in Torquay and meeting Archie

During her teenage years and early twenties Agatha socialised with many friends from both the local area and the landed families of Devon. The Millers were good friends with the Mallock family at Cockington Court and Agatha would perform amateur plays with them on the lawn in front of the manor house. Cockington is just a stone’s throw away from Torquay seafront and is a picture-postcard village of thatched cottages, tea rooms, artisan workshops and water gardens.

Agatha enjoyed sea bathing, and regularly swam at Beacon Cove, Meadfoot Beach and Elberry Cove. She recalls in her autobiography an afternoon at Beacon Cove when she was swimming out to the raft with her nephew Jack on her shoulders. She found herself struggling in the swell and they both had to be rescued by the ‘crotchety’ old man who managed the changing huts.

Perhaps Agatha’s closest friends were the Lucy family. Together they roller-skated on Princess Pier and went on expeditions up to Dartmoor. Reggie Lucy, the eldest son, took an interest in Agatha when he returned from Hong Kong where he was stationed in the army, and they often played golf together. Reggie proposed on Torquay Golf Course but despite Agatha accepting, he didn’t want to rush her and told her that if she still felt the same way and hadn’t met anyone else in two years when he returned once again, they would marry. She reluctantly agreed, but had to let him down some time later when she met someone else.

In October 1912 Agatha attended a dance hosted by Lord and Lady Clifford at Ugbrooke House, an 18th century stately home 19 miles from Torquay. There, she met young sub-altern Archibald Christie who marked her dance card for most of the evening. Ugbrooke House is still privately owned by the Cliffords and open to the public in the summer months, and retains the visitors’ book from 1912 complete with Archie’s signature.

Three months later, after an evening together at a Wagner concert at the Torquay Pavilion (which, though currently closed to the public, can be viewed on Torquay seafront) Archie asked Agatha to marry him. The outbreak of the First World War meant he was shortly afterwards billeted overseas with the Royal Air Force, and the couple finally married while Archie was home on leave on Christmas Eve 1914. They honeymooned that night at Torquay’s Grand Hotel.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles and the introduction of Hercule Poirot

During the First World War Agatha worked firstly as a VAD nurse in Torquay’s field hospital before transferring to the dispensary set up in the Town Hall. Here she worked as an assistant to the pharmacist and found the inspiration to write her first detective novel. She chose the murder method – which, given her pharmaceutical learnings, had to be poison – and the villain, and then considered her detective. At the time there were numerous Belgian war refugees in Torquay, and they provided the inspiration for her sleuth. Finding it hard to concentrate, she took two weeks off work on the advice of her mother to finish the novel, repairing to the Moorland Hotel at Haytor on Dartmoor where she completed it in 1916. The book was named The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and introduced the world to Hercule Poirot.

Greenway and the River Dart

In 1938 Agatha purchased the Greenway Estate on the River Dart with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, to use as their holiday home. Christie called it ‘the loveliest place in the world’ and it’s easy to see why. Despite not actually writing any stories at Greenway Christie found much inspiration from the house and grounds, and it was here that she would read her latest stories to her family and friends for them to guess whodunnit. Three books are directly inspired by Greenway, with specific sites easy to identify from the descriptions.

Written by Lydia Stone, Brand Heritage Manager at Agatha Christie Ltd

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