Features

Agatha Christie's Grand Adventure, 1922

Outset Image Illustrated Bodil Jabne
Celebrating Agatha Christie's Grand Tour 1922 © Bodil Jane (Folio Art)

Fascinating Facts About Agatha Christie’s Travels, 1922
Part 1: Africa

To celebrate Agatha Christie’s life of adventure, we delve into Christie’s life-changing 1922 trip around the world.

Far from her first adventure abroad, Agatha travelled a lot during her childhood and teenage years. As a young girl, Agatha spent summers in France whilst their Torquay home was rented out. She journeyed to Paris at the age of 15 to finish her formal education, and also had her, then traditional, coming-out season in Cairo, Egypt. Her early trips prompted a love of travel which would make the 1922 trip she took with her first husband Archie even more exciting.

Mathew Prichard, Christie’s grandson reflects on “Nima’s passionate desire to see the world” in his introduction to The Grand Tour, a book which explores this 10-month trip in charming detail. The couple joined Archie’s boss, and a wider working party, as part of a trade mission to promote the forthcoming British Empire Exhibition in London. Setting off on 20th January 1922, Agatha returned to England in December 1922.

We’re lucky enough to know plenty about the author’s trip, owing to countless letters she wrote home to her mother, sister, brother and daughter, Rosalind, as well as photographs she captured on the voyage. Her own words display an independent spirit, and gaiety which we don’t always get to appreciate fully from her fiction. They also showcase her humour, her powers of observation, and her insight into the time she was writing about, which readers of Christie will be very familiar with.

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Agatha on the Kildonan Castle, © The Christie Archive Trust

Setting Off to Madeira

It was a rocky start to the trip in late January, with Agatha suffering from a dreadful bout of seasickness. We wonder how Hercule Poirot would have fared. She writes, with good humour and incredulity, as a fellow passenger seems to fear for her life on board the boat:

I continued to groan and feel like death, and indeed look like death; for a woman in a cabin not far from mine, having caught a few glimpses of me through the open door, asked the stewardess with great interest: ‘Is the lady in the cabin opposite dead yet?’
Agatha Christie, "Setting Off", The Grand Tour

Her sickness meant she was unable to get off the boat at Madeira, but did enjoy viewing it from the deck with Archie. As their journey progressed, she was able to indulge in the events on board though, including Quoits, Bridge, the daily Sweep, and even a fancy dress dance. Her social and observational skills clearly kept her busy too:

Very hot now and lots of porpoises leaping, and I’ve just seen a flying fish! We passed the Grand Peak of Tenerife on Wednesday, and saw the Cape Verde lights last night.
Undated letter to her mother, January 1922
There is a Mr Edge on board, a rich elderly bachelor, who takes thousands of photos all day long. He has made nine voyages to the Cape and back, never lands – just likes the trip.
Letter to her mother, 4th February 1922
Outset Image Illustrated Letters
Letters to her Mother in particular allow us insight into Christie's Grand Tour © Bodil Jane (Folio Art)

Visiting Africa

My memories of Cape Town are more vivid than of other places; I suppose because it was the first real port we came to, and it was all so new and strange.
Agatha Christie, “Setting Off”, The Grand Tour

Agatha Christie would relish her trip to Africa, visiting fascinating places which now form parts of South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. From Table Mountain to a diamond mine, fruit farms to museum tours, and even the opening of Parliament, Agatha would witness plenty of unique experiences here. She loved bathing, and learning to surf, seeing the landscapes via train and cars, and collecting carved wooden animals as souvenirs of the wildlife she observed.

We know plenty of these details owing to the letters she wrote home, frequently signed off with “Your loving Agatha”. She took plenty of photographs too, of Archie, her fellow travellers, and the unmissable scenery (some of which are featured in The Grand Tour).

She provides hilarious insight into the temperamental Major Belcher, who would become a character in The Man in the Brown Suit. Indeed her sense of humour, and playfulness comes through very strongly in her account of this trip. Mr Bates, Belcher’s secretary, was a respectable man who took his role very seriously, but Agatha and her fellow travellers would use that to their advantage when playing a practical joke on the man:

We sent him a [postcard] yesterday with a picture of a Puff Adder on it, and an earnest warning purporting to come from the ‘Society of the Protection of Visitors’ and Bates has been busily looking them up in the Telephone Directory, and cannot understand why no one seems to know where their offices are!
Letter to her mother, 15th February 1922

She felt fortunate to be able to spend plenty of time with Archie, attending garden parties and visiting Kenilworth races, but also enjoyed setting out to discover parts of Africa with other members of the party when her husband’s work took him to Durban.

The group’s visit to Johannesburg was curtailed by a strike, which became an uprising, but they were lucky enough to visit the Matobo Hills, Sir Cecil Rhode’s grave, the Zambezi river, Mazoe Valley Citrus Estate and Victoria Falls as part of this leg of their tour. The author had also received positive news of the reception of her 2nd novel, The Secret Adversary, by this time. Her high spirits are evident in her letters home. Although her camera was stolen on board a train, she quickly replaced it, to ensure she could continue snapping her surroundings for longevity.

Their plans to travel to India were curtailed, instead they would sail directly to Australia, leaving on the Aeneas on Saturday 8th April 1922.

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Agatha about to board a boat on the Zambezi river, © The Christie Archive Trust

Part 2: Australia and New Zealand

Trees are always the first things I seem to notice about places, or else the shape of hills.
Agatha Christie, “Australia”, The Grand Tour

Despite initial seasickness for ten days on the three-week journey to Australia, Agatha eventually recovered enough to join in the festivities on board the boat. In a charming letter to her mother she recounts the fun she had:

There were several young people on board and we played silly games every evening or else danced, and the last three nights we had supper parties with the Captain or one of the other officers and got to bed about 3 a.m. I loved it
Letter to her mother, 1st May 1922

Her enthusiasm is clear, as she explains the people she sat next to and socialised with, and she notes that in the end she was "very sorry to leave the Aeneas". In Christie’s Autobiography, she references her shyness and timidity on multiple occasions, but the character of ‘Agatha the Adventurer’ emerges throughout The Grand Tour, giving us a different understanding of the great woman's personality in her early thirties.

The boat docked in Adelaide on Saturday 29th April, and Archie and Agatha then took a train to Melbourne, which they reached on Sunday 30th for the Labour Day celebrations. They took plenty of trips out from Melbourne in the proceeding weeks.

Tasmania

One of the most striking things from these letters in early May is the seeming hilarity (and sometimes fury) caused by Belcher’s temper tantrums. He was often nicknamed the Wild Man in her correspondence. Indeed as they journey to Launceston and on to Hobart by train, Christie muses on various incidents which seem to ruffle his feathers. Reflecting on the kindness of their hosts, the author says: “they are extraordinarily nice and kind, and awfully hospitable, but ‘swank’ does not go down well.” This part of the journey certainly gives us a clue as to how Belcher became, with Christie’s vivid imagination, Sir Eustace Pedler of The Man in the Brown Suit.

The group would visit a hydro-electric power station at Waddamana, the Tasmanian Museum and the Races, as well as walking up the Cataract Gorge. Their travel itinerary was certainly jam-packed.

Australia

Upon returning from Tasmania, they would continue to explore the rest of mainland Australia. Their schedule included visits to a chocolate factory, a wool factory and a canned fruit factory. Agatha once again made her own plans, when Archie was carrying out work with the expedition, including an interview with the Melbourne Herald, and a consequent social gathering with the journalist Freda Sternberg, who Christie thought “a most amusing woman.”

In addition they would explore engineering works, visit the theatre, and travel via the Noojee ‘bush tram’ to see the timber forests. Agatha’s works show an interest in transport, and The Grand Tour details one of her most adventurous outings on board the tram engine.

I rode part of the way on the engine! (as you can see in snap shot) It was lovely all through the bush, very dense undergrowth, and the great tall tree trunks. The engine flung out showers of sparks, but a kindly stoker was on duty to extinguish me if I was smouldering in more than two places at once!
Letter to her mother, Saturday May 20th 1922

Aside from their companions, what really stands out from Christie’s trip account is her appreciation of nature, the landscape, and the animals of Australasia.

The other thing that was exciting was the macaws: blue and red and green, flying through the air in great clustering swarms. Their colouring was wonderful: like flying jewels.
Agatha Christie, “Australia”, The Grand Tour
Breakfast at 7.45 and a start for Yanga Station. We saw four kangaroos, an ‘old man’ red kangaroo, and three small blue fliers. Also, later two meditative emus... There is a magnificent lake there, covered with black swans and wild game and birds of all kinds.
Letter to her mother, Saturday May 27th 1922
Outset Image Black Swans
Imagining the lake at Yanga © Bodil Jane (Folio Art)

After stopping in Yanga to consume copious amounts of oranges, "as far as I remember I ate twenty-three", the group moved onto Sydney, Queensland and finally Brisbane. They visited fruit farms as well as the Blue Mountains, and attended a vice-Regal garden party at Government House. Christie would also spend an enjoyable week with the Bell family, at their cattle station in Coochin Coochin, before re-joining Archie and the group to travel on to New Zealand.

It was a long deadly journey of about six hours in a train that crawled. We arrived about ten o’clock after motoring five miles, and the room seemed full of tall energetic girls cooking scrambled eggs over the fire and all talking at once... I was to stay two days, but I stayed a week – from Tuesday to Tuesday. Belcher came on the Sunday and left Tuesday morning. It was a pity Archie couldn’t have been there. He would have enjoyed it.
Letter to her mother, undated

New Zealand

I still think New Zealand the most beautiful country I have ever seen. Its scenery is extraordinary
Agatha Christie, “New Zealand”, The Grand Tour

The tour left Australia on Thursday 29th June, and arrived in New Zealand on Monday 4th July, a comparatively short boat journey which Christie was grateful for. There was still time to make memories in transit though, as they came across a comic character with an unrivalled nickname:

[W]e fell into the clutches of a man known to us all as ‘The Dehydrator’... This man never looked at anything in the food line without thinking how he could dehydrate it, and at every single meal platefuls were sent over from his table to ours, begging us to sample them. We were given dehydrated carrots, plums, everything – all, without exception, tasted of nothing.
Agatha Christie, “New Zealand”, The Grand Tour

Upon arriving in New Zealand the group explored plenty of the islands' offerings. Christie embraced the chance to explore such different landscapes from those at home in Torquay. In Wellington Agatha was taken to the botanical gardens, and for games of golf and Bridge. They visited a wool factory where the author was presented with a rug, much to the Wild Man's annoyance.

The winter weather in the country didn't dampen Agatha's enthusiasm or appreciation for the trip. Indeed they set off for Buller Gorge, Greymouth, and along the coast to Punkaiki, lunching and picking up passengers along the way. She shared many of these details in letters home. In particular, Christie seemed to revel in an 11 mile journey they made on foot to Otira Gorge (despite their guide's warning they might freeze to death).

It was a most glorious walk, mountains each side, three miles up to the top then along over the saddle, and then winding down through dark pine and fir trees with wonderful icicles hanging from them.
Letter to her mother, Saturday July 15th 1922

The remaining days would be spent taking tea with various associations. Whilst Archie was in Invercargill Agatha made a solo trip to Rotorua, before meeting back up with her husband in Auckland for the onward travel.

On Tuesday 25th July 1922 Agatha and Archie would begin a break from the Mission, travelling to Hawaii.

Part 3: Honolulu, Canada and More

Outset Image Illustrated Surfing
The couple's love of surfing was tested in Hawaii © Bodil Jane (Folio Art)

Honolulu

Archie and Agatha’s trip to Hawaii marked their first real holiday, weeks spent without work commitments, and as such it was eagerly anticipated by them both.

The freedom to do whatever they liked resulted, perhaps, unsurprisingly given their activities in South Africa, in a lot of surfing. The sport in Honolulu proved to be a steep learning curve indeed, but one which ultimately they enjoyed.

Despite exposing themselves to vicious sunburn and consequent blistering, they boldly ventured out each day on the waves (with plenty of help from local boys, who would capture their board back for them as they soared off into the sea).

Nothing like it. Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seems to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour; all the way in from the far distant raft , until you arrived, gently slowing down, on the beach, and foundered among the soft flowing waves. It is one of the most perfect physical pleasures that I have known.
Agatha Christie, “Honolulu”, The Grand Tour

They made friends, enjoyed the lack of commitments, and delighted in the plants and produce that was available. Agatha wrote home with particular enthusiasm for the bananas: "The things that are gorgeous, both here and in Queensland are bananas! I never knew what a banana could be. The ‘apple bananas’ are the best, fat and white with an indescribable flavour. I’m spoilt for ever for bought bananas!"

In total, the couple would spend over six weeks away from the mission, rejoining them on board the Niagara on Saturday 9th September to Canada. There are less letters from Agatha at this time, one of her sign-offs, perhaps, explains why:

Really no news, lots of love to you all.
Letter to her mother, Tuesday August 29th 1922
AC Relaxing Copyright The Christie Archive Trust
Agatha Christie relaxing on the beach © The Christie Archive Trust

Canada

N.B. Christie's own timeline of these events vary slightly from the official chronology, so the dates from this month shouldn't be taken as definitive.

After a lengthy (and expensive) stay in Hawaii, they returned to the mission, apprehensive about the remaining costs still to cover in North America. Christie would celebrate her 32nd birthday on board the boat to Victoria, British Colombia, before they arrived at the Empress Hotel in Victoria on 16th September 1922.

It was delicious coming into Victoria yesterday afternoon, blue sea and sunshine, crisp but not cold, and a wonderful scent of pinewoods!
Letter to her mother, Sunday September 27th 1922

The letter quoted from above contained various plans for her return, encompassing a break from the mission party to see Aunt Cassie in New York, and demonstrated clearly that Agatha was starting to long for home: "Both you and Madgie write lovely letters to me. I read them over and over again." and of her daughter "I'm dying to see her, so is Archie!"

Illness strikes

The couple had been so determined to enjoy their break, that Agatha had disregarded pain she was suffering in Hawaii, which resulted in a staggering case of neuritis. Thankfully, their Canadian schedule included a visit to a spa hotel in Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, whose sulphur baths would eventually relieve the author of her shoulder, neck and arm pain. From Banff, Agatha would write to Rosalind, adopting her humorous style of reporting: "You will have a lot to tell Mummy, all about the garden and the pigeons and the flowers... Mummy-Daddy will come in a Big Ship, Daddy will enjoy it and poor Mummy will be ill."

Next up the mission travelled to Calgary, and on to Saskatchewan, staying briefly in Edmonton, Regina, and Winnipeg. It was there, on a tour of some grain elevators, that Archie succumbed to illness, and Agatha needed to administer care in a hotel in Toronto as soon as they arrived.

Archie's sinus issues resulted in severe bronchitis, and a grim bout of nettle rash. Whilst Belcher would continue with their duties, furious at Archie's incapacity, Agatha felt scared and isolated as she served her husband an "invalid diet: a barley water and thin gruel", and sponged him seven or eight times a day with a bicarbonate solution. Archie recovered by mid-October, and they rejoined the mission travelling to Ottawa, and Montreal.

By now, their funds had dwindled, and Agatha Christie chose to leave the mission on Thursday October 19th, and travelled back to Toronto. There she would meet friends, be taken to a football match and to church, and take tea with a variety of people. Whilst the concerns about money, Archie's health, and homesickness are pervasive throughout her trip to Canada, The Grand Tour has plenty of charming insights into the trip, and plenty of humour too. In particular, Agatha's desire to eat on a low budget provides one of the funniest passages in the book:

I could afford to stay in the hotels, but it was the meals that were so expensive. However, I hit on quite a good plan: I would make breakfast my meal. Breakfast was a dollar – at that time about four shillings in English money. So I would have breakfast down in the restaurant, and I would have everything that was on the menu. That, I may say, was a good deal. I had grapefruit, and sometimes pawpaw as well. I had buckwheat cakes, waffles with maple syrup, eggs and bacon. I came out from breakfast feeling like an overstuffed boa constrictor.
Agatha Christie, “Canada”, The Grand Tour

New York

I was met by darling Aunt Cassie at New York. She was so good to me, sweet and affectionate.
Agatha Christie, “The Journey Home”, The Grand Tour

Agatha had a happy time in New York, and enjoyed spending time with Aunt Cassie, who had plenty of memories of her father to share, and organised numerous nice restaurants for them to visit together. On her last day in the city, Agatha requested to go to a cafeteria as they didn't have them in England (which clearly amused her Aunt).

When the time came for the mission to return to New York for the voyage home Christie was ready to go home. Heading out on her own in London was the norm, and she confessed to feeling like a "bird in a golden cage", by her relation. It was clear though that this trip of a lifetime had been one of a kind though, and that's part of what makes the account of this book so pleasurable to read.

Edited by Agatha Christie's grandson, Mathew Prichard, the epilogue closes with a thank you to Agatha for "painstaking letters and admirable photography, for those of us who are able to read about it now." If you are looking for a spot of armchair travel, then Agatha Christie's own words are a truly brilliant place to start.

This is no travel book – only a dwelling back on those memories that stand out in my mind; times that have mattered to me, places and incidents that have enchanted me.
Agatha Christie

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