Tracking down scenes from the world of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
So it was my birthday and I’d been stroking my chin to come up with something I’d like to do. Jo, my partner and editor, had just bought herself a cream coloured convertible VW-Beetle, so the idea of a road-trip was at the forefront of suggestions. Jo knows I’m a complete nut for Poirot and for the Hound of the Baskervilles. Devon and Cornwall became the destination, and things Agatha and Conan Doyle became our target. This is by no means a comprehensive or serious in-depth study of these two fantastic writers, rather it is a travel blog covering a small part of the amazing atmosphere and stunning locations that saturates this wonderful and yet small part of the British Isles.
Drove to Totness to see the remains of a small Norman castle and stroll through its narrow medieval streets; then on to Dartmouth a few miles away.
Agatha Christie lived at Greenway and no doubt read out many of her new stories as she produced them. The location was first mentioned in 1493 as Greynway. Later, in the 16th century a Tudor mansion was built and called Greenway Court. The present house is Georgian and was probably built in the late 18th century. Agatha Christie purchased it in 1938 and she occupied it until her death in 1976.
Greenway and its surroundings are used in several of Christie’s novels.
Five Little Pigs (1942): The house and the path leading to the battery overlooking the river Dart, and the battery itself which is the location of the murder.
Towards Zero (1944): The location of the house and its estate in relation to the village on the opposite side of the river Dart.
Dead Man’s Folly (1956): The boat house is detailed as the location of the first victim being discovered; the nearby ferry landing is where the next, and intended murder victim, is dragged into the water to be drowned. Also the greenhouse and the tennis court where Mrs. Oliver placed set up a trail of clues and red herrings.
OMG, Dartmouth…what an incredible place! The atmosphere is fantastic. We parked up and jumped onto a river boat that took us for a tour up and down the Dart, passing a number of interesting locations and explaining much of the local history with ancient and royal connections. Also sailed past Agatha Christie’s place and that was actually very special. The essence of Poirot was here, in the trees, in the water… in every line of sight and angle of view.
Dartmouth was used as a launch point for the Crusades in the mid and late 12th Century. Warfleet Creek, near to Dartmouth Castle is supposedly named after the large fleets which assembled there.
Geoffrey Chaucer visited Dartmouth during the late 14th Century and included it in his Canterbury Tales:
A schipman was ther, wonyng fer by weste;
For ought I wost, he was of Dertemouthe.
In medieval times Dartmouth was rife with pirates, but these were privateers… licensed or sanctioned by the state.
In the early 1600’s, the Pilgrim Fathers put into Dartmouth, sailing the Speedwell and the Mayflower, on their way from Southampton to America. After leaving they discovered the Speedwell was unseaworthy and were forced to return to Plymouth, and from there they departed for their historic journey in just the Mayflower. Henry Hudson put into Dartmouth on his return from America.
Sir Francis Drake has strong connections to Dartmouth. When the Spanish Armada threatened England, Dartmouth sent out many ships to join the counter attack; a Spanish ship was taken intact and then anchored in the river Dart, its captured crew used as slave labour on the nearby Greenway Estate. Greenway was the home of Sir Humphrey Gilbert and his half-brother Sir Walter Raleigh, and later became the home of Agatha Christie.
Heading up the river Dart. A view that Agatha Christie would have enjoyed many times, as would have Sir Francis Drake.
Built in 1639, the Royal Castle Hotel had a new facade added in the 1800s, although the original still lies beneath. There are not many rooms. The interior has the almost film-set like quality about it. It’s certainly hosted many a famous movies star and its name is a result of the historical royalty who have stayed there: Cary Grant, Queen Victoria, Edward VII and Sir Francis Drake have all enjoyed hospitality there. The place hold’s a deep pervasive sense of the age and incredible history of the building. Wonderful hotel to stay in and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Dartmouth. They also run Murder Mystery nights a couple times a year with a professional theatre group.
They even have a haunting…
The central staircase is covered by a glass atrium above and looks down through the core of the building, with quaint little landings at dispersed levels. The coffee and sofa area you can see to the right is halfway between two levels. Very atmospheric and a great place to relax with drinks after dinner.
It is also the area that once contained the open courtyard separating the two buildings that later merged into one lodging house. And it’s here, in the darkest hours of the mornings when summer’s warm grasp is wrestled away by chill winds and falling leaves, that the sounds of a coach and many horses have roused modern-day guests. The source of this phantom presence has been ascribed to the year 1688 when William and Mary, in the wake of James II flight into exile, returned to England to take the throne. William had planed to land at Dartmouth but a storm forced him to put in a Torbay; Mary had already arrived and lodged in the hotel, which at that point was still comprised of two houses sharing the courtyard. William dispatched a coach to collect Mary which arrived not long into the Witching Hours… and continues to do so, with the sound of hooves clattering over cobblestones, the whinnying of horses and the crack of a whip. Nothing malevolent, just eerie.
View from our dinner table that night. Looking out across what was once the new quay in 1637, now enclosed by more modern structures. The station restaurant is actually a railway station that was built but then never used when the proposed tracks never materialised, due to a dispute with landowners. The pastel coloured buildings in the distance are all on the other side of the river and reside not in Dartmouth but in Kingswear. Look at the amazing detail on the building to the right…
A view of the mouth of the Dart. The Royal Navy used Dartmouth as a base from the reign of Edward III; after twice being overrun by rogue ships during the Hundred Years’ War the mouth of the estuary was sealed-off every night by a vast, and I mean vast, chain. This was made possible by the narrow width of the mouth of the Dart, which is also protected by two fortified castles, Dartmouth Castle and Kingswear Castle.
One of the many narrow and ancient stone stairwells that slice steeply through this very vertical town.
This is a zoom snap I took of the far side from where I was sitting with my pint of Otter real-ale. Kingswear looks like a lovely place. I’m intending on coming back to Dartmouth later this year, doing a murder mystery night and then taking the ferry across the Dart to Kingswear, where you can catch a reconditioned steam train to Totness, 30 minutes away, crossing several viaduct built by Isambard K Brunel, and back again. Great weekend away, I reckon.
Dartmouth is still a tiny place, despite it’s age and popularity; it’s a fusion of medieval and Elizabethan streets sliced through by narrow cobbled-lanes and weathered stone stairways. There’s a ton of listed historic buildings, one of the most impressive being the Butterwalk, built in the mid-1600’s. An ornately carved wooden facade held aloft on stone columns. To give you an idea of the staggering history of this building alone, Charles II held court there in 1671 after being driven into Dartmouth by wild storms.
History and beauty combined. This is the view from our hotel room. And to give you an idea of how small and quaint Dartmouth remains after several centuries of popularity, the hotel is in the centre of the town… and this is the view from the back. We left after a hearty “Castle Breakfast” (amazing!) and drove further down the coast to our next destination as we tracked down creations of Agatha Christie…
This incredible authentic and immaculately maintained art deco hotel dates back to the 1930s and was the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s story, Evil Under the Sun… where Poirot is shipped off to a health spa only to discover a murder taking place on a nearby beach. It’s a brilliant story. The hotel is situated on a nearby island that you can walk to during low-tide, but once the water comes in the only way to reach it is by sea-tractor – an item that features in David Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot for the filming of this story.
The space between the mainland and Burgh Island is known as Bigbury beach and as far back as the 5th century AD, Britons were swapping local tin and iron for wine, oil and spices with Mediterranean traders. Over the coming millenia the Island was occupied by monks until, in the 1700’s, smugglers and wreckers used the Island as a hideaway.
The first hotel was built in 1895 by music hall singer George Chirgwin. This dark green wooden building sits before the current hotel, now used as staff accommodation. The white art deco structure was completed in the 1930s.
You can view more information about the hotel here.
Notice the hotel in the background.
Here’s a clip of this particular episode, via YouTube
There’s a fantastic pub on the island. Great landlord, very eccentric but funny with it and they serve good local ale. The sea tractor is available to anybody who needs to use it once the tide is up, only £2 each way. Bargain.
Sadly, but understandably, when you reach the hotel access is restricted to residents only. It makes sense, in that if you’ve paid £400-600 for a night there you don’t want your idyllic seclusion ruined by every tom, dick and sci-fi / dark fantasy author wandering through. Great place to visit regardless.
Onwards and deeper through Devon and then into Cornwall we plunged…
St Michael’s Mount is a great place to visit. Steeped in ancient history. It’s likely to have been the site of a monastery in the 8th century.
In the 11th century, Edward gave it to the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy; today both locations are almost identical to each other.
although this place isn’t associated with Christie the red flag on the boat reminded of a small part of the plot in Evil under the Sun; appropriate considering the theme of our journey down here.
The moors have always held an eerie fascination for me, possibly because of my introduction to the fantastic tale of terror by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: the Hound of the Baskervilles. They remind me of black and white movies that I used to watch on the small portable TV I’d take to dad’s office when he worked well past midnight, during the 1980’s: Peter Cushing, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr… classic horror films.
Here on Dartmoor, areas where the heavy rainfall is unable to drain away become boggy, and some of them have achieved notoriety; most notable is Fox Tor Mires, supposedly the inspiration for Great Grimpen Mire the Baskervilles novel.
The village was bisected by the River Dart. Hard to imagine this is the same river that ends up running past Greenway Estate, where Sir Francis Drake sailed and where Agatha Christie wrote.
Further on we pulled over to gaze at the incredible vastness of the moors as they stretch away in all directions; bleak, on the whole but still beautiful for it. And then there are little spots like this. Three trees standing together like sentinels guarding some secret place; there was a wonderful energy here in this little spot, I could have stayed there for ages… a small shallow gully beyond lined with lavender. The place has really stuck in my mind.
Stepping into the area everything became hushed as if some great silence were hanging over the place. Truly magical and I could easily visualise druids or some such using the area to commune with elementals and Earth-spirits.
Pushing further east towards the far edge of Dartmoor we came across the small township of Moretonhampstead. Then we saw this incredible tea room on the corner and as we cruised past, jaws hanging open, a car vacated the only free car parking space in the town… right outside. It was another sign – much like our experience of perfectly connected events in Dartmouth a couple days earlier. Stepping inside was like stepping into a bubble of calm, quiet politeness… and the promise of good food and hot beverages. It is a bit prim and proper but I enjoy slipping into the various roles that society can expect, although secretly I was also thinking of Withnail and I…
A traditional cream tea is a scone, clotted cream and jam. I prefer mine with coffee; I also went for the fruit scone which were definitely home made on the premises, still-warm, and very very delicious.
Moretonhampstead is considered to be the gateway to the high moor and began as a small Saxon settlement around 700 AD. The town was granted its royal charter by King John in 1207 AD; interestingly the rent was set as one sparrow hawk per year.
The Gateway Tearoom occupies a building that dates from the mid-1500’s.
I’d highly recommend any trip to the Moors should include a visit to Moretonhampstead and to this wonderful little slice of Anglo-Saxon and Norman history: 17 New Street, Moretonhampstead, Devon, TQ13 8PE
Telephone: +44 (0)1647 440722
And so finally Jo and I return home, to Cosy Castle and the comfort of familiarity with fresh and fun memories swirling around our brains. Cornwall and Devon are only a couple hours drive down the road from this city but it’s as if they’re another world away. Both very magical places and spaces.
For me, being back was a chance to unpack my birthday diary and scribble down the highlights of the year I spent being 40 years old. I was given this diary of blank hand-made paper in 1991, when I was 21, by my longest-standing friend Richy L. I thought it was wonderfully simply idea and I’ve stuck to writing in it, religiously, every year on my birthday since receiving it. Which means that rather than pages and pages of waffle and blogs and old typewritten diaries printed out on sheets of discarded paper, I have this one unique, concise summary of my important years to date.
By way of explanation, Richy suffers from dyslexia.
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