Playing detective in Torquay

by John.Law

Do a little investigating around Torquay and along the English Riviera and you’ll discover the South Devon delights that so inspired the world’s greatest crime novelist

If you’ve ever marvelled at the exploits of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, head down to Torquay, where you can enjoy playing the sleuth and putting their creator, Agatha Christie, under the magnifying glass.
The so-called Queen Of Crime was born in Torquay in 1890 and lived most of her life there. As a young woman she bathed at picturesque Anstey’s Cove and Meadfoot Beach, danced at the grand mansions, and took trips on the steam railway running along the stunning coastline. Places like these featured in her books, whose sales have easily topped a staggering billion in English and another billion in 45 other languages.
Good news this year for Christie fans is that the National Trust is due to open her country house to the public for the first time. Set in a woodland garden on the banks of the River Dart, Greenway was bought by the novelist in 1938 and used as her summer home until her death in 1976. It’s worth visiting for its glorious setting and beautiful gardens alone.
On the Christie trail
Torquay today is one of England’s leading family resorts, but in Christie’s childhood it was a fashionable winter retreat for the well-heeled. On a weekend visit we took a seafront stroll along the Agatha Christie Mile, which runs from the Grand Hotel, where she spent her honeymoon in 1914, to the Imperial Hotel, which appears in the Poirot mystery Peril At End House and in Miss Marple’s Sleeping Murder.
We stopped off for coffee and some shopping at The Pavilion, once a concert hall where Christie was a regular visitor, before seeing the Agatha Christie exhibition at Torquay Museum. This sets the scene nicely, showing pictures of her and the resort in a more genteel age, and plenty of memorabilia and costumes worn by actors David Suchet and Joan Hickson as television’s Monsieur Poirot and Miss Marple.
In neighbouring Paignton we wandered around the very grand Oldway Mansion, where young Agatha twirled the evenings away in the lavish ballroom. Built in 1874 for Isaac Singer (of sewing machine fame), Oldway was modelled on the Palace of Versailles and its impressive staircase, ornate painted ceiling, marble pillars and gilding are a fine example of Victorian bling.
My favourite excursion was following in the tracks of Hercule Poirot and hopping on an old steam train at Paignton for the seven-mile journey to Kingswear. The scenery was magnificent as we chugged along the coast past Goodrington Sands, before turning inland to Churston and through green rolling hills following the River Dart.
It was a journey Christie made many times – her long-time home, Greenway, is on the route – and her Belgian detective hero was a passenger in The ABC Murders and again in Dead Man’s Folly. The return train ride costs £9 (child £5.50), but we opted for the combined train/ferry ticket (£11/£6.50) to cross the river at Kingswear and spend a few hours in the old seafaring town of Dartmouth.
Caves and coves
Britain’s most important Stone-Age caves can be found at the award-winning Kents Cavern, which appears as Hempsley Cavern in The Man In The Brown Suit. There’s plenty of fun stuff for the kids as well as scientific interest for all the family. Tickets are £8.50 (child £6.50, family £29).
If you’ve ever wondered where the author learnt some of her murder methods, it was at Torquay Town Hall. She wasn’t bumping off clerical staff – merely acquiring knowledge of poisons while working as a nurse when it was used as a World War I hospital.
Just a mile from the centre of Torquay is Cockington, a pretty village of thatched cottages and a manor house, Cockington Court, where, as a youngster, Agatha took part in open-air dramatics on the lawns. Today it’s a craft centre and gallery where you can watch potters and glassblowers – and even the blacksmith – at work. Allow time in Cockington to stroll through the park and visit the Lutyens-designed Drum Inn, which serves good food.
Back in Torquay, there are plenty of other decent restaurants. Our favourite was the stylish Elephant, converted from an elegant Georgian house overlooking the bay at Beacon Terrace. Dinner here starts at £20 for two courses in the Brasserie, or £35 in the main restaurant.
Don’t forget that Torquay is a great place when the sun is shining. It has nine beaches – with reputedly the best sand in England for making sandcastles! And if you’re looking for something to read while relaxing by the sea, pop into the shop by the Tourist Information Centre. Naturally, it stocks a vast selection of Agatha Christie novels.


Where to stay

For a traditional seaside hotel in the grand style, with great sea views, check out The Grand, from around £180 a night for a double room with breakfast, or Barcelo Torquay Imperial, from around £93. A highly-rated cheaper option is The Somerville, from £75.