Agatha Christie was born in Torquay and each year the town celebrates its most famous citizen with a week-long festival of events. Christie fan Sam Harrington-Lowe couldn’t resist the murder mystery dinner…
Those of you who are familiar with Torquay will know that whilst it isn’t actually home to herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain, it is a kind of Mecca for Agatha Christie fans, being not only the place she was born and sporadically lived, but also the inspiration for many of her stories and the locations in her books.
It’s also home to this annual, week-long festival celebrating her life and works throughout the town and surrounding areas. From literary events to a range of murder mysteries, both on stage and staged around eating experiences, it’s a must-do series of activities for anyone who counts themselves as a fan of the Queen of Crime.
Torre Abbey is at the centre of this folklore, a stunning abbey and art gallery dating back to 1196 which also houses a botanic garden filled with the Potent Plants collection inspired by the poisons and potions in Christie’s books, and is the main hub for the festival itself. It’s also the venue where we experienced the rather excellent murder mystery dinner, but more about that later.
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that getting to Torquay from Brighton isn’t fun. Google maps pronounced the journey to be roughly a four hour trip, which didn’t sound too bad.
But the reality was a nine-hour endurance exercise filled with ‘Let’s try this alternative route’ games, nose to tail traffic throughout, and culminating with the eventual pinnacle of ‘now the effing engine’s overheated, let’s pull over and lift the bonnet’.
There is, however, a railway station right in the middle of Torquay, and if I went again, I’d definitely go by train. I just wish we’d known about it before we leapt in the car.
We stayed at the Grand Hotel, which I was looking forward to, particularly as I’d read that Christie spent her honeymoon night there after her wedding to Archie Christie in 1914. Sadly, with the exception of Anthony on reception, whose professional welcome and support at the end of our tortuous journey was like a metaphorical soothing hug, the standard and service at the Grand is more Fawlty Towers than five star finesse.
The entire venue has a ‘must have been lovely once’ feel about it, and from the inebriated bartender on Friday night, to the incoherent breakfast waitress with scant grasp of English language on Saturday morning – rather like a female Manuel – we found the chaotic service to be strangely fascinating.
The second night we moved to a resort hotel, the Toorvak. From the ‘Aztec’ swimming facilities to the northern performer in a sequinned waistcoat doing rope tricks for an octogenarian audience and the club singer murdering The Way to Amarillo next door, it was a rather wonderful step back in time, harking back to the days of the British seaside holidays and family entertainment that didn’t involve a screen. And worth noting that the service and cleanliness of this little old three star hotel outdid the Grand on many counts.
The main reason for going however was to experience the Agatha Christie murder mystery dinner event on the Friday night, as well as getting a feel for the festival as a whole, and the dinner was great fun.
The Christie estate keeps very close tabs on who can use the hallowed name, and the theatrical group After Dark who created the interactive murder mystery are officially licensed by Agatha Christie Ltd. The bestselling author’s characters Tommy and Tuppence come to life for a change in an interactive theatre experience where it’s up to the diners to solve the crime.
The scenes unfold around you, you have a chance to question the performers as witnesses, examine the evidence and seek out the clues as you attempt to solve the murder. The actors were really excellent, weaving the story around the tables, always in character, allowing guests to ask questions as they tried to fathom out who the murderer was.
They didn’t make us sign anything to promise not to tell whodunit, but I’m not going to anyway. There were some very committed joiners-in on our table who got the right answer, but failed to make the top five winning tables due to not citing enough clues.
It’s pretty cut-throat, this mystery solving. I didn’t really have a clue what was going on, my little grey cells battered to death by the insane drive down. But the food was lovely and the actors were great. I just let it flow over me and applauded enthusiastically when I was supposed to.
The true story of Agatha Christie’s life is every bit as intriguing and fascinating as her books, and nowhere can you get closer to her legacy than on the English Riviera, in South Devon’s beautiful bay. Christie was born in Torquay, and spent many of the most important chapters of her life here, as well as using real places in the area as settings for her murder mysteries.
The whole place is littered with little signs – not exactly ‘Agatha Woz Ere’ but not far off. The bay is really lovely though – we sat and ate some very good seafood at a place called On the Rocks and watched the world go by.
There are signs of regeneration on the seafront, and in truth, Torquay looks like it could do with a bit of love and attention. But there’s a real slow, pre-war feel about the place. It would be easy to lose a few days here. We fell in love with it quite a lot.
The Agatha Christie festival this year offered fans the chance to attend readings by crime writing masterminds, meet Mathew Prichard, Agatha Christie’s grandson and see him in conversation with Ben Stephenson, the man responsible for commissioning all drama on the BBC.
Also to visit Greenway, Christie’s glorious riverside residence on the River Dart by steam train and boat, walk the Agatha Christie mile, enjoy tea dances and attend many other unique events. Torquay’s sister towns Brixham, Paignton and Babbacombe Bay also hosted stylish Agatha Christie themed events. It’s a veritable crime-fest.
Interestingly, at the centre of the literary aspect is novelist Sophie Hannah, who was commissioned and licensed by the Christie brand to write new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders. Released to critical acclaim last month, the new book sees Poirot plunge into a new and ‘diabolically clever’ puzzle set in 1920s London, and I’m sorry we didn’t get to see her. We did however bump into Martin Gaisford, the only official Hercule Poirot allowed to use the famous name!
In summary, the journey was scarier than the murder mystery, but the Torquay experience was charming and gentle. I’d definitely go again, but I’d let the train take the strain.
For the Agatha Christie festival: www.agathachristiefestival.com
For details on Torquay: www.englishriviera.co.uk
· The Princess Pier was a favourite spot of Agatha’s for roller-skating.
· Agatha Christie’s daughter Rosalind gifted Greenway to the National Trust in 1999.
· You can book a ferry trip to visit Christie’s beloved estate Greenway.
· The Princess Gardens feature in the ABC Murders.
· Beacon Cove, once known as Ladies Bathing Cove, was where Agatha got into difficulty whilst swimming and almost drowned.
· The Imperial Hotel is featured in several novels.
· The Torquay Museum is home to the UK’s only dedicated Agatha Christie Gallery.
· In 1971 Agatha was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
· Agatha Christie died on the 12th of January 1976 at the age of 85.
· She had published 79 crime novels, 19 plays, 22 short story collections, 6 romantic novels and 2 non-fiction works including her autobiography.