Of old dreams & new ones: A trip to Agatha Christie’s Greenway.

This trip we just came back from is special for many reasons. At 16 days, it has been (and most probably will remain) our longest holiday yet. It was our first trip to Europe. And more importantly, it was a bucket list item for me.

My obsession with Agatha Christie is something I have not written about on this blog, but which quite a few good friends (at least, the readers) know. I have read and re-read every one of her books; I carry her autobiography with me when I travel and almost know it by heart; I am constantly on the lookout for books about her life and work written by other people. Safe to say I am a real enthusiast, a Christie nut.

About 10 years ago, I owned maybe three or four of her books. Everything else was borrowed from, read, and returned to Eloor library. During my early days of dating SR, I remember telling him that an ideal 50th birthday present for me would be the entire collection of Christie’s works. In a bizarre but welcome turn of events, SR’s mom, who was a librarian, was given cartons full of Christie’s works by a well-wisher just a few weeks later. And she was kind enough to give them all to me. So, what had looked like a major life goal suddenly had a large, green tick mark next to it.

It took me only a couple of years to discover that Greenway House, Christie’s summer home in Devonshire, which she described as a ‘dream home’ and ‘the most beautiful place in the world’ was now a National Trust property and actually open to the public. I spent many happy hours reading about the house (she has some interesting stories about it in her autobiography and it’s also the scene of three of her murder mysteries: Dead Man’s Folly, Five Little Pigs (one of my all-time favourites) and Towards Zero) and poring over the website.

“How amazing it would be,” I would sigh to SR, “if I could actually go there one day! Imagine walking through the gardens, down to the boat house, gazing at the boats sailing down the River Dart from the battery…” SR would smile in his usual patient, indulgent way and say that we would go there one day. Even in 2013, the prospect seemed like a distant dream.

So I kept reading and sighing and dreaming for months, years, without ever doing anything concrete – like saving up. In the meantime, life went on its way and we went on other holidays. Then in May this year, an old, old mutual fund I had invested in matured and I got a lump sum of money. We had two options – be prudent and reinvest it or splurge. “If you are okay, I am okay,” said SR, knowing fully well that I am the worrier, the one more averse to taking risks. But this time, I tossed my fears aside and we booked tickets to the UK.

In the past two weeks, we have toured the South of England extensively, from London to Oxford, up and down the Cotswolds, all the way south to Devon and Torquay; then onto Exeter via Dartmoor, from there to Norwich in the east, and finally, back to London. I’ve seen more than I remember and remember more than I have seen. But the biggest, most important item on the list? Visit Christie’s Greenway House.

I spent a whole day there, walking through her house, listening to tales and tidbits that the volunteer guides shared, matching the things I was seeing with what I had already read and knew about her life – the fresco in the library that an unknown American navy man had painted; the ivory and mother-of-pearl chest she had bought in Damascus, having fallen in love with it at first sight (the chest itself had been cheap but she had paid its price five times over in getting it shipped back home to England and then getting the wood relaid because of a woodworm infectation); the scratches on her bedroom door made by her little dog Bingo as he asked to be let in…

I walked around the garden, explored the boathouse where Joyce, the victim in Dead Man’s Folly had arranged herself neatly as a corpse in Mrs.Oliver’s murder mystery game, minutes before actually being murdered. I stood at the battery, imagining Elsa Greer in her yellow dress, leaning against the battlements, an enigmatic smile on her face, as Amyas Crale painted and died in front of her. Standing there, I recalled the photograph of Christie and her husband Max Mallowan sitting at the exact spot on the battlements, gazing out at the river, Max lighting up a pipe, Christie dressed in a sensible coat and skirt.

Back in front of the small, beautiful white house, I lay back in one of the deck chairs, squinting in the sun, and looking down at the river, and asked myself what I was feeling. I had seen the same question flash on SR’s face through that day. He was understandably a little bored, but knowing how important this visit was for me, managed to amuse himself taking photographs and walking around the garden. But he wanted to know if I was enjoying myself, if it was worth the wait, if the place lived up to my expectations.

I don’t think I ever gave him – or, at the time, myself – an answer. Now, a few days later, I have put enough distance between myself and the memory to know how I felt that day. There is a paragraph in her autobiography in which Christie talks about how she feels about walking up hills to admire views.

You climb up a path to a hill top – and there! A panorama is spread before you. But it is all there. There is nothing further. You have seen it. ‘Superb,’ you say. And that is that. You have, as it were, conquered it.

I always used to take these lines literally but today, I understand what she meant.

I had a dream, a dream that became more and more magical with each passing day, shimmering and sparkling where I held it in my mind’s eye. When it came true, it was real enough to seem dreamlike.

And now that I have been there and done it, I am at a bit of a loss. I have, as it were, conquered it. So what happens next?

For a while, I think I will sit back in my armchair and dream about my dream. I will pinch myself again and again, excitedly reminding myself that it all actually happened. Today, Gowri is sitting on her brown single sofa typing on her laptop; but a week ago, she was in England, in Devon, arriving at Greenway House by steam train just as Poirot had. She had walked around the property, her feet stepping where Christie’s had stepped years ago. She had lived a dream and woken up, clutching photographs to prove that it had all been very real.

And then perhaps a few months later, I will be browsing or reading or watching TV, and something will catch my eye. A walkway through woods turned blazing orange in the fall. A drive along the winding cliffs, the salty tang of the sea in the air. A cruise ship gliding majestically over azure waters.

And I will be captivated once again, the excitement of a new dream stirring inside me.

Until then, here are some snapshots from the Greenway visit.

Greenway House
Greenway House, Galmpton, Devonshire
Greenway Chairs
The view of the river Dart through the trees.
Fresco
A World War II fresco painted along the library ceiling by an unknown American navy man. Christie never got this removed and referred to it as her ‘very own war memorial’.
First Editions
First editions of all of her works.
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