How Devon played a key role in the life and works of Agatha Christie

2020 marks 100 years since the world famous novelist Agatha Christie published her first book. The best-selling author was born and grew up in Torquay and later spent her summers at her holiday home on the River Dart. 

The stunning landscape of South Devon inspired Agatha Christie throughout her life as well as many of her stories.

Agatha Christie wrote her first novel while staying at Haytor on Dartmoor. Credit: ITV West Country

It was among the rugged landscape of Dartmoor that Agatha Christie wrote her first novel - "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" - which also marked the debut of her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

She was sent to Haytor in Dartmoor by her mother, who hoped the remote location would inspire her daughter to write.

A young Agatha Christie playing with a diabolo in the grounds of the family home at Ashfield in Torquay. Credit: The Christie Archive Trust

Martin Harris, the author of the "Official Guide to Agatha Christie", says she had an interesting way of writing.

"She planned meticulously what her story line would be. She would then go out and actually speak out the dialogue. So when she came to stay on Dartmoor she would have walked for hours, perhaps six hours at a time.  

"She was here for only ten days but she finished her first novel."

"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" was rejected several times before finally being published in 1920. It was the start of a long successful career as a crime writer and one where she continued to be inspired by the Devon landscape.

Born in Torquay, Agatha turned locations she knew into fictional places of murder and intrigue.

Agatha Christie volunteered as a nurse in Torquay during World War I. Credit: The Christie Archive Trust

Her time volunteering as a nurse in Torquay during the First World War gave her knowledge of one of her favourite methods of murder, poison.

On a personal level she had a lifelong love affair with the sea - particularly at Meadfoot Beach, as Matt Newbury, author of "Agatha Christie's Devon", explains:

"During Agatha's youth it was the cool beach to come to, so she pretty much spent all her summers here.   She swam throughout her life, she came back to this beach in her eighties and swam here as well.

Agatha was a keen bodyboarder and learned to surf standing up while visiting Hawaii with her first husband. Credit: The Christie Archive Trust

Matt Newbury says, "What a lot of people don't know about her is she is one of the first people to do stand up surfing. She was surfing in Hawaii and taking in big waves.

"She was quite a dynamic character and I think that's what makes her understand her characters and be able to write interesting characters."

Kents Cavern in Torquay featured in 'The Man in the Brown Suit' - the writer called it Hampsley Cavern. Credit: ITV West Country

But as a child, it was what lay below the ground in Torquay which also triggered Agatha's curiosity.

James Hull from Kent's Cavern says: "Her father was involved in Torquay Natural History Society which funded the excavations at Kent's Cavern, which must have fed that love affair she had for archaeology.  

Agatha's second husband, Max Mallowan, was an archaeologist and she assisted him on a number of digs. Credit: The Christie Archive Trust

James Hull continues, "Later on in life she got married to an archaeologist and went to the Middle East to do excavations and that prompted a lot of novels later on and of course her fourth book, "The Man in the Brown Suit", has Kents Cavern in it."

Agatha's whodunnits 'And Then There Were None' and 'Evil Under the Sun' were set at Burgh Island. Credit: ITV West Country

Agatha Christie's writing career spanned five decades. Burgh Island was the inspiration behind two of her most successful books, "And Then There Were None" and "Evil Under the Sun".

In the 1930s, the tidal island attracted the rich and famous, including Agatha Christie, who was given a purpose-built writing retreat. 

The beach house was first built in the 1930s as a writer's retreat for Agatha Christie. Credit: ITV West Country

She'd come here and forget all her troubles and woes and just think about what the story was going to entail and get on and write it.

Giles Fuchs, Owner, Burgh Island Hotel

Giles Fuchs, Owner of Burgh Island Hotel says: "It must have given her all sorts of ideas and the idea of an island as the perfect location to commit a crime.  It also creates that tension because you can't actually get off."

Known locally as Mrs Mallowan, Agatha Christie spent many happy years at Greenway her holiday home on the River Dart. Credit: The Christie Archive Trust

Devon was an endless source of creativity for Agatha Christie - but it was also home.

She spent her summers at Greenway on the banks of the River Dart and declared it the loveliest place in the world.  

Belinda Smith from the National Trust at Greenway says: "it was a very special place for her. If you're looking for somewhere to get together with your nearest and dearest then she chose Greenway."  

Agatha enjoying an outing with her daughter Rosalind and family - and dogs. Credit: The Christie Archive Trust

Belinda Smith adds, "It was where she came for the holidays, it was where the family enjoyed the landscape of Devon, picnicking on Dartmoor or the trips on the river.  

"It was a very personal place to her and just really relaxing, so she could be that mother, that grandmother and spend time with the family."

Agatha Christie - Queen of Crime and daughter of Devon. Credit: The Christie Archive Trust

It may be 100 years since Agatha Christie's first novel was published -  but her readership continues to grow.

And it is the South Devon landscape she weaved through so many of her books that has played a huge part in the Agatha Christie legacy.