Torbay's sun-trap horseshoe of water is warmed by the Gulf Stream and protected from inland cold by the high ground of Dartmoor, earning it the name of the English Riviera. Little wonder, then that the area became popular among the British upper class as a holiday destination in Victorian times. The genteel elegance, palm-fringed promenades and sandy coves attracted just the sort of characters who would later people the world of Agatha Christie's novels.
Boasting more hours of sunshine than any other place in the UK, Torquay, Paignton and Brixham, the three cities of the English Riviera, are pleasant spots for a holiday at any time. In September each year, though, they pull out the stops with the annual Agatha Christie Festival to pay homage to the author who was born there and set many of her works in the area. This year, the Festival becomes even more of an event, celebrating as it does three different anniversaries: 120 years since the birth of the novelist, the 90th anniversary of the creation of her famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and the 80th anniversary of Miss Marple, the unimposing English spinster with her acute understanding of human nature.
The extensive programme that has been prepared for this special celebration includes over 40 events: theatre productions, dances, flower festivals, guided tours, readings, themed dinners, a mysterious murder trail by train, and an exclusive lunch at Burgh Island Hotel. The tidal island on whose cliffs this fine art deco building is perched is accessed by 'sea tractor' at high tide and was the setting for Christie's most popular novel And then there were none, as well as for the Poirot mystery Evil under the sun.
Visiting Torquay, Agatha Christie's birthplace, holds many attractions for fans, as the writer's spirit and memory are present all around the city and surrounding areas. The Agatha Christie Mile starts at the tourism information centre on the harbourside and takes in a number of landmarks associated with the novelist in the seafront area. It includes the bronze bust in Cary Gardens unveiled to coincide with the centenary celebrations in 1990, the peaceful Princess Gardens – featured in The ABC murders, one of Poirot's most famous cases, – and the Princess theatre where each September sees the production of one of her many plays.
In her autobiography, Agatha remembered the Royal Torbay Yacht Club, where her father, Frederick Miller, a wealthy American, was a prominent member. The club window offers a view of Beacon Cove where she nearly drowned as a teenager.
The ornate Georgian Pavilion where her first husband proposed has been transformed into a shopping centre, but you can still stay in the luxury four-star Grand Hotel, where she spent her brief honeymoon in late 1914 before her husband left to fight in France. Torquay Museum offers a comprehensive exhibition about the writer, while Torquay's oldest building, the twelfth century Torre Abbey, is home to the Agatha Christie memorial room where you can see her favourite armchair, her Remington typewriter and the notebook containing the handwritten manuscript of A Caribbean Mystery. During this year's Festival, the Abbey gardens are to be the site for a special Thirties-themed garden party where you can discover more about the Queen of Crime's use of plants and poisons and the novelist's own time as a pharmacist.
Renamed the Majestic by the author, the Imperial Hotel features in several of her works. Christie regularly attended dances and social events at the hill-top location with its delightful views over Torbay. The hotel still retains the atmosphere of elegance and refinement that in its heyday attracted such illustrious visitors as the Queen of Holland, the Prince of Wales, and even Queen Victoria. A little way from Torquay there are two further places for Christie fans to visit: Cockington, where a family friend of the Millers owned a mansion that the crime writer often visited, and the impressive Greenway property, located in a romantic spot by the River Dart, where she spent many summers.
The English Riviera