Agatha Christie was born in the seaside town of Torquay in 1890 and her love affair with the town and its surrounding areas never dimmed. This is where she spent much of her life; the resort's landmarks and people inspired her writing and provided a familiar backdrop to her fictional world. Today the town is in many ways a shrine to her: plaques and leaflets commemorate where she lived and worked, while whole sections of the town's galleries and museums are set aside to honour England's most famous crime novelist.
But how easy is it to find Christie's Torquay - where the genteel veneer hides a murderous heart?
Initial impressions of the town on a gloomy bank-holiday weekend are a far cry from the Côte d'Azur (we're supposed to be on the English Riviera, after all). A gentle stroll along the seafront - with its palm trees and late Victorian architecture on one side and bobbing pleasure craft on the other - starts to evoke the elegant spirit of the past. If only we could close our eyes to the chain stores, disco bars and roaming stag and hen parties that spill on to the Strand, that is. We quickly come to call this the Torquay Paradox.
Quite. Now, let's start exercising those little grey cells, as Hercule Poirot would say, and look for the perpetrator of these stories.
The heart of Torquay, in Christie terms, is the compact arc that snakes around the town's horseshoe harbour, marked by The Grand Hotel at one end - site of the author's first honeymoon - and the Imperial Hotel at the other: a stretch known as the Agatha Christie Mile.
It's an easy stroll and, armed with a leaflet from the tourist office on Vaughan Parade (01803 297428), we wend our way past points of Christie interest, including the Pavilion, an elegant concert hall-turned-shopping centre (see what I mean about Torquay Paradox?), through the quaint Princess Gardens and beyond Princess Pier, to historic Torre Abbey, Kings Drive (01803 293593, adults £3.50).
More than 800 years old, the abbey is a Christian monastery-turned-grand Georgian residence. The abbey rooms today play host to an art gallery and a museum, where you will find Christie's typewriter, some notebooks and a first draft copy of her novel A Caribbean Mystery displayed.
Solid evidence! That's a bit more like it
It's interesting, but rather anodyne; the real stars of this visit are the monastery ruins. It's here, among the undercrofts and the crumbling church that we can begin to slip into an imaginary world of clandestine meetings and murderous double-crosses that Christie and her characters excelled in. Result.
Cheered, we pay a visit the following day to Kents Cavern on Ilsham Road (01803 215136, £6 adults), the site of Britain's oldest prehistoric caves. Christie's father helped to fund their excavation and it is likely that his daughter's lifelong fascination with archaeology was triggered here. She used them - renamed Hempsley Cavern - as a location in her 1924 novel Man in a Brown Suit. It's fitting then, that the treasures and artefacts excavated from the caves are on display at the Torquay Museum, 529 Babbacombe Road (01803 293975, adults £3), also the home of the town's most comprehensive permanent Christie exhibition.
Do I hear a 'but' coming on...?
You know me too well. The caves are fascinating ... but, once again, the slickness of 21st-century tourism detracts from the intrigue, so we head for the Imperial, Torquay's grandest hotel. We're hoping to catch some of the atmosphere of the grand balls and parties that Christie attended, and maybe glimpse the sort of people who inspired and populated her fictional landscape.
Sadly it's not to be. We drink in the magnificent coastal views, but not one of the surrounding diners looks remotely like they have just committed - or solved - a crime, despite the fact that Miss Marple once did just that on the very terrace we're occupying.
We half-heartedly reassure ourselves that a lack of obvious murderous intent in our fellow guests can only be a good thing, but leave a little disappointed nonetheless.
The lady vanishes, then?
We follow the narrow paths around the coast from Beacon Cove - the site of a near-drowning for teenage Agatha - through Meadfoot Beach on to picturesque Anstey's Cove. On the way, we encounter a nervous-looking and sometimes downright shifty cast of characters who wouldn't seem out of place acting suspiciously in the pages of a novel. My companion even claims to spot a Miss Marple-a-like, but she's disappeared around the bend before I can be sure. Either way, things seem to be looking up.
Anstey's Cove is a revelation. This tiny pebble beach was a favourite spot for midnight picnics for Christie and her friends and it's easy to see why. Sheltered and private, little seems to have changed in the passing decades, from faded pastel changing rooms to endless shallow rock pools. It has a proper sense of mystery - somewhere you can imagine all manner of peculiarities and untoward happenings taking place.
It's taken us a while, but here, away from picture boards and roped-off displays, we've stumbled across Agatha Christie's Torquay at last.
Anything a little further afield?
Beyond Torquay town there's plenty more of Christie to uncover - she seems to have visited just about everywhere around here at some point. In nearby Paignton, for example, you can visit Oldway Mansion, Torquay Road (01803 207930, free), a sumptuous stately home where Agatha attended a number of social dances. Later, drop into the village of Churston Ferrers, between Paignton and Brixham, where she was a regular at church.
During the summer months, take a dip at Elberry Cove, the picturesque site of one of the ABC murders or climb aboard the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway from Paignton Station (01803 555872, adults £6.60). Christie enjoyed the journey, which runs alongside the coast and River Dart, and had Poirot undertake it more than once.
Excellent! How do I sign up?
First Great Western (08457 000125; www.first-great-western.co.uk) offers a direct rail service from London Paddington to Torquay from around £27 return. For other UK departures and full timetable information contact National Rail Enquires (08457 484 950; www.nationalrail.co.uk). Double rooms at the five-star Imperial Hotel (01803 294 301; www.paramount-hotels.co.uk) cost from £190 per night, based on two sharing. Contact the local tourist board for further information (0906 680 1268; www.english-riviera.co.uk).Reuse content