Robyn Brown - Property Manager at Greenway
Sitting above a curl of the River Dart, peeking between pines and rhododendrons like a late-Georgian butter cream confection, Greenway is the National Trust’s newest treasure.
This restored beauty has been brought back to life by the Trust and is enjoying a bustling first season with hundreds of visitors a day keen to get a glimpse into the life of its most famous inhabitant – Agatha Christie.
But this is no kitsch Poirot museum. Greenway was the holiday home of the author and her family, and with all their games, puzzles, books, hats and picnic blankets still in evidence, it feels like the family has just popped out for a moment to take tea on the lawn.
Since 2006 the National Trust has been carrying out a painstaking £5million restoration, but not a transformation. Every item was photographed, catalogued and cleaned, then returned to exactly where it was found. The result is the delightfully informal display of the clutter and collections of five generations of Agatha Christie’s family.
But with hundreds of visitors daily, what of the impact on the surrounding area? How is the National Trust helping locals not to feel invaded?
Robyn Brown, National Trust Property Manager, said the relationship with the neighbours was of paramount importance: “We don’t want an invasion but we do want visitors to enjoy the atmosphere of the property as well as conserving the collection. To achieve these priorities we are limiting visitor numbers and urging forward planning.
“We have lengthened opening hours in response to the huge visitor numbers, but the reality is they can’t all come at once. Visitors must ring ahead or check the website. If they are told we are full they must respect that. The problem comes when people ignore information and come anyway. They will be turned away.”
Robyn said forward planning was the key – urging visitors to take their time, make a day of it and see the journey as part of the experience: “Greenway was built in 1792. Even in its 1950s heyday cars were few and far between. Access by road is poor and the surrounding lanes cannot cope. That is why parking is limited and has to be pre-booked.
Visitors must not park all over the lanes and clog Dittisham and Galmpton – it’s not fair on local people. You almost need to imagine you’re in the 1950s and plan accordingly, but this is Greenway’s first year and the excitement will calm down,” said Robyn.
The easiest route is by boat from Dartmouth – a fairly constant service by more than one operator with plenty of parking at the park-and-ride. This summer there will be buses from Totnes and Paignton and Torbay Borough Council is putting up brown signs to tell visitors they must pre-book. From the jetty it’s a short, fairly hilly but pretty walk through the woods to the house.
There is an ingenious timed ticket system, giving me a chance for a coffee and locally baked bun before my allotted entry time. Others took in the walled garden with its almost tame robins and coal tits, vinery, woodland walk and the boat house (home to a colony of bats!)
Youngsters can hunt for frogs in each room (ornamental not wildlife!), see art work made of kingfisher feathers and butterflies (horror!), a radio where Agatha herself describes her writing technique (“Go on – press the button and see what happens!”) and the little pet graveyard, which caused lips to tremble.
Even with all the throng, it was peaceful. Once through the gatehouse the crowds dispersed clutching their timed tickets, into the gardens, to sit with a cream tea or into the house.
I imagined it would be packed in there and braced myself to see nothing as I shuffled in a crowd, but not so. The ticket system ensures just a few guests enter at a time, and slowly make their way in little groups from room to room. “No rush – take your time,” said the guides as they told anecdotes, informed, described the war time use of the house by the American coastguard, and made me yearn for a time of floppy hats and afternoon tea.
First published May 2009 By the Dart