It may have been just a splendid coincidence but, seated in the genteel Gainsborough Restaurant in the old Grand Hotel on the English Riviera where author Agatha Christie spent her first honeymoon, I found myself almost surrounded by Miss Marple look-alikes.
Across a plate adorned with “pressing of skate, parsley and confit potato with caperberry dressing” I noticed a very twee elderly lady with grey hair, a sweet smile and an inquiring look emanating from behind a pair of prescription spectacles.
To my right was another, primly dabbing red wine from the corners of her mouth with starched linen and yet another sat on my left, a rather proper, mannerly lady of means with a hand in the air silently summoning a waiter.
I waited in anticipation for the appearance of a short, clumsy Spaniard from Barcelona – this was Torquay after all where the television blockbuster comedy was set– but Fawlty Towers this was not.
The waiter was an attractive young Indian woman with all the elegance and poise of the aristocrats she attended, the rich and famous that this fashionable resort town has attracted since Victorian times.
Although Torquay is more egalitarian these days clientele and attitude, I suspected, had changed little at the Grand since the most widely published author in history was born in Torquay in 1890.
The stately old Victorian and art deco pile still towered over the palm-tree-lined waterfront promenade with wonderful views of Corbyn Head, Torre Abbey Sands beach, the Harbour and the town centre in the distance.
Torquay had all the old fashioned trimmings I had expected to find at an English seaside resort, countless fish and chip shops, Devonshire cream teas, garish ice cream stands, jangling amusement arcades, a casino and a magnificent Victorian pavilion, now a classy shopping centre.
Staid guesthouses and innumerable hotels of another era spread in an arc around the waterfront and Italianate white villas dotted Torquay’s famous seven hills but there were also signs of 21st century intrusion with modern apartment blocks, pavement cafes, pubs, restaurants and nightclubs.
There was a palpable party atmosphere nudged along, I was told, by frequent stag and hen weekends but wherever I went, I could never escape the lingering presence of Torquay’s favourite daughter.
It began to get serious at the Tourist Information Centre where I found a brochure entitled “Agatha Christie’s Riviera” listing her pet places in and around town.
Next door was the English Riviera Shop stacked with Agatha Christie merchandise and information about Murder Mystery theme breaks, Agatha Christie Tours and the Agatha Christie Murder Mystery Week Torquay celebrates each September.
Pursuing the Agatha Christie Trail I walked around the harbour to rocky Beacon Cove where the young Christie loved to swim. Around the turn of last century it was known as Ladies’ Bathing Cove, covertly scrutinised by gentlemen members of the adjacent Royal Torbay Yacht Club.
A short stroll up Park Hill Road was Torquay’s most luxurious hotel, the Barcelo Torquay Imperial, built in 1866 and used as a setting in several Christie novels. At Torquay Museum the Agatha Christie Gallery had a vast collection of memorabilia and photographs of her life, family, friends and Torquay as it was in her heyday.
The imposing English renaissance Town Hall around on Castle Circus, doubled as a Red Cross hospital during World War I where Christie worked as a volunteer nurse. In the dispensary she gained her intimate knowledge of poisons which later proved indispensable in so many of her murder mysteries.
I returned to the pavilion, once a grand concert hall where Agatha attended a Wagnerian concert in 1913 with Archie Christie whom she later married.
Just to the west were the Victorian style Princess Gardens, which opened in 1894 with a fountain, flower beds and palm trees imported from New Zealand – the same gardens she wrote about in “The ABC Murders”.
Jutting into the sea, the beautifully restored Princess Pier was another Victorian design with lattice steelwork and timber decking that once rattled under the younger Aggie’s roller skates.
After my feet rebelled against the pavement pounding I retired to the rental car and drove east to Meadfoot Beach, another of Ms Christie’s swimming retreats and a gently curving cove of pinkish sand and pebbles lapped by a gentle blue sea. It was a cool spring afternoon and barely half a dozen people were taking advantage of the sunshine.
Backtracking across town I looked for Cockington Court, the stately 17th century country manor where the budding young author once took part in open-air amateur dramatics on the spacious front lawns.
The only performances I saw there were a spirited cricket match and couples walking dogs but in the filtered sunlight it was a beautiful scene.
In the centre of town was a bust of the great lady, the only one in the world apparently, shaped by Dutch sculptor Carol van den Boom-Cairns and unveiled in 1990 on the centenary of her birth.
As part of those centenary celebrations Christie’s star characters, actors Joan Hickson (Miss Marple) and David Suchet (Hercule Poirot) arrived at Torquay Station on the Orient Express to meet for the first time as they never did in fiction.
When Marple held out her hand and Poirot raised and kissed it, the crowd erupted in spontaneous applause. No prizes for guessing who is still Torquay’s favourite daughter.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited).