Last Thursday I was volunteer driver for the day for a Heartbeaters’ outing. Heartbeaters is a local exercise and social club for people recovering from heart attacks that meets weekly (and perhaps weakly) in the Baptist church hall for an hour of gentle physical jerks. We went to Greenway, Agatha Christie’s house on the east bank of the river Dart in Devon. She bought Greenway and its 33 acres in 1939 for £6,000, and the National Trust has just spent £5.4 million doing it up, in the words of its website, ‘to retain the spirit of the place, its almost wayward character, its atmospheric beauty and its timeless qualities’. Solar panels, a ground-source heat pump and sheep-wool insulation testify to the restorers’ sensitivity not just to the memory of the best-selling author, but to the future of our planet. A colony of Greater Horseshoe bats living in the cellar has been persuaded to move out to a specially constructed bat roost nearby. Although the gardens have been open to the public each summer for several years, the newly restored house and contents won’t be open to the public until next spring. But Heartbeaters were vouchsafed an exclusive escorted tour of the house by the National Trust in recompense (after a protracted exchange of emails and letters) for an earlier, bitterly disappointing river cruise and garden visit that had to be aborted due to foul weather.
Before going in, we were taken to a Portakabin and made to put on bright-yellow hard hats and fluorescent-yellow safety vests. There we were given a speech of welcome by the project leader, the perfunctory, even unfriendly, tone of which suggested that she would rather have been getting on with her work of national importance than showing around a party of old crocks killing time between their lunchtime and evening tablets. Then we exited the Portakabin, like lethargic bumble bees leaving a hive, negotiated the churned mud, apparatus, debris and personnel of a vast building site, and finally entered the noble 18th-century house overlooking the river via the back door.
Thus far the restoration project has been focused on stabilising the structure of the house and on repairing the roof. The next phase will be a comprehensive revamp of the interior intended to recreate the condition, ambience and décor of the house during the 1950s, when Agatha Christie hosted dinner parties there and entertained her guests with piano recitals. When our party of Heartbeaters was shown around the house last week, the contents had been removed for cleaning and restoration, but otherwise the large empty rooms were as they were when Agatha Christie lived there. We were fortunate indeed to experience the house while its ghosts still lingered.
The first room we saw was the kitchen. It was bare except for a working three-ring Aga. The kitchen will be the new restaurant. Then we were ushered next door into the butler’s pantry. This small, atmospheric room will remain closed to the public and serve as a storeroom. And so we were led from room to room, some of them containing restorers doing intricate things to the paint and woodwork. I tried to share our guides’ enthusiasm for the projected make-over, but finally I couldn’t overcome my overwhelming sadness at the way the spirit of the house was being lovingly and expensively obliterated. The very best I could hope for during our melancholy tour, I felt, was that one of the Heartbeaters would drop down dead and we would all have to gather in the drawing room and wait there until a deceptively genteel elderly female amateur detective arrived to interview each of us in turn.
Upstairs, in what used to be Agatha Christie’s bedroom, a man perched at the top of a stepladder was restoring the ornate gilt frame of a huge mirror. The room was otherwise bare. Sunshine was slanting in through enormous Georgian sash windows and lighting up handsome oak floorboards blackened with age. The guide drew our attention to the empty bookshelves that would have been within an arm’s reach of Agatha Christie’s bed. But the most impressive item in the room, to my mind, was the restorer’s stepladder. I had no idea that stepladder design had reached such a pitch. It was a poem of polished tubular steel that elevated the humble stepladder from the status of a mere tool to that of a designer accessory. I can see that stepladder now. In fact, of all the things we saw that afternoon as we filed between Greenway’s sad empty rooms, and picked our way across the building site outside, it is the shining vision of that magnificent stepladder which is my most vivid and abiding memory.