Thinking about Torquay Today and Agatha Christie
Since Agatha Christie’s birthday is September 15 and I try to post on the fifteenth of the month, Christie’s birthplace, Torquay, has been on my mind. The annual Agatha Christie Festival, held in mid-September, is held in and around the town. Which means it’s going on this week and I'm not there! So I'm "visiting" Torquay virtually.
I have never been to Torquay, although I hope to one day. But I have visited England and Wales twice. My husband’s father grew up in Birmingham and during both of our trips, we looked in on any family that still lived in the area.
Torquay was not a must-see during either of our trips, even though I was already an Agatha Christie fan. Since then, I have read more about it and learned about the Festival. Since the book I’m working on right now is a glossary of Christie terms, it’s only logical to try clarifying a few things about Torquay itself.
First off, it’s pronounced “tor-KEE,” not “tor-KAY” as I used to think. You can look up long discussions on the etymology, but briefly, “quay,” “key,” and “cay” refer to the basically same thing: a low-lying dry bit stretching out in the water. “Cays” and “keys” tend to be natural reefs while “quays” tend to be man-made.
Torquay’s dry bit refers to a centuries-old man-made barrier in the village of Torre. During our travels, we realized that many English place names use a variation on “tor,” which is an ancient word for a rocky outcropping sticking up on the horizon.
Folks think of England’s climate as mainly gray and damp with snowy winters à la Dicken’s “Christmas Carol.” Influenced by sea currents and breezes, Torquay has its own micro-climate. Never much warmer than 70°, it never quite dips below freezing either. Torquay has long boasted palm trees to support its reputation as the English Riviera, but they aren’t native. Apparently, Victorians imported them from Australia, and replacing the palms with more appropriate species has been a very hot topic in recent years.
In addition to the seaside attractions, Torquay is also the home of Kents Cavern, an important archeological site dating from the stone age. I read that among the historically significant people who have visited the Cavern were Beatrix Potter, King George V, and Haile Selassie. Potter, of course, was the author of the Peter Rabbit stories and George V was Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather. I had to look up Haile Selassie, even though I was familiar with the name.
It turns out that Selassie was Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, which is pretty exotic, but I also have a strange local connection. Don and I met George Pradel, the mayor of Naperville, through the chamber of commerce and had a long-standing relationship with him. I even interviewed him a few times and that’s when I first heard the name “Haile Selassie.”
Anyone who knew George also knew he was a spiritual man, as was his mother and the rest of her family. Her brother, Keene Spitler, and his wife, Helen, were missionaries in Ethiopia and even published an English/Somali dictionary in the 1960s. Spitler was also somehow involved in the education of Selassie’s children, all of which made a deep impression on George.
Another famous visitor to the Caverns was Agatha Christie. She was born in Torquay and grew up in a big house called Ashfield. Unfortunately, Ashfield was torn down in 1961 and a housing subdivision was built on the grounds. But there are still Christie-associated locations that folks can visit while attending the Festival.2020 was the thirtieth anniversary of the Agatha Christie Festival and the 100th anniversary of Christie’s first published novel. But, of course, Covid canceled all the planned events. This year, the Festival is back and for more days than usual, but travel restrictions are no doubt putting a damper on international fans. I’ve been following along a little through their YouTube channel.
The dream goal is that I get this glossary finished and published and travel to Torquay with it during the next Agatha Christie Festival. Then I’ll be able to see Torquay IRL, as all the kids say. So it’s time to get my nose back to the grindstone!
photo: That's me having tea in a B&B in Tenby, Wales twenty years ago, the last time I was overseas. Next year in Torquay!