Tracking Down the Queen of Crime at Wallingford Museum

Follow Old Father Thames as he winds his way from the west of England towards London and you’ll find your route ornamented by a whole box of gems. For instance, midway along the stretch of river running from Oxford’s “dreaming spires” down to Henley – home to the world-famous regatta – sits the vastly less celebrated town of Wallingford. Yet here’s a destination that brings rich rewards for any explorer with a keen eye for history. From well-preserved earthworks thrown up in King Alfred the Great’s time as a bulwark against Viking invaders, to the vast, undulating wonderland left by motte, moats and other features preserving the memory of the long-vanished Norman castle – one of the most forbidding in the country in its heyday – there’s a vibrant, varied story to tell.    

It's all lovingly encapsulated at Wallingford’s charming, super-friendly museum located in Flint House (pictured at top), a medieval oak-beamed building close to the market square with its 17th century Town Hall and 19th century Corn Exchange. And among the many intriguing and enlightening displays, you’ll discover an exhibition dedicated to unarguably the town’s best-known former resident: Dame Agatha Christie, the world’s number-one-selling novelist, so-called Queen of Crime and High Priestess of the Whodunnit.

Christie bought a house in Wallingford in 1934 right at the height of her fame – Murder on the Orient Express was published that same year – and she lived here until her death in 1976. The inevitable commemorative blue plaque marks the property. Just a couple of miles along the restored railway, in a quiet corner of the churchyard in Cholsey village, she rests side by side with her husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, in a grave inscribed with moving lines from Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queen.

The town has fully embraced its Christie connection
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

As chance would have it, I’ve lived in this part of Oxfordshire for over thirty years. I’d long taken Dame Agatha’s books to my heart, having fallen into their thrall as a boy at primary school. I can’t quite recall what initially reeled me in. Most likely it was those amazing covers on the UK Fontana paperbacks, a few of which always seemed to be lying around the house. Top of the shop was Death in the Clouds, where the artist’s clever use of perspective created the illusion that a giant wasp had launched a fly-by attack on a pre-war passenger biplane. Close behind was the world’s most unnerving nun staring out from After the Funeral. Since then, I’ve read, re-read and often re-re-read the whole corpus of Christie classics, delighting in their relentless yet effortless page-turning quality and languid knack of transporting you, in a creepy yet cosy way, to other times and cunning crimes.

Letters and books by the maestro of mystery
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

Much to my delight, then, Wallingford has amplified its recognition of its Christie legacy in recent years. Agatha Christie Weekends have become a welcome September fixture and, next year, a long overdue statue of the great Dame is set to be unveiled. It’ll sit (literally – on a bench!) close to the museum on the wide, relaxing green space known as the Kinecroft, metres from Alfred’s Viking-defying earthworks.

Another well-judged move was the museum’s decision to devote a corner of its ground floor to a respectful but revealing Christie exhibition, which (naturally) focuses mainly on her time in Wallingford. It’s a real treat for any Christie fan and, of course, would be woefully incomplete without one of her typewriters on display. (No cut-and-paste or ‘Save As’ option back when Death on the Nile was taking shape…) In this case, it’s a vintage ‘Good Companion’ model made by the Imperial Typewriter Company which, to be honest, sounds a little overbearing for a typewriter firm. But there are more surprising items on show too, not least the text of a Christie poem called ‘The Water Flowers’ surely inspired by the rippling Thames gliding past the foot of the Mallowans’ back garden. The personal touch is provided by scrawly letters signed ‘Agatha Mallowan’ and dating from Christie’s quarter-century as President of the Sinodun Players, Wallingford’s long-running theatre group.

The exhibition is a thoughtful tribute to a much-loved writer
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech
A signed photo from David Suchet, the definitive screen Poirot
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

For me, the best bits – providing a peek behind the façade of the colossal figure who gave the world some of its best-loved books – are the anecdotes of townspeople whose paths just happened to cross hers. On the one hand, there’s the taxi driver who picked up the Mallowans from home and dropped them off at the Savoy Hotel in London. But then there are more mundane memories of meeting Christie on her weekly trips to the hairdresser, or making dresses for her, or delivering her groceries, or simply passing her in the street. The impression you’re left with is of someone who had a consummate understanding of people and really knew what made them tick, however elevated or humble their station. Capping off all these little stories, there’s a marvellous vignette of Dame Agatha in her later years, heading off to a new Sinodun Players production clad in fur coat and slippers and greeted with the complimentary box of chocolates always set aside for her.

But don’t miss out on the chance to explore the rest of the museum while you’re here. The castle looms large, of course, and there’s even a nod to Jethro Tull, the agricultural pioneer who lived and farmed just across Wallingford Bridge at the start of the eighteenth century. In fact, everywhere you look you’ll find an intriguing insight or delightful detail illuminating lives lived long ago. My favourite? A poster advertising the festivities set to take place on June 22nd 1897 in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Among the sporting events listed as due to start on the Kinecroft at 3pm are the ‘Race Carrying Bucket of Water on Head’ (I’d like to have a go at that!) and the equally unmissable but perhaps even more mind-boggling ‘Churchwarden Pipe Race’. And let’s not forget the museum’s twenty-four ‘Touchy, Feely, Smelly Drawers’ concealing a cavalcade of curios, from musket balls to ancient flints, plus a two-hundred-million-year-old fossil of a marine mollusc burdened with quite an unfortunate name: ‘the Devil’s Toenail’.

Wallingford, its history and its museum are well-kept secrets. But like other secrets, not least those pivotal to any number of Christie whodunnits, they really ought to be shared much more widely. How fitting that, nearly half a century after her death, Dame Agatha is spearheading the drive to entice more people to come and enjoy the town’s many charms – charms that secured a place in the heart of the Queen of Crime for over forty years.

At Agatha Christie’s grave, Cholsey churchyard
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

Practical information

Wallingford Museum: see the website for more details, including opening times and the extremely reasonable ticket prices. Wallingford is about fifty miles west of Central London. Fast trains from London Paddington reach Didcot Parkway station in around forty minutes, with bus links or taxis the best option to cover the six miles from there to Wallingford.

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Jasper Heathcoat-Beech

Professor Jasper Heathcoat-Beech is a historian and archaeologist. He has a First-Class Honours Degree and a PhD in Classical Studies from the University of Cambridge. His new book on Plato is a light-hearted (and at times racy) spoof on Greek history, philosophy and comedy. Twitter: @JasperBeech