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Fossils and Forensics: The Mysteries of Historic Devon

England’s gentle, sun-soaked western county of Devon is known for its bucolic scenery, charming villages, cream teas, seafood suppers and beach-going culture. But it’s also a place of fascinating, often dark history. No wonder, then, that it’s been so popular with mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Greenway House is sunny and cheerful, cluttered with trinkets gathered on trips abroad, and surrounded by sprawling gardens that earned it the nickname “the loveliest place in the world.” Today, it’s a National Trust property, and it was the summer retreat of the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. It’s one of the most popular tourist sites in Devon, and not just during the annual International Agatha Christie Festival in September; on any given day, hundreds of day trippers will take the steam train to Greenway, meander through the camellias, then stop for scones with clotted cream in the tea room afterwards.

But don’t let the merry holiday-goers and pretty flowers fool you. Wherever you go in Devon, there’s a dark history – a prehistory even – underfoot. And it’s one that has appealed not just to Christie, but to many other writers, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Kate Ellis, John Fowles, Hilary Mantel, Thomas Hardy and even John Cleese.

Long before colorful huts and ice cream vendors popped up along its beaches, Devon was one of Great Britain’s first areas to be settled by modern humans. As long ago as 6000 BCE, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers lived on Dartmoor, which boasts some 500 Neolithic sites including burial mounds and stone circles. There are also ancient hillforts along the Jurassic Coast, the breathtakingly beautiful and fossil-rich expanse of coastline between Devon and Dorset that’s been a World Heritage Site since 2001.

Then, in 43 AD, the Romans invaded and established naval ports and garrisons in the region. After Roman rule ended around 410, this was the Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia until it was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in the 7th century, then the Normans in 1066. During the Tudor period, it launched some of the world’s most famous mariners, including Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.

Since time immemorial, Devon has been an abundant place for mining, agriculture, fishing and, in recent decades, tourism. It’s littered with archeological digs, which come to life in Kate Ellis’ archeological mysteries where someone is always unearthing artifacts from, say, the bloody assizes that followed the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion, or the 18th century “wreckers” who would draw ships to their doom so they could plunder their cargo. (Interested visitors can even take part in some digs.)

Devon is also a place of countless folk tales, the sort of myths and ghost stories that fascinated a 19th century parson named Sabine Baring-Gould. He captured many of them in Dartmoor Idylls, just one of more than 150 books he produced in his lifetime. One of his “curious events” inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write the darkest of his Sherlock Holmes tales, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Other authors have been inspired by Devon: Thomas Hardy set all his novels in the fictional region of Wessex, which comprised Devon and was based on the Anglo-Saxon country that once existed here; Ian Sansom set his mystery novel, Death in Devon, here; and, on a lighter note, John Cleese created the legendary TV series, Fawlty Towers, based on his experiences at Torquay’s venerable Gleneagles Hotel.

But no writer is as closely associated with Devon as Dame Agatha Christie.

She was born and grew up in Torquay, the seaside resort frequented by the bright young things in the early 20th century. She was one of the English Riviera’s early surfing pioneers in the 1930s, and she set many of her works in Devon, on Burgh Island in Evil Under the Sun, for instance, or at the Majestic Hotel (based on Torquay’s Imperial) in The Body in the Library. Torquay’s oldest building, Torre Abbey, a monastery founded in 1196, even grows plants from Christie’s novels in its extensive gardens.

When Christie and her husband, Archie, were seeking a summer refuge, it was only natural they’d turn to Devon, where they found a magnificent Georgian house called Greenway in Churston Ferrers. It was “the ideal house, a dream house,” as Christie called it. Fans of the ITV series, Poirot, may remember it from the episode Dead Man’s Folly, the last of the long-running series to be filmed.

Here, as everywhere in Devon, there is light and dark, past and present, good and evil, life and death, each making the other sharper, more defined and more pronounced. It’s the great beauty of this green and pleasant place, that history is as much alive here as the present.

 
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