EXPERIENCES: Travel in Christie's footsteps: "The Shrubs"
Travelling in the footsteps of Christie is a popular activity, though the highlights often include Greenway or Burgh Island in Devon, or The Old Cataract Hotel in Egypt. However, there are many lesser known destinations that fans of Christie should include on their bucket list. One of these is the Beechwood Hotel in North Walsham, Norfolk. This property will forever be connected with Agatha Christie and it still offers the visitor an opportunity to learn of this association.
The back-story begins during Christie's travels in Mesopotamia in 1928. Here Christie met Peter and Margaret McLeod, two young doctors living and working in the ex-pat community of Mosul (Iraq). Agatha became close friends with Margaret, whom she called Peggy, during her travels there. From this chance meeting a close and enduring friendship developed.
In 1936 the McLeods left Mesopotamia and they moved to Norfolk where they bought The Shrubs, which was a large home affording peaceful country living. Agatha and Peggy remained close friends after their return to England. Agatha Christie had accepted the role of Godmother to their younger child, Crystal. So in 1939 when war broke out and Peggy expressed concern that there may be an invasion on the east coast of England in the Norfolk area, Agatha invited the two young McLeod children, David, age 5 and Crystal, age 3, and their nanny to come and stay with her at Greenway until Peggy felt they’d be safe back at home. Then when Christie moved out of Greenway, after turning the house over to the Admiralty, she lived primarily in London but frequently left the city to go to Norfolk. Over the next thirty years, Agatha, stayed many times at The Shrubs until it was sold in 1967. She would often come for a month at a time, usually travelling by train and always came on her own. Here in North Walsham she was known solely as Mrs. Mallowan. Already a world-famous author Christie was said to have cherished her anonymity while visiting.
During the day while the McLeods were working, staff at the home have recounted how Agatha would spend many hours writing in the summerhouse. In the evening, over dinner, Agatha would discuss possible plots with Peter and Peggy who were always happy to supply medical information on how for example, poisons worked, to ensure her books were authentic. Christie dedicated one of her novels, Sad Cypress, to ‘Peter and Peggy McLeod’, which leads to a reasonable assumption that it was likely written mostly while staying with them and certainly was a wonderful confirmation of their close friendship.
This connection between Christie and the property became more widely advertized after new owners bought the property in 1993. During the final viewing, the prior owner commented on one of the rooms stating this was where Christie always stayed. The new owners, Mr. Spalding and Mr. Birch, were able to meet Dr. Margaret McLeod before her death. She confirmed how the evenings were often spent discussing the finer points of poisons and the precise time it took for rigour mortis to set in. In a condolence letter from Agatha after the death of Dr. Peter McLeod, she wrote that he “gave me lots of wonderful medical ideas for my books.”
In another connection, Mrs. Paine the daughter of Mrs. Belson, Agatha’s last housekeeper retired to North Walsham. Her mother had been the cook and companion to Christie for 23 years. In 2012, upon learning of Christie’s association with the Beechwood Hotel she donated various kitchen utensils that Agatha Christie gifted her mother, plus hand-written letters from Agatha Christie to her mother including one from 1953 offering her the post of housekeeper, with duties including “simple, plain cooking.” The letter adds: “Wages £5 weekly, or £6.10 if you provide your own food.”
The property was sold in 2015 to the new owners, Hugh and Emma Asher who continue to celebrate the property’s connection with Agatha Christie. You can still stay in The Shrub’s old guest room that Agatha Christie frequented - you’ll need to ask for ‘Room #9’. The Ashers have added a couple of extra little touches to the room with information on the wall and a copy of Sad Cypress. The summerhouse where Christie is known to have done much of her writing is still in the garden. There are two dining tables in there now, with a light and heater so people can dine there in the evenings. In addition, they have decorated the main corridor leading to the restaurant with all the memorabilia relating to the history of the hotel displayed, including the letter that Agatha Christie wrote to Mrs. McLeod when her husband passed away, an extract from her autobiography where she talks about the McLeod children, and photos of the McLeod family.
To this day, Emma Asher states that they still have guests who live in North Walsham and come to the Hotel for meals who remember coming to The Shrubs when the Doctors were here… but little did they know who their house guest was!
Related collectibles: Occasionally items do come up for sale related to the connection between Christie, the McLeods, The Shrubs, and Sad Cypress. Whether letters, inscribed books or other ephemera, their appearance is rare and uncommon. The best collectible is the ‘experience’. Travelling in Christie’s footsteps is a passion of many fans and collectors alike. Hopefully, this gives our readers a new destination they may not have been familiar with.
Hotel website: https://www.beechwood-hotel.co.uk/
Location: The Beechwood Hotel, 20 Cromer Road, North Walsham, Norfolk, NR28 0HD, UK