Fame, as some self-pitying stars routinely complain, comes with plenty of drawbacks. The wealth, glamour and adoration tempered by the dreary pressure of relentless public interest.
So it was refreshing to discover on our trip to Wallingford in Oxfordshire that when Dame Agatha Christie sought sanctuary from the attention triggered by her stellar career, the author didn’t moan about her lot.
Instead, in 1934 and at the height of her fame — Murder On The Orient Express had just been published — the Queen of Crime simply bought herself a bolthole in this quiet Thameside market town.
It was here, happily bunkered in Winterbrook House, a five-bedroom, Grade II-listed property, close to the river, Christie lived a life of relative anonymity as she wrote more best-selling novels. In fact, she would only use her married name here — her husband was the archaeologist Max Mallowan.
But as we amble around the tranquil cobbled streets and through the market square, with its 17th-century town hall and mid-19th-century Corn Exchange, we learn that Wallingford is no longer keeping its famous resident under wraps.
Gently does it: Angela Epstein visits Wallingford, the Thameside market town where Agatha Christie wrote many of her novels
Christie in her Wallingford home – Winterbrook House, a five-bedroom, Grade II-listed property. She lived a life of relative anonymity there
A bronze, life-size statue of Christie will soon be unveiled in the town
A corner of the town’s deceptively capacious museum, housed on two floors of a medieval oak-beamed building, is devoted to Christie’s life. Dawdling over the glass cases, there’s something poignant about reading handwritten letters in which she declares her love of pantomimes and frustration at her declining health.
Christie’s presence in the town is tasteful — there’s nothing Graceland about the way she is celebrated. Sure, there are themed walking tours and visits to her local church and grave. And next Saturday, a bronze, life-size statue of the writer will be unveiled during a Murder Mystery Weekend.
Otherwise, ‘low key’ appears to endure as Wallingford’s default position. When I ask a cheery lady in one of the shops that fan around the square for directions to the museum, she wrinkles her brow and suggests I Google it. Sleuth-like — or rather Christie-like — we do as she says.
Angela ambles around the town’s tranquil cobbled streets and through the market square, with its 17th-century town hall and mid-19th-century Corn Exchange
We show our ignorance when visiting the Five Little Pigs restaurant.
My husband, Martin, wonders whether this is a mistake — surely it should be three little pigs? We’re both a bit sheepish after discovering it has been named after the 1942 Poirot story. Mind you, Christie isn’t the only hidden celebrity we encounter in Wallingford. The Springs Resort, where we are staying, is a golf and spa hotel once owned by Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan, who installed a guitar-shaped swimming pool (since filled in). It’s not very rock star these days. Our chintzy bedroom looks out over the river. Forget the scream of electric guitars — it’s the honk of geese now.
From the hotel, it’s a 40-minute walk into town along a footpath. The Thames here is at its straightest, and there’s even a little sandy beach. For those who prefer a more conservative approach to taking a dip, the town has a riverside open-air pool.
Above is The Springs Resort, a golf and spa hotel once owned by Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan
Angela strolls alongside the Thames (above) during her time in Wallingford. ‘It’s a special place to escape and reset,’ she says
Wallingford began life as a Saxon fortified town, built by King Alfred in the 9th century as a defence against Viking attacks.
Meanwhile, ruins of a castle built in 1067 by William the Conqueror, who crossed the Thames at Wallingford after the Battle of Hastings on his way to London to take the throne, lie across gardens and meadows near the centre of town.
It’s not hard to see why Christie chose to live here. Wallingford has a prevailing quiet gentleness — a panacea for the pressures of fame. And for ordinary folk like us with our ordinary issues, it’s a special place to escape and reset.