Novelist... surfer? Meet the real Agatha
When you think of Agatha Christie, you almost certainly picture a perpetual pensioner not a million miles away from her Miss Marple creation, rather than a gnarly and bodacious surfer.
But the queen of crime was also a queen of the brine and both an avid wild swimmer (back in the halcyon days when it was just known as swimming) and one of the first westerners to master stand-up surfing. Radical man.
The author was born into an age when sea bathing was remarkably fashionable. Towards the end of the 19th century, Torquay became known as "Queen of the Watering Places" where people would flock to the Bay for the mild winters and the recently discovered health benefits.
Swim clubs had hundreds of members, the more adventurous of whom would think nothing of swimming miles out to a ship when the fleet was in, to be rewarded with a tot of rum for their endeavour.
Hundreds of people would pack the ends of the local piers to watch water polo matches in the sea, while it was also a golden age for water-based daredevils. In 1900, renowned diver 'Tack' Collins thrilled people with daring stunt diving from Saddle Rock in Torquay.
A young Agatha also grew up in a time of social change. Mixed bathing wasn't allowed until 1900, when the author was 10 years old. So as a child she would swim at one of the four dedicated ladies' places, her favourites being Beacon Cove, or the more aristocratic Meadfoot Sands.
Beacon Cove was one of the first beaches to boast bathing machines in South Devon and after paying six pence, women were provided with 'proper' bathing costumes and two towels. These boxes on wheels were lowered down the steep beach over rocks and stones, often sending the passenger inside flying. The idea was that a woman's modesty could be protected, allowing them to enter the sea, safe from prying eyes.
It's safe to say that water was the author's element and she swam outdoors throughout her life. Swimming bobs up in several of her books and stories from Evil Under the Sun (check out Peter Ustinov's hilarious Poirot swim scene in the classic film) to And Then There Were None. However, it was her love of surfing that may surprise many. Just after the First World War, Agatha's husband Archie was offered the dream job of helping to organise a world tour to promote the British Empire Exhibition, set to be held in London in 1924.
In 1922, Archie took a far from reluctant Agatha on a gap year that was to take in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Hawaii. It was on the beach at Muizenberg in Cape Town that she first picked up the surfing bug. Her early attempts at the sport even inspired part of the plot of The Man in the Brown Suit, when the heroine and narrator Anne Beddingfield travels to South Africa.
'Surfing Looks pretty easy. It isn't. I say no more. I got very angry and fairly hurled my plank from me. Nevertheless, I determined to return on the first possible opportunity and have another go. Quite by mistake I then got a good run on my board and came out delirious with happiness. Surfing is like that. You are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself.' – Agatha Christie
In South Africa, Agatha and Archie became proficient at a prone form of surfing on lightweight boards, similar to bodyboarding today. However, it was in Hawaii that the bright young things first tried stand-up surfing, finding the heavier boards and the bigger waves far more challenging. Indeed, the author's first two attempts at surfing in Honolulu proved disastrous in different ways. The first time she wiped out, she lost her board (an ankle leash had yet to be invented).
'It was retrieved for me by a young American, who greeted me with the words: 'Say, sister, if I were you I wouldn't come out surfing today. You take a nasty chance if you do. You take this board and get right into shore now'. I followed his advice.'
Her second attempt at Hawaiian surfing saw her silk bathing dress being ripped from her body by the force of the waves, leaving her to exit the water almost naked and rush for the safety of her beach wrap. The accident provided the perfect excuse to invest in something that was both practical and fashionable. She purchased 'a wonderful, skimpy, emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well. Archie thought I did too.'
After about a week, the couple started to master the sport and there is no more passionate description of anything in Agatha Christie's autobiography.
'...oh, it was heaven! Nothing like it. Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seems to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour; all the way in from the far distant raft, until you arrived, gently slowing down, on the beach, and foundered among the soft flowing waves. It is one of the most perfect physical pleasures that I have known.' – Agatha Christie
Christie enjoyed swimming for the rest of her life, even buying her beloved holiday home Greenway because it was located on the banks of the River Dart, surrounded by favourite swim spots. She loved swimming with her daughter Rosalind and her grandson Mathew.
It's no mystery that Agatha Christie is one of the world's best-loved authors, but her passion for surfing, swimming and the sea adds an extra depth of intrigue to her as a person. In the final poignant epilogue to her autobiography, she describes 'swimming in the sea in Torbay with Rosalind' as one of her greatest memories. She also mourns certain pleasures she could no longer enjoy in her final years: 'Long walks are off, and, alas, bathing in the sea; filet steaks and apples and raw blackberries (teeth difficulties) and reading fine print.'
Join Matt Newbury for a dip at Torre Sands on Sunday 17 September, as part of the International Agatha Christie Festival.
Matt is co-author of two books on outdoor swimming: 'Beyond the Beach: the Secret Wild Swims of Torbay' and 'Wild Swimming Walks: Dartmoor and South Devon.'