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Agatha Christie’s close links with North Walsham given fresh boost

PUBLISHED: 12:00 15 January 2012

Agatha Christie's housekeeper's daughter Betty Paine presents Agatha's pestle and mortar to Beechwood Hotel owners Lindsay Spalding and Don Birch.
Photo by Simon Finlay

Agatha Christie's housekeeper's daughter Betty Paine presents Agatha's pestle and mortar to Beechwood Hotel owners Lindsay Spalding and Don Birch. Photo by Simon Finlay

Archant Norfolk Copyright

Whodunnit? It was the housekeeper’s daughter, in the hotel grounds, with a pestle and mortar.

Beechwood Hotel reveals its Christie secrets

Don Birch and Lindsay Spalding had already decided to buy The Beechwood Hotel in 1993 when they were given a final viewing by its then owner, Jenny Townsend, who pointed out a particular bedroom.

“She said, just in passing, as if it was of no consequence or interest, ‘And this is the room Agatha Christie used to stay in,’ It was the first time the link had been mentioned to us,” Mr Birch recalled.

Their subsequent researches revealed that Christie had been a regular visitor from the mid-1930s until 1967 when the hotel had been the home of married GPs Peter and Margaret McLeod, who had befriended Christie and her husband at an archaeological dig in part of what is now Iraq.

The author would arrive by train at North Walsham and stay for a month at a time, writing in a summerhouse by day while her hosts were tending to the town’s sick.

But Mr Spalding and Mr Birch, who met Dr Margaret before her death, say 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 Dame Agatha after the death of Dr Peter the author remembered that he: “gave me lots of wonderful medical ideas for my books.”

She dedicated her novel Sad Cypress to the McLeods and it’s possible that she wrote it while staying in North Walsham.

Mr Birch and Mr Spalding’s continuing researches have helped authenticate a tale of which few locals were previously aware, although both are sure the writer would frequently have been seen in town during her visits. “Just imagine it,” said Mr Spalding, “Agatha Christie out shopping in North Walsham.”

Or, to unravel the mystery: Betty Paine has presented the owners of North Walsham’s Beechwood Hotel with two of the kitchen utensils regularly used by her late mother who was cook and companion to novelist Agatha Christie for 23 years.

In a plot twist truly worthy of the Grande Dame of crime writing, Mrs Paine, daughter of Dame Agatha’s housekeeper Lily Belson, retired from Bedfordshire to North Walsham 27 years ago, unaware that the north Norfolk market town was once regularly visited by Christie whose close friends the McLeods used to live in what is now The Beechwood.

And when hotel owners Don Birch and Lindsay Spalding learned of Mrs Paine’s Christie connections through a mutual North Walsham acquaintance, they were dying to meet her.

A friendship soon sprung up, and Mrs Paine was back at the Cromer Road hotel this week to present the pair with the pestle and mortar from Christie’s kitchen which will be added to the Beechwood’s growing collection of memorabilia.

Hand-written letters from Dame Agatha to Mrs Belson include 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.”

Mrs Paine, 87, recalls that her mother had only applied for the job because she was attracted by the flat on offer, and was unaware of her prospective employer’s identity.

“She had the shock of her life when she found out it was Agatha Christie,” she said.

The house - Winterbrook, in Wallingford, then in Berkshire - turned out to be un-modernised, dank and dark. Dame Agatha and her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, never carried out renovations, said Mrs Paine, who visited her mother at Wallingford on many occasions.

“She had to cook on a big, old-fashioned range - I don’t know how she managed.” But Mrs Paine remembers Dame Agatha as a kind woman who came to regard Mrs Belson as a friend. She left her valued housekeeper £2,000, the largest cash bequest to any non-family member.

Over some 20 years she also gave Mrs Belson a signed first-edition of each new novel she wrote. The valuable collection is now divided between Mrs Paine’s sons, John and Colin.

And it was Mrs Belson, trusted companion through Christie’s declining years of physical and mental health, who was with her at the moment of her death.

After helping the frail 85-year-old with her lunch on January 12 1976, Mrs Belson was wheeling Dame Agatha to the sitting room when she died. She stayed on to look after Sir Max for over a year before retiring. She died in 1981.

● Agatha Christie, 1890-1976, is the best-selling novelist of all time. Some four billion copies of her novels have been sold and it is said that her works rank third, behind Shakespeare and the Bible, as the most widely-published books.

Her play The Mousetrap holds the record for the longest initial run: it opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London on November 25 1952 and is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Christie’s murder mysteries have also been adapted for film and screen and her best-known characters include the fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and the genteel, elderly and ferociously-clever Miss Marple.

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