It’s not every Saturday that you find Hercule Poirot sitting on a park bench next to his creator, Agatha Christie, but last weekend, in my hometown of Wallingford, I saw just that. The great crime fiction writer had not risen from the grave, but instead she has been immortalised in bronze by sculptor Ben Twiston-Davies, and last Saturday saw the unveiling of her statue in the Thames Valley community. A cheeky chap in fancy dress, and with a twizzled moustache, joined the shimmering figure on her sun-drenched seat for a photo opportunity.
It’s fair to say that Wallingford doesn’t get the attention it deserves from tourists on the Agatha Christie trail. It perhaps didn’t even get the attention it had deserved from its residents: when I was a teenager at school, despite being destined to be a writer, not much was ever made of her connection to our town. Instead we were regaled with tales of literary genius on day trips to Oxford, featuring Lewis Carroll, Tolkein and C.S. Lewis.
When it comes to tourism here, it’s only the die-hard fans who visit to fawn over her gravestone in the nearby village of Cholsey.
Thousands of people flock to Torquay, her birthplace, for the Queen of Crime’s annual festival every September, and plenty remember her escapades in Harrogate where she stayed at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan). But few give Wallingford a first thought, let alone a second, despite the fact that it was here, on the banks of the River Thames, where Christie lived for most of her life.
If you’re a fan of Poirot, Miss Marple or any of the other idiosyncratic characters from her 66 detective novels it is well worth a mini-pilgrimage – and there are still plenty of reasons to visit Wallingford if you have only a passing interest in Christie’s works.
Christie described Wallingford as “a nice place”, which from one of the world’s most published writers is something of an underwhelming testimonial, but she wasn’t wrong. Wallingford was, and still is, an agreeable little town.
Growing up here, I could never lean into its quiet-life feel and twee little shops – it was a dull place, according to most teenagers in the town, so I moved away to the coast and later to London. But in my later years, I returned here seeking solitude and a pretty view of the river – much like Christie.
Wallingford sits on the Thames just an hour down the M4 from London and a half-hour drive from Oxford, and its centre is one of the best surviving examples of a Saxon town. It has a grid system of small streets and narrow alleyways, and a charming cobbled marketplace at its heart.
For somewhere small and unassuming, it has some significant historical connections: William the Conqueror crossed the Thames here after the pivotal Battle of Hastings, and he spent time in the town negotiating his impending reign with the Archbishop of Canterbury. This led to the building of Wallingford Castle, a riverside fortress that was the third biggest in the Thames Valley after Windsor and the Tower of London, and the town enjoyed favourable treatment in years to come. Wallingford enjoyed a generous curfew of 9pm – an hour later than most towns – which is still marked by the ringing of a curfew bell that sounds out across the town centre each night.
Where to follow Christie’s trail
The most obvious place to begin any Agatha Christie tour of Wallingford is at that new statue: she sits on a bench in the Kinecroft park, which was originally Saxon grazing land, west of the town centre.
From here, it is a short hop across the road behind her to Wallingford Museum, where a permanent exhibition displays letters and photographs from her estate. The town’s Agatha Christie walking trail starts here (maps and instructions are available at the museum), taking a jaunt through the town centre (stop at Pettits department store, the only still-surviving shop visited by the author) and onto the handsome, Queen Anne-style Winterbrook House, where she lived for those 42 years.
A couple of miles away in the small village of Cholsey – best reached by walking along the old Wallingford-Cholsey railway line where Agatha would have caught connecting trains to London – you’ll find her gravesite at St Mary’s Church, which is often decorated with notes of thanks from fans.
From here, walk back to Wallingford along the river, eventually passing the sweeping meadows at the back of Winterbrook House, where Christie loved to spend summer afternoons beneath the trees.
What else to see and do in Wallingford
There are scenic walks in and around Wallingford. Head for Castle Meadows and through the Castle Gardens to the north of the town, where ruins of William the Conqueror’s fort can still be seen today.
Keep strolling north along the Thames Path and you’ll reach Benson Lock, where a small volunteer-run ferry takes people across the river to the marina, where you can hire kayaks and paddleboards at AV Boats, or cruisers from Le Boat for exploring further afield.
Where to eat and drink
Coffee shops and pubs are ten-a-penny in this town, so you will never be short of a good drink. Head to Jim Beans for your morning caffeine hit, the Coachmaker’s Arms for real ale, The Keep for evening cocktails and Le Clos for worldly wines and delightfully crisp tarte flambée. Hungry visitors should book into Five Little Pigs, named after Agatha’s 1942 novel, for delicate small plates or Jay Rayner-approved cheese toasties. Those with a sweet tooth and an affliction for lashings of cream – just as the author herself had – can enjoy afternoon teas at Wallingford Tea Room.
Wallingford has a few B&Bs. Among the best is the Town Arms, which also makes the area’s best burgers. If you feel like splashing out, The Springs Resort & Golf Club