- About this route
Greenway House, now owned by the National Trust, is a late 18th century mansion set within landscaped and wooded grounds overlooking the River Dart. It is particularly associated with the crime novelist, Dame Agatha Christie who bought the Georgian mansion as a holiday home in 1938. The site, however, has a much longer history with links to the early colonisation of America and the Spanish Armada, for beneath the house are the remains of a 16th century Tudor mansion.
The Tudor mansion, known as Greenway Court, was built by Otho Gilbert circa 1530 and it is here Sir Humphrey Gilbert, founder of the first British colony of Newfoundland in North America, was born in about 1539. Sir Humphrey was a soldier, politician and explorer, and related to fellow adventurers, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Richard Grenville. One time Member of Parliament for Plymouth and Governor of Ulster, Sir Humphrey was to later live at the Gilbert’s other nearby family home, Compton Castle. However, he spent much of his later life at sea in a series of rather unsuccessful expeditions and died in 1583 when his ship, HMS Squirrel foundered in heavy seas off the Azores.
Meanwhile, Sir Humphrey’s elder brother, Sir John Gilbert lived at Greenway. He was made Sheriff of Devon in 1573 and became very much involved in various maritime issues. His position enabled him to organise local supplies for shipping. He was supportive of his brother’s plans for an expedition to Newfoundland in 1578 and assisted in the supply of victuals for Sir Walter Raleigh’s voyage to the Azores in 1586. Gilbert’s ship, Gabriel, was later to sail with Raleigh’s ship, Roebuck during the Spanish Armada. In 1588 he was made responsible for 160 Spanish prisoners of war who he set to work at Greenway, landscaping the gardens and grounds. Sir John died in 1596 and is buried in Exeter Cathedral. Greenway was inherited by his nephew, another John. The Gilberts continued to live at Greenway until about 1700 when they moved entirely to Compton Castle.
The present house was built 1780-1790 and remodelled and extended in the 19th century. The garden and grounds were laid out in two main phases, 1791-1832 when in the ownership of the Elton family and 1851-1882 under the Harvey family. As mentioned above, it was purchased by Dame Agatha Christie in 1938. She described it as ‘a dream house’ and it features in several of her novels.
It was requisitioned by the US coastguard during the Second World War. Around the walls of the library are 13 murals painted during that time which shows the new landing craft they were sailing and the places they visited en route to Greenway. The final mural depicts Greenway itself with their landing craft on the River Dart below.
The property was given to the National Trust in 2000 and is open to the public. The rooms are set in the 1950s and amongst the many items on display are first editions of Agatha Christies novels and artefacts collected in the Middle East when she accompanied her husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, on excavations. But some links with the earlier, Greenway Court, also survive. An early 17th century plaster overmantel in one of the rooms is said to have come from the Gilbert’s mansion while down on the shore the remains of a Tudor slipway from the boathouse can be seen at low tide.
- Getting Around
Greenway House is owned by the National Trust. Information on opening times, admission charges, facilities, access and how to get there is available on the National Trust website.