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Visit to Torre Abbey and the Poison Garden (S Devon Branch)
Thu. 19 May 2022 at 10:30 am
£10 – £12
The visit will start with a talk given by head gardener, Ali Marshall, about the Abbey’s Poison Garden and its links with Agatha Christie. Following this, Ali will take us on a guided tour around the garden.
Snacks can be taken in the Abbey’s cafe or elsewhere – the day’s ticket allows one to come and go as you please. The afternoon can be spent in exploring the whole Abbey site, the museum and the exhibitions.
The cost of £10 for members of the DA, £12 for non-members, includes a day ticket to the Abbey. A reduced rate will apply to members of the Friends of Torre Abbey.
Meet outside the ticket office at 10:30 am where payment will be collected (cash only, please). Numbers will be limited, so please book via the Organiser (details below).
Note that the only on-site parking is a limited number of blue-badge places. The large Torre Valley car-park is nearby, and the site is easily accessible by train or bus (and ferry from Paignton, Brixham and Dartmouth). Details are on the site’s website (see the link below).
Photo: Tanya Dedyukhina, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Report on the event
Having been led through a maze of corridors and stairs, members entered the ballroom – a beautiful Georgian room where the Abbey’s head gardener, Ali Marshall, gave us a talk entitled “Agatha Christie’s Potent Plants”. The garden is very popular not only with locals and tourists but also with film and television companies. Recently Channel 4 has been filming there.
The garden was created as part of the “Agatha Christie Mile” and before Greenway was open to the public, Torre Abbey had an Agatha Christie room complete with her typewriter. This was returned when Greenway opened and the garden was created at that time.
To research the plants for the garden, Ali Marshall not only looked at medieval medicinal herb gardens but also read all the novels and short stories written by Agatha Christie, one after another! In the novels there were 41 poisonings and a further 24 in the short stories. Agatha Christie used poison more than any other crime writer of the time.
Agatha’s knowledge of poisons came about from her training as a pharmacist, which began during the First World War. While she was working in a pharmacy Agatha wrote her first book, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”, which includes a strychnine poisoning. Strychnine, cyanide and arsenic were Agatha’s most used poisons. This was a time, of course, when drugs were not dispensed in ready made formulas in packets but the pharmacist mixed the ingredients themselves in the dispensary. Anyone buying a poison did have to sign for it. The roots of many of today’s medicines are still based upon those original plants.
Ali then introduced a number of poisons and the potent plants from which they are derived.
Strychnine is a tropical plant that you need a licence to grow and there is no such plant at Torre Abbey. Ali Marshall does not grow all the plants mentioned in Agatha Christie’s writings as she wanted the garden to look beautiful as well as doing homage to Agatha Christie and her poisonings!
Cyanide comes from the seed kernels of the Prunus family and is a potent and rapid poison. Agatha Christie used it in various ways.
Digitalis, from the leaves of foxgloves, is an effective treatment for heart disease but can cause death from heart failure if the dosage is just slightly too high.
Morphine, from opium poppies, was used by the ancient Egyptians. It induces a deep sleep and then a coma. It does cause a peaceful way to die! It is difficult to know the correct dosage but it was used in medieval medicine.
Aconite or Monkshood (and a variety of other names) contains a poison in its roots that causes numbness although all parts of the plant are poisonous. It is quick acting, causing death within one to six hours.
Ricin from the seeds of the castor oil plant was easy to obtain but is now on the terrorist list. It is slow acting and may take several days for the symptoms to appear. It was used for the assassination of Georgi Markov in 1978.
Most plants can be poisonous – it is the dosage that can kill! In medieval times most of these plants were used in medicines to cure a variety of illnesses. Plants common in our gardens, such as foxgloves, willow and rhubarb, are all potentially poisonous.
After wandering around the garden and the rest of the Abbey, members departed to look anew at their gardens and treat the plants within them with greater respect and more caution than before their visit!
Before the pandemic played havoc with our social life, Torre Abbey did host a “Garden Party to Die For” but so far all the participants have survived!