Living with Murder! A grisly portrait of life in Wallingford, by Judy Dewey, curator of Wallingford Museum
THE first impression of a visitor to Wallingford might well be that of a typical small country market town.
But, lurking beyond the attractive Market Place with its 17th century Town Hall, lies a far from ordinary place!
Within the ramparts of the town’s Saxon fortifications and the ruins of its great Royal Castle, an evocative atmosphere of past turmoil and dark deeds lies hidden.
For instance, during the 12th century civil war the Empress Matilda held Wallingford Castle, aided by Brien Fitzcount who created an infamous dungeon at Wallingford (Cloere Brien) to crush their arch enemy William Martel. Fortunately Martel survived to tell the tale. Then in 1326 Queen Isabella, wife of the deposed Edward II (imprisoned at the time in Berkley Castle), celebrated Christmas in grand style at Wallingford Castle with her paramour Roger Mortimer. Mortimer was later hanged, drawn and quartered for murdering Edward II.
But this murderous atmosphere doesn’t just belong to the distant past... in 1934 it re-emerged quietly in the Wallingford vicinity with the arrival of a new queen in residence – Agatha Christie, "Queen of Crime". She is now the world’s best-selling author of all time, most renowned for her detective novels which feature a plethora of nasty murders. Agatha’s new home – shared with her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan – was Winterbrook House, lying in Cholsey Parish, just on the outskirts of Wallingford.
"Mrs Mallowan", as Agatha was known locally, wrote many of her later books at Winterbrook House, completing the last shortly before she died there (of natural causes) on January 12, 1976 – just 40 years ago. She is buried in Cholsey Churchyard.
The Agatha Christie connection with Wallingford and Cholsey went largely unpublicised until recent years, in continued deference to her life-long desire for privacy. Max summed up this wish in a letter to John Atwell Chairman of the Sinodun Players, the amateur drama group of which Agatha Christie had been president from 1951-1976 (her only official local role). Max wrote: "What was truly valuable in Wallingford was her privacy and freedom from social involvement for in this way she was able to devote her time to creative work which gave pleasure to millions."
Times change, and on September 9, 10 and 11 this year, the third local "Celebrating Agatha Christie Weekend" will be presenting numerous features, including two exhibitions, guided walks, a Murder Mystery Play and a special Saturday afternoon visit from Mathew Prichard, Agatha’s grandson. He will share memories of his grandmother, including his visits to Winterbrook House, in conversation with Judy Dewey at the Corn Exchange. The events are jointly run by Wallingford Museum and Cholsey 1000 Plus. (For details and booking information please visit wallingfordmuseum.org.uk)
And finally, don't let’s forget that Wallingford has featured widely as "Causton" – the town at the heart of that most dangerous of English localities where ‘Midsomer Murders’ abound!
No wonder the town has a very special atmosphere, well worth a visit – if you are brave enough!