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Agatha Christie Country : Burgh Island is the perfect place for a Mystery writer to set a murder, for a king to have a secret rendezvous, for a pirate to bury treasure. . .

November 02, 1986|MARYLOU LUTHER | Luther is former Fashion editor of The Times.

BIGBURY-ON-SEA, England — Walking amid the rare pyramidal orchards that dot the lush grass on this island, all you can hear are the cries of the sea gulls and the waves crashing against the rocks.

A gale has since blown away the gazebo that overlooked the natural, seawater swimming pool, and all that remains of St. Michael's Chapel--said to be the haunt of 15th-Century English smugglers--are the original walls.

Burgh Island is, you might say, the perfect place for a murder.

Agatha Christie thought so. She wrote parts of two of her most famous novels, "Evil Under the Sun" and "And Then There Were None," in that once-upon-a-time gazebo above Mermaid Pool. The nearby Bluefin Cove, which is better known to Christie fans as Pixie Cove, is where poor Arlene Stuart Marshall was strangled to death.

As if to secure the island's place in whodunit history, Christie immortalized it by printing a map of Burgh Island in "Evil Under the Sun."

In September the mystery writer's daughter, Rosalind Hicks, came to the island to help plan a luncheon/fund-raiser for the Agatha Christie Memorial Room in Tor Abbey, a few miles from where the author lived much of her life.

The island isn't an island at all when low tides link it to the mainland via a 300-yard footpath. And the pool isn't even a pool during those same tides. When the tide swirls back every six hours, a sea tractor with wheels as tall as the waves trundles forth to ferry guests to and from nearby Bigbury-on-Sea.

It's probably its mysterious dichotomy that has made this is-and-isn't island off the south coast of Devon such an attraction for generations of Britons. There are even two sides to its size. One of the owners says it's 26 acres, the other claims it's 24.

The island also has a romantic claim to fame. Two of its most celebrated guests, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, used the Burgh Island Hotel as a hideaway during the days before his abdication, when he was still King Edward VIII and she was Wallis Simpson.

Before the Windsors and Noel Coward, who visited the island frequently, there was the infamous Tom Crocker, the 14th-Century pirate who first made Burgh a treasure trove. His ghost is said to visit the island's 640-year-old pub, Ye Olde Pilchard Inn, where his hook-nosed profile is cut into the stone fireplace.

The Pilchard is believed to be one of the oldest fully licensed (for serving liquor) premises in the kingdom, having been built around 1346 and restored in 1913. Its whitewashed, thick stone walls are set close against the edge of the sea, and it is filled with authentic ship artifacts. The Pilchard is a favorite pub of locals intent upon a pint of ale or a plowman's lunch. When the tide is low, people walk across the sand in droves just to drink the Pilchard's curiously strong "real ale."

There, on any given day or night, except for high tides when he drives the 20-year-old tractor, you will find Jimbo, everyone's favorite islander. When things get really busy at the inn, Jimbo has been known to pull pints in the pub. Usually, he drinks them. He is also on record as saying he's had a bad year if he has to buy himself more than three pints a season.

The Pilchard also houses a small bistro that serves simple meals centering around the catch of the day--lobster, crab, bass, mackerel, herring, plaice or pilchard--depending on the season.

The island's real crown jewel is the hotel, built in 1929 by the founder of the company that owned London's Comedy Theater, where Agatha Christie's plays were performed. The once-splendid Art Deco hostelry had fallen upon hard times and become a rather tacky time-share complex.

Enter Beatrice and Tony Porter, who saw the island for the first time last November, fell in love with it and within weeks sold their home in London, their Jaguar, their boat and withdrew their life savings to buy the island.

For an original investment of just over 500,000 (about $754,000) and months of 18- and 20-hour days, the former fashion consultants have restored much of the hotel to its former glory.

Bea describes the hotel as a seaside sanctuary that's especially thrilling to those who'd like to relive the bright young things era of the '30s. Tony thinks the hotel looks like an ocean liner moving silently and smoothly on a transatlantic mission called the Great Escape.

Particularly Appropriate

His allusion to a ship is particularly appropriate. Part of the hotel was once the top deck of a ship's stern--possibly the captain's quarters. That ship, the Ganges, was the last sail-powered vessel commissioned in the Royal Navy. It served as a training ship until it broke up about 50 years ago.

Right now the Ganges Bar is still waiting to become shipshape as the Porters continue their careful restoration. Already, members of the Ganges Society, whose aim it is to find, admire and note all the bits of memorabilia associated with the ship, are planning a reunion at the hotel sometime early in 1987.

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