The Real Baskerville: On a Quest for Sherlock Holmes In England

Visiting the sites that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's timeless detective capers.

Please login to bookmark

The door swung open slowly to reveal a tall, bony man standing in the hallway. Long, stringy hair and steel-rimmed glasses framed a cadaverous face. The gloom outside, dark as night on a sodden afternoon in Wales, reflected our own anxiety and the grim expression on the face of the man scrutinising us. We huddled closer together. Did he think we were intruders?

His housekeeper, rather forbidding herself, had ushered us into this parlour when we knocked on the imposing front door, after a rain-lashed drive through the bottle green lanes of the Welsh countryside. In the distance, we could hear the plaintive howl of a very large dog.

The man’s stony look softened into bewilderment. “This is Baskerville Hall, my home,” he grated. “Were you looking for me?” As I stuttered about how we were admirers of Arthur Conan Doyle and on a Sherlockian quest his face suddenly brightened. “Care for some tea?” he smiled.

My husband and I have often dined out on this story. In our decade of companionable travel, we have amassed a wealth of such tales—funny, scary, moving, and those to do with Sherlock Holmes. At the heart of our shared love of whodunits is an enduring affection for Arthur Conan Doyle’s master sleuth. Over the years, we have visited many places connected to Sherlock’s adventures, but rarely by design. Like Arthur Conan Doyle who travelled extensively, setting his stories against the many glorious backdrops this small island has to offer, we enjoy exploring Britain. Ever so often, we’d find ourselves at spectacular Sherlockian settings. Before we knew it, we had spent two consecutive summers traversing Britain in search of Sherlock.

The first summer, we were in Ross-on-Wye, a historic English market town on the border with Wales, for a relaxed week in a thatch-roofed cottage, and not a Holmesian thought in our heads. We planned to explore the wilderness around us, with its thickets of tall trees, herds of deer and wild boar, and hill-top views celebrated by Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island. With a French loaf, thick slices of ham and a large bag of freshly picked cherries from the medieval market hall in the town’s centre, we settled on a bench under a flowering tree from which we could watch waterfowl and rowing boats on the River Wye, as well as the action on the cricket pitch. As clouds wafted past the church steeple, we mapped out the next few days. We were just an hour’s drive from quaint Hay-on-Wye, famous for its teeming bookstores and even busier literature festival. Hurtling through impossibly narrow country lanes to catch Sting’s memoir launch the next day, we spent hours exploring book-choked streets and sampling game pies at creaking country inns afterwards.

Town England

Ross-on-Wye is a small market town in Herefordshire, located on the River Wye. The 700-year-old Church of St. Mary’s is the town’s most prominent landmark: Its tall, pointed spire is visible to visitors from miles. Photo: David Hunter/Robert Harding Picture Library/Dinodia

Town England

Weekly markets are held at the red sandstone Market House in the centre of Ross-on-Wye, built between 1650 and 1654. Keep your eyes peeled for former Top Gear host Richard Hammond who lives nearby. Photo: Robert Convery/Alamy/Indiapicture

There was more excitement in store for us at Ross. We had chosen this quiet corner of England for its sylvan beauty, but soon stumbled upon not one, but two rarely seen Sherlock sites. Conan Doyle, we discovered, had set The Boscombe Valley Mystery in the Forest of Dean, the lush woodland around Ross. This short mystery, published in 1891, is a moody tale of murder, revenge and the redemptive power of love. We set out one sunny morning to find Boscombe Pool, where John Turner had murdered his old Antipodean confederate, Charles McCarthy. We knew there weren’t any natural pools in this area, but there were wide bends in the River Wye running through the forest, which resembled pools in their depth and mottled hue. Arriving at the one most often thought to be “Boscombe Pool”, we sat down on its deserted bank to catch our breath. Suddenly, the magical silence was broken by a flock of birds disturbed from their lair, and behind them, a happy rambler, whistling the opening credits to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes. He stopped when he saw us. “Did you know that Baskerville Hall is just across the border, only a few miles away?” he asked, uncannily sure of our interest. After his departure, I asked my husband how a stranger could have sized us up so quickly. Elementary, said Mr. Handley. A deerstalker cap will give you away every time.

That afternoon, we found ourselves driving up a windswept rise, to the dark mass of the mansion atop it, crouched against the lashing wind like a large dog. Conan Doyle is believed to have been a frequent guest of the Baskervilles of Baskerville Hall, built in 1839. On his visits, he learned of the local legend of the hound of the Baskervilles, and scribbling in his journal on nearby Hergest Ridge, he made it his own. But at the request of his friends, he set the story in the faraway southern county of Devon “to ward off tourists”. On the day we visited, though the sign swinging in the wind said it was a hotel, it had all the atmosphere of Conan Doyle’s Baskerville Hall—shuttered, silent, and more than a little sinister. Our encounter with its owner started on an equally ominous note. So baleful was the man’s scrutiny, we worried that we were about to become his dog’s (a large one by the sounds of it) dinner. Instead, much to our surprise, we were invited to dinner. And all because I had uttered the magic word, “Sherlock”.

Dartmoor England

Dartmoor’s granite tors are the perfect setting for the “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, one of the best loved of Conan Doyle’s works featuring Sherlock Holmes. Originally serialised in The Strand Magazine between 1901 and 1902, this was the detective’s first appearance since his death in “The Final Problem” in 1893. Photo: Adam Burton/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images

Not surprisingly, the next year found us in the bleak Devon moors where he had transplanted the Baskerville tale. Keen to experience Holmes and Watson’s chase across dark and dangerous Dartmoor, we set out in the gloaming in search of the path they’d taken for that climactic scene. To our delight, at twilight, modern-day Dartmoor looked no different from its whodunit avatar. Our delight didn’t last as the terrain got tougher to negotiate. As the darkening sky fused with the black granite of the moors, it wasn’t hard to imagine a large, black dog lying in wait for us in the gloom.

We staggered over rocky ridges known as “tors”, more interested in returning to our warm inn and perfect coastal dinner of smoked haddock with sautéed potatoes, than finding that mythical path. We certainly did not want to stumble upon Great Grimpen Mire where Stapleton met his end. Luckily for us, it hadn’t rained in a few days, and bogs only form when torrents of rain mix with spongy Dartmoor peat. The next morning, after a hearty English breakfast, we resumed our search for Fox Tor Mire on which Conan Doyle based his beastly bog. Driving as close to it as we could, we got a tor-top view of that famous marsh into which you could disappear forever and never look upon another Sherlock setting again.

From Devon we travelled to its sister county of Cornwall. Daphne Du Maurier had found its dramatic rocky beaches with secret coves and low-wheeling seabirds the perfect locale for her passionate novel, Jamaica Inn. The ferocity of the crashing waves would have reminded her of the lives lost on these stony Cornish shores when ships ran aground, and become the backdrop to her story. But Conan Doyle’s tale of a murdered family, The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, was set inland in a little Cornish village he called Tredannick Wollas. At the real Predannack Wollas, a stunning coastal walk with little hamlets dotted around it, we found the scenery he had in mind when he wrote that eerie account of an unusual poisoning. It was charming in the sunshine but chilling when dusk descended and the mists rolled in, when all you could hear were the moaning waves and the drip of rainfall.

Sherlock Holmes museum England

In 1990, a blue plaque signifying “221B Baker Street” was installed at the Sherlock Holmes Museum, despite its location between 237 and 241 Baker Street. Photo: Maisant Ludovic/Hemis/Terra/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Opened in 1863, Baker Street is one of the original stations of the Metropolitan Railway, the world's first underground railway. Photo: Xbob Krist/Terra/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Opened in 1863, Baker Street is one of the original stations of the Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground railway. Photo: Xbob Krist/Terra/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Of course, no Sherlockian tour is complete without a trip to London, Holmes’s hometown and scene of many of his deductive triumphs. Sherlock, as everyone knows, lived at 221B Baker Street. Benedict Cumberbatch made it his home in the BBC series, Sherlock. But before that, there was the equally accomplished Jeremy Brett, and a whole host of other, lesser Sherlocks. And if you are a fan of Holmes and Watson, where else would you go? Taking a detour through Soho—where Conan Doyle based a seamy scene or two, and Cumberbatch in The Blind Banker discovered a deadly Oriental crime syndicate—we walked through the ornate Chinese gate, past a long row of tempting Chinese restaurants, scanning their upper storeys for unlikely signs of opium dens and hideouts for the Black Lotus Gang. We soon settled for the pleasures of an aromatic Asian meal over an afternoon spent pretend-sleuthing. Then it was time to visit that Georgian house on Baker Street.

With the exception of a sign outside, there is nothing to suggest that this is a treasured British establishment and huge tourist draw. It is discreet, as the residence of a private eye should be. Its place, next to the most restful park in the city, gives it a certain serenity. There’s always more of a throng around Holmes’ statue at the Baker Street Tube Station just down the road. Inside, the house is usually abuzz with tourists on a busy day but on that unseasonably arctic weekday afternoon, there was a hush, a chance to browse quietly. Surrounded by the minutiae of Sherlock’s life we’d been familiar with since childhood, we felt immediately at home.

Sherlock Museum England

The third floor of London’s Sherlock Holmes is reserved for waxworks from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Here, Dr. Watson (in a bowler hat) and Sherlock attend to macabre evidence in “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”. Photo: Sylvain Sonnet/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Sherlock Museum Table London

The museum’s exhibits include the famous deerstalker hat, the Stradivarius violin Holmes played to clear his head, his Calabash pipe, and his magnifying glass. Photo: Steve Vidler/ Encyclopedia/ Corbis/ Imagelibrary

 

But looking through keepsakes from his cases, a particular exhibit intrigued us—a pipe we could have sworn Sherlock never smoked. We scanned the room for a guide who might cast some light on this mystery. Unable to spot a single official soul, our eyes alighted on the little old lady hovering near Sherlock’s desk, almost as if she were contemplating a spot of dusting. We’ve often found that fellow enthusiasts know as much as guides do, so we asked her about the perplexing pipe. Smiling kindly, she told us that it could have belonged to anyone from Mycroft to Moriarty, but by virtue of its enigmatic origins, it merited a place at 221B Baker Street. Her tale was peppered with details that only an intimate of Sherlock’s could know.

“Thank you,” I said, as I turned to leave, “Ms…?”

“Mrs. Hudson, of course,” she threw over her shoulder as she disappeared into the gloom of a corridor leading into the house.

Out on the street, we dissolved into delighted laughter. It had to be her. Who else would know Holmes so well? And with the happy thought that we’d been given a rare insight into our favourite sleuth by his devoted housekeeper, we took ourselves off to the Sherlock Holmes Pub, a tube ride away at Charing Cross, for a special Sherlockian “one for the road” before our night train to Nottingham.

Appeared in the October 2014 issue as “Elementary, My Dear”.

 

Sherlock In A Box

Sherlock Holmes is an institution in his own right but there are a number of real, venerable institutions that the Sherlock boffin can visit. His creator Arthur Conan Doyle found inspiration for his super sleuth in his professor, Dr Joseph Bell, while studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Many of Sherlock’s quirks and deductive methods were based on Dr Bell, who could diagnose a patient just by looking at him. Apart from being Sherlock’s “birthplace”, Edinburgh University is worth visiting for its grand architecture, especially the Old College, St. Cecilia’s Concert Hall, the oldest concert hall in Scotland, and the atmospheric 17th-century Mylne’s Court student residence on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

Another institution associated with Sherlock Holmes is the Royal Society of Chemistry in London. In 2002, Sherlock became the first fictional character to receive an Honorary Fellowship from the RSC for his pioneering use of chemistry to crack crime. Burlington House in Picadilly, where the society is housed, is a beautiful Palladian mansion that also hosts exhibitions of art of the kind Sherlock had saved from the clutches of master criminals on more than once.

Conan Doyle loved cricket and he named his ace detective after two cricketers from Nottingham, Sherwin and Shacklock. Their fellow fast bowler was William Mycroft, and his name went to Sherlock’s brother. Conan Doyle himself played ten first-class matches. If Sherlock’s cricket connection catches your fancy, visit the Trent Bridge international cricket ground in Nottingham. The men who gave their names to the Holmes brothers are long gone but a visit to the cricket stadium almost always leads to encounters with cricketing legends like Michael Holding, David Gower, or even Anil Kumble.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Shreya Sen-Handley is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. Her short stories have been published in three continents and her HarperCollins India book, 'Memoirs of My Body' is out now.

COMMENTS

Please Login to comment
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE
48 Hours in Bahrain