To think of Sherlock Holmes is to think of Victorian London; a bustling and grimy metropolis steeped in impenetrable fog. A vast labyrinth that only someone like Holmes can master. But there are times when dark deeds call him away from 221b Baker Street to the wild and open countryside.
In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle set many of his adventures away from the sprawl of London. Considering he spent many of his years living in rural Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire, and holidaying in Devon, Herefordshire and Norfolk, it seems only natural that these areas inspired his works. He used landscapes to great effect – his evocative descriptions of them helped create a suitably mysterious atmosphere, most famously in The Hound of the Baskervilles: “A haze lay low upon the farthest skyline, out of which jutted the fantastic shapes of Belliver and Vixen Tor. Over the wide expanse there was no sound and no movement… The barren scene, the sense of loneliness, and the mystery and urgency of my task all struck a chill into my heart.”
The Copper Beeches and The Solitary Cyclist, among many other Sherlock Holmes stories, required the isolation of the countryside for criminal conspiracies to develop unnoticed. The great detective himself challenged the myth of a law-abiding, orderly countryside in The Copper Beeches: “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” Whether Conan Doyle himself agreed with these sentiments, isolated places, hidden away from prying eyes behind ancient walls, make scary places to set mysteries; all very useful for an author.
The epicentre of dark deeds in many of Conan Doyle’s rural mysteries is often the country estate. The dastardly squire is a common figure in these tales, and there are usually a few questionable servants thrown in. The master of the manor was either depicted as a returned colonial who made his riches dishonestly in faraway lands, or a tyrannical figure from the old aristocracy.
In the Victorian era, the countryside was in a state of upheaval. The feudal model that had prevailed for centuries was on the wane, but there was still a strict social hierarchy in rural communities.
But at the same time, Britain was the centre of a growing empire, and London’s population had exploded to more than six million by the turn of the century. Many lived in slums and crime was on the rise. The Victorians were in a state of anxiety. Yet they were also fascinated by anything that deviated from respectability – especially a murder. The more upstanding the perpetrator, the more hungrily the reader gorged on the story, especially when the crime left the back streets of the city and entered the country house.
Rural murder mystery
One such crime that transfixed the nation was the Rode Hill House murder in the Somerset village of Rode in 1860. Sixteen-year-old Constance Kent – a girl of superior breeding – murdered her four-year-old brother in an act of revenge against her adulterous father, apparently for favouring the children of his second marriage. True stories such as these, cheaper printing, the spread of the railways and the establishment of the police force saw the advent of crime fiction, and writers such as Conan Doyle fed their captive audience with stories that quickened the pulse.
Whether or not Conan Doyle’s tales of crime and mystery were inspired by true acts, we can’t be certain. But there can be no doubt that the expanses of lonely fields, isolated homesteads and eerie mists he saw on his daily walks around his Surrey and Sussex homes fuelled his imagination and kept him writing the stories that we love.
An escaped convict, a demonic hound and an ancestral villain all have their parts to play in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Conan Doyle had an easy task of choosing a location to play out their devilish deeds.
The wilds of Dartmoor provided the perfect backdrop – a Gothic wasteland where thousands of prehistoric people once lived. This beautiful but melancholy landscape has long been associated with crime and punishment: an infamous prison lies at its heart; there was the notorious Lydford Law, a Dartmoor tradition that saw men hung first and tried later; and highwaymen hounded travellers for their purses.
Conan Doyle took a walking tour of the moor in 1901 and stayed at the Duchy Hotel in Princetown (now the High Moorland Visitor Centre) where he would have had a view of Dartmoor Prison.
Dartmoor was a working landscape when Conan Doyle visited, but the author chose to depict it as a place of mystery rather than industry.
He visited Grimspound, a Bronze Age scattering of huts that served as the hiding place of Sherlock Holmes, Bellevor Tor, the “jagged pinnacle of granite” on which Watson spotted the almost spectral silhouette of his sleuth friend, and Fox Tor Mire, which we know as the treacherous Grimpen Mire in the novel.
The Boscombe Valley Mystery is one of several short stories in which Conan Doyle conjures up a murder perpetrated by a returned colonial, this time in a fictional valley near the market town of Ross on Wye. Conan Doyle knew Herefordshire well – in fact, it is thought that the area inspired key aspects of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The Baskervilles were an illustrious family in Herefordshire and Conan Doyle was a family friend who stayed at their home Baskerville Hall (now a hotel), on the Herefordshire-Powys border. During one of his stays, it is reputed that he learned of the legend of a hound on nearby Hergest Ridge and translated this into one of the most demonic spectres in literature.
After the death of his first wife, Conan Doyle remarried and moved to Crowesborough in Sussex, on the edge of Ashdown Forest. St Mary’s House and Gardens, a 15th-century timber-framed house in Bramber, is believed to be the inspiration for Hurlstone House in The Musgrave Ritual.
Conan Doyle was so enamoured with the dramatic chalky coast of the county, he sent Sherlock to retire there and keep bees in The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane. There has been much speculation over the inspiration for the location of his retirement: “a small farm upon the Downs, five miles from Eastbourne…commanding views over the English Channel”, but the coastal town of Seaford is a strong contender.
Here it is again – a sinful returned colonial getting his comeuppance, this time in The Adventure of the Gloria Scott. Conan Doyle sets this story in the fictional hamlet of Donnithorpe, near the true village of Langmere in the Broads, where Holmes indulges in “excellent wild-duck shooting in the fens”. Conan Doyle also set The Dancing Men in the county – country squire Hilton Cubitt’s Riding Thorpe Manor is located near North Walsham. Enthusiasts can call in for a pint and admire the blue plaque at the Hill House Inn in Happisburgh, where Conan Doyle came up with the idea for the story during a visit in 1903, inspired by pictures of pin men drawn by the landlord’s son.
The Solitary Cyclist and The Speckled Band are two of the best Holmes stories, and both are set in fictional grand estates in Surrey. Stoke Moran, the village in the latter story, is believed to be modelled on Stoke D’Abernon, near Leatherhead. It was presumably The Old Plough in the village where Holmes stayed with Watson on the hair-raising night when, just as the church clock struck 11, a signal shone from the manor house window and the two heroes set out to rescue Miss Stonor from the evil Grimesby Roylott.
Conan Doyle lived in Hindhead from 1897 to 1907. He designed his handsome house, Undershaw, himself, and while living there he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles and brought his beloved protagonist back to life in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. He described Hindhead as “the English Switzerland”, and as having “some of the most splendid walks and scenery that could possibly be conceived.” His house overlooked Hindhead Common and the Devil’s Punch Bowl, on the edge of the Surrey Hills.
The Adventure of the Copper Beeches is one of Holmes’s most intriguing cases. A governess is paid to look after a cruel child for a sinister family, under the condition that she cuts her hair and sits at the drawing room window every day at a set time, wearing a blue dress. In the Black Swan Inn on Winchester High Street, Violet Hunter tells Holmes and Watson of some alarming developments in her strange case. The inn was demolished for road widening in 1935, but is today marked by a statue of a black swan.
Conan Doyle is buried on the boundary of All Saints Church in Minstead, a New Forest village that featured heavily in his historical novel The White Company. He died in 1930 but he wasn’t interred at Minstead until 1955 – before then he was buried in his garden in Crowborough in East Sussex.