Travel: Home from Holmes

Deep in Conan Doyle country, something stirs. No hellhound, no mystery; it's a festival, writes Andy Bull

Even for Sherlock Holmes, this would have been a real two-pipe puzzler. After all, the peeling sign on the side door at the Crowborough Cross declared that this was the Conan Doyle Bar.

So it would be reasonable to deduce - given the generally accepted concept of the theme pub, and that that the little hilltop Sussex town of Crowborough will play host in just two weeks' time to the annual Sherlock Holmes Festival - that there would be a spot of branding inside. A collection of deerstalkers behind the bar, for example. A Hound of the Baskervilles' hot dog special on the blackboard. At the very least, a few well-thumbed Sherlock Holmes novels artfully arranged among the old farm implements without which no modern pub is complete.

And yet, while there was a theme, it had nothing at all to do with Sherlock Holmes. It involved a wide-screen TV, a barman in an Umbro shirt and a kilt, and a bunch of lunch-time drinkers whose idea of fun was to blast out an accompaniment to a football chant on a blaring hooter.

Perhaps, half an hour before kick-off for England's first World Cup match, Crowborough can be forgiven for having other things on its mind than the author who spent the last 23 years of his life in the town, who is immortalised with a plaque tacked to the side of the Waitrose supermarket, and who is about to draw around 25,000 fans from around the world to events such as the Hound of the Baskerville Dog Show and the Holmes/Watson Billiard tournament.

This is Conan Doyle country. In a neat triangle of rolling downland on the edge of the Ashdown Forest with Crowborough, Groombridge and Forest Row at its extremities, you'll find the places he loved most.

But seekers of the Sherlock Holmes experience may be initially disappointed. For example, Windlesham Manor, the home in Crowborough to which he moved in 1907 with Jean, his young second wife, a year after his first had lost a 13-year fight against tuberculosis, is now a nursing home. And while Forest Row, a mock-Tudor place that peers at the world through leaded lights, does have the Brambletye Hotel, in which Holmes stayed in The Adventure of Black Peter, it has precious little else, other than a small army of crusty old codgers.

But in Groombridge, you really do get the authentic Sherlock Holmes experience. Conan Doyle knew Groombridge Place, a remarkably intact 17th-century pink- brick moated manor-house, very well. A convinced spiritualist, he came here often for seances, and used the house in The Valley of Fear, renaming it Birlstone. He wrote: "The Manor House, with its many gables and its small, diamond-paned windows, was still much as the builder had left it in the early 17th century ... the wooden drawbridge and the beautiful broad moat, as still and luminous as quicksilver."

In a former dairy in the spectacular gardens, a shrine to Conan Doyle has been created. You can trace part of the plot of The Valley of Fear in the Drunken Garden, so named because of the eccentric topiary applied to the yew trees that dot its lawns.

The lord of the manor, one John Douglas, has been blasted with a sawn- off shotgun, and is lying dead on the study floor in a pink dressing gown. Watson takes a stroll in the garden and comes upon a curious sight. Brass plaques at appropriate points, on which passages from the novel are inscribed, guide you to his discovery. On one, you read: "I took a walk in the curious old-world garden which flanked the house ... In that deeply peaceful atmosphere one could forget or remember only as some fantastic nightmare that darkened study, with the sprawling, blood-stained figure upon the floor."

Farther on you stop to read: "Concealed from the eyes of anyone approaching from the house, there was a stone seat ... my eyes lit upon Mrs Douglas and the man Barker (wife and closest friend of the deceased) before they were aware of my presence. Her appearance gave me a shock ... she had been demure and discreet. Now all pretence of grief had passed away from her."

And there, beneath a rustic arbour, and guarded by a posh stone gnome in bowler hat and peasant smock, is the seat in question.

Conan Doyle's shrine has much of interest. There is his calling-card, his camera, his pince-nez, and gifts he gave to his staff, including two button hooks, a London police whistle, and a pencil advertising Nugget boot polish. The clock on the mantlepiece is stopped at the time of his death - 7.24am, on 7 July, 1930.

For much of his time at Crowborough, Holmes was in Conan Doyle's past. The novels for which he is remembered belonged largely to the unhappy period when, out of loyalty to the wife who lay dying in Switzerland, he did not consummate his overpowering love for Jean.

Conan Doyle came to believe implicitly in spiritualism, and there is on display here a passage from an article on the subject, in which he wrote: "I have clasped materialised hands and held long conversations with the dead voice. I have smelt the peculiar ozone-like smell of ectoplasm. I have seen the "dead" glimmer from a photographic plate which no hand but mine has touched. I have seen spirits walk round the room in fair light and join in the talk of the company."

In this room, we also learn that the powers of deduction of Sherlock Holmes's creator were not as priceless as we might have expected. Holmes was always being called in by Scotland Yard to crack an impenetrable case. But when Conan Doyle found a real murder mystery on his doorstep, the Yard spurned his help, though they did allow his chauffeur to ferry them in his limo.

Two frames of collected pictures recall the Crowborough Chicken Run Murder of 1924, in which Norman Thorne of Wesley poultry farm was accused of murdering his fiancee, Elsie Cameron. His story was that he had found her hanging from the rafters of a barn and, believing that he would be blamed, chopped up her body and buried it under the chicken run. As you would.

Conan Doyle took up his case in print, pointing out that all the evidence against him was circumstantial, but he was ignored, and Thorne was hanged.

There are less obvious echoes of another case in which Conan Doyle failed. In 1920 he became convinced that photographs taken by two girls, one 10, the other 16, purported to be of fairies, were genuine. Sherlock Holmes would have cracked the case in five minutes, concluding that the girls had performed a crude hoax by cutting illustrations from magazines and photographing themselves alongside them.

The creator of the world's greatest detective, however, fell for it, and wrote a book called The Coming of Fairies which was his investigation and vindication of their story.

The gardens of Groombridge Place look as if they were created by fairies. In 1992 the owner, Andrew de Candole, hired the surrealist garden-maker Ivan Hicks and created a 50-acre Enchanted Forest, a landscape of pools, fern valleys, mazes, grottoes and a vast Indian teepee area.

Conan Doyle would have loved visiting today. There is Dragon Wood, the Serpent's Lair and the Mystic Pool. A boat called The Enchanted Lady takes you down the canal linking the moat with the river Crom and into this fantasy world.

Conan Doyle may like to return in a fortnight, in spirit form, to Crowborough, where he will find the place alive with talk of him and his creations. Or he will if, by then, England are out of the World Cup.

The Sherlock Holmes festival runs from 3 to 10 July. Festival hotline: 01892 665464. Groombridge Place: 01892 863999. Brambletye Hotel, Forest Row: 01342 824144.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the movie There Will Be Blood
music
Arts and Entertainment
Brush with greatness: the artist Norman Cornish in 1999
art
Life and Style
Stress less: relaxation techniques can help focus the mind and put problems in context
art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment