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.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick