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.

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