The Streets That Made The Century

BAKER STREET is one of London's less distinguished streets, an unsightly gash on an otherwise elegant neighbourhood just south of Regent's Park. A constant rush of traffic thunders down the A41 (as it is more prosaically known) towards Portman Square, where a set of lights force a break in the otherwise oppressive noise. But, nevertheless, it remains one of London's more famous locations.

The southern end of the street is lined on both sides with square, modern buildings: offices and apartments, as well as a selection of fitted kitchen and bathroom showrooms, a carpet shop, and a few airline offices. An entire block is occupied by the headquarters of Marks & Spencer. The only hint that there must once have been some attractive architecture in the area can be glimpsed down George Street, off to the right, where a few flat- fronted houses, built in a less hurried time, still remain.

At the York Street junction is the first reminder of why Baker Street is a famous address. The Sherlock Holmes Hotel, complete with Dr Watson's Bar and Moriarty's Restaurant, is one of several Sherlockian attractions along both sides of Baker Street between here and Regent's Park. Though the name was popularised in recent years by a song with a haunting saxophone solo, Baker Street is best-known for a famous inhabitant it never had.

The real focus for any Holmesian pilgrimage is Abbey House, the headquarters of Abbey National, on the corner of Melcombe Street. This is where 221b would have been, had it ever existed, which it didn't. Walk into the bank to ask for information about its illustrious, might-have-been former resident, and you are likely to be told in hushed tones that Sherlock Holmes wasn't a real person. Not that this is much of a deterrent to the 40 or so people who write to the detective every week. They all receive a reply from the Secretary to Sherlock Holmes, currently Mr Gug Kyriakou; he politely informs all correspondents, including many who ask for expert help, that the detective has now retired. Anyone who enquires, either by going to the bank in person or by letter, receives bookmarks, postcards and an informative leaflet.

Conan Doyle's hero has spawned an industry in the upper half of Baker Street, and financial institutions compete with museums, restaurants and an exhibition to be the true guardians of his legacy. On Thursday Abbey National is unveiling its own memorial to Holmes (pictured); a three-metre high statue has been specially commissioned, and will stand not far from his supposed home, outside the main entrance to Baker Street Station, on Marylebone Road.

This puts it in direct competition with a house several doors up the street, the one confusingly numbered 221b, between 237 and 241. It is distinguished by a man in police uniform on the door, and a maid in Victorian costume who eagerly takes pounds 5 from anyone who wants to come in and see Holmes's former lodgings. On the first floor is Holmes's and Watson's study, complete with books, medical bag, and a collection of headgear on a table by the fire, which visitors are invited to try on. Other rooms contain memorabilia purporting to be relics from the detective's various investigations: a coil of hair from "The Copper Beeches", a phial of Devil's Foot Root Powder from "The Devil's Foot", and so on. On the ground floor, Hudson's Dining Room (0171-935 3130) serves Victorian and other delicacies; if you decide that you want to eat there in the evening, you get a free tour of the rest of the house.

The museum is now facing a challenge from across the street. The Sherlock Holmes Memorabilia Company opened up in June, with an exhibition of the sets and many of the props from the Granada TV series, in which Jeremy Brett played Sherlock. Nearly a hundred years after Holmes left London to retire to the Sussex coast, the street where he set up his practice shows no signs of returning to oblivion.

Cathy Packe

Sherlock Holmes Museum: 0171-935 8866