Elementary, my dear Rankin: Fight to save Holmes' house

Novelists Ian Rankin and Julian Barnes to fight Tessa Jowell's decision not to protect Sherlock Holmes' house
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The Independent Online

The leafy country mansion Undershaw, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created his most famous work, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is at the centre of a literary controversy.

The home is revered by millions of Sherlock Holmes devotees around the world. Campaigners are furious that their efforts to upgrade the listed status of the 36-room property in Surrey, designed partly by Conan Doyle himself, to preserve it for future generations, have been blocked by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The writer was judged not significant enough to merit such a move.

Leading writers - including Julian Barnes and Ian Rankin - have condemned the Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell, for failing to recognise the author's place in the nation's cultural canon.

Barnes, whose own Booker-shortlisted novel Arthur & George features the home extensively, has criticised Ms Jowell for the "regrettable" failing.

He told The Independent On Sunday: "Given that you can't channel-surf without coming across a Conan Doyle adaptation of some sort, I think the Secretary of State is profoundly misguided. It's a fine and interesting property and a rare example of a house where a writer was the co-architect of their house. The only other I can think of is Thomas Hardy's."

Rankin, the creator of Inspector Rebus,has also added his voice to the criticism. He said it appeared to be "literary snobbery", and added: "He created one of the most recognisable and archetypal figures in literature, and if his house is not worth saving, then I would say that no house is worth saving."

The home was commissioned in 1896 at Hindhead in Surrey because the area's "microclimate" was said to help ease the difficulties of TB sufferers, a condition that his wife Louisa had been diagnosed with three years earlier. Conan Doyle lived there until 1906, writing Baskervilles and many other stories at the location, as well as entertaining guests such as Bram Stoker and Virginia Woolf.

It is now in a terrible state of disrepair after years of neglect, and lead from the roof has recently been stolen. Water is said to gush through the home during rainstorms and stained-glass windows, based on Conan Doyle family designs, have been damaged.

Recent plans to divide the property into flats and build more homes in the grounds were recently turned down. Although it has Grade II listed status, the Victorian Society wanted this raised to Grade I, to give added protection and attract funding for its preservation.

However, the Department for Culture turned down the application after its advisers from English Heritage noted that Conan Doyle "cannot be said to be an author of the standing of... Charles Dickens or Jane Austen".

The society has now appealed against the decision and has pointed out that a home belonging to the grandmother of the poet Tennyson is listed at Grade II* - which gives a similar level of protection to Grade I - simply because the poet stayed there.

Barnes said: "I think this is regrettable. It's a very interesting house and Conan Doyle had a very large hand in designing it himself - even down to the way the doors opened. He had a push-pull system on all of them - he thought opening doors took too long.

"I think if we are going to list any house with literary connections, it is of more interest and a greater part of our heritage than a house that belonged to Tennyson's grandmother."

Kathryn Ferry, architectural adviser for the Victorian Society, said that the decision was "outrageous".

"No one is arguing that it bears architectural comparisons to a building such as St Paul's Cathedral, but it's the resonance of what it means and the person who lived there and what he achieved," said Dr Ferry.

"There's all this accumulated history," she added. "There is a sense of snobbery about this being someone who is best known as a crime writer, which can't be as significant as someone like Dickens or other 'literary greats' - and I do have a problem with that."