Whodunits and hounds from hell

Dartmoor has always held a dark, sinister romanticism. Small wonder, says Mark Campbell, that writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie found so much inspiration there
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The Independent Travel

The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline. Suddenly we looked down into a cup-like depression, patched with stunted oaks and firs which had been twisted and bent by the fury of years of storm. Two high, narrow towers rose over the trees.

The driver pointed with his whip. "Baskerville Hall," said he.

This year sees the centenary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's best-known book. Serialised in The Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902, The Hound of the Baskervilles paints a vivid picture of the rugged, alien landscape of Dartmoor.

This 368-square-mile area of bleak, windswept terrain has influenced such varied writers as Sabine Baring-Gould (Urith: A Tale of Dartmoor), Eden Philpotts (The Master of Merripit) and RD Blackmore (The Maid of Sker), but Conan Doyle has done most to put the area on the map.

The inspiration for his famous novel began in April 1901, when Conan Doyle went on a golfing holiday to Cromer with his friend, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, later editor of Vanity Fair. Robinson regaled him with tales of spectral hounds, in particular a story about Richard Cabell, an evil 17th-century squire who once owned Brook Manor, near Buckfastleigh on the edge of Dartmoor. One night, suspecting his wife's infidelity, he attacked her in a jealous rage and she fled across the moor with her faithful hound at her heels. He eventually caught up with her and killed her, but the hound turned on Cabell and ripped his throat out, before dying of the squire's knife wounds. After that, the dog was said to haunt each new generation of the family. Other tales concern the "Whist Hounds" (said to live by day in the stunted oaks of Wistman's Woods on the banks of the West Dart) and the "Black Dog of Dartmoor", a large animal with flaming, red eyes and a satanic nature, which chased unwary travellers late at night.

Intrigued by these ghostly tales, Conan Doyle checked into Princetown's Duchy Hotel (now the High Moorland Visitors Centre, 01822 890414; www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk), with Robinson as his guide. Sometimes they walked 14 miles a day across the moorland, and he very quickly realised that the area would make an ideal location for a Sherlock Holmes adventure.

Conan Doyle borrowed the topography of the Moor, but allowed himself artistic licence with the names. The deadly but fictitious Great Grimpen Mire was inspired by the equally deadly – but all too real – Fox Tor Mire. You can walk across it from Whiteworks, an old mining hamlet a few miles south-east of Princetown – but be warned, many a Dartmoor pony has disappeared in the moss-covered bogs. For Grimpen, the village of Postbridge on the B3212 fits Conan Doyle's description best, while Holmes's hiding place in a neolithic hut matches nearby Grimspound so closely that you could make a good guess as to which shelter he used. The standing stones (or menhirs) described by Watson are found all over Dartmoor; Drizzlecombe, south of the Burrator Reservoir near Yelverton, boasts the highest at 14ft.

Another writer closely associated with the moor is the Queen of Crime herself, Dame Agatha Christie. In the summer of 1916 she booked herself into the "large, dreary" Moorland Hotel, a few hundred yards from the summit of Haytor, to finish work on what would be the first of her 74 novels, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. In her autobiography she describes how she would write all morning, have dinner, wander alone across the moorland and re-enact out loud the chapter she was working on. Then she would come back, have dinner, sleep for 12 hours, and wake up and write passionately again the next morning.

Sadly, the original hotel no longer remains; it was razed by an electrical fire in 1964. But a new hotel was built on the site in 1972. Catering for special interest holidays for the more mature, a three-night walking holiday starts at £162 (020-8905 9558; www.hfholidays.co.uk). You'll find a portrait of the author hanging above the Agatha Christie Bar, and all her novels are readily available to read. Especially, of course, her first one.

Christie was born in Torquay and spent much of her life in a Georgian house on the banks of the river Dart at Galmpton, so it's no surprise that the area features prominently in her books. Dartmoor is mentioned in The Big Four (1927) and Dead Man's Folly (1956), but it's the 1931 supernatural whodunit, The Sittaford Mystery, that really shines the spotlight on it. The story goes as follows: Sittaford, a hamlet on the fringe of the moor, has been isolated by a winter snowstorm and a seance appears to predict the death of one of its inhabitants. Although the name comes from Sittaford Tor, just north of the B3212 at Postbridge, the fictional hamlet is located on Bridestowe and Sourton Common, off the A386 on the Moor's westernmost edge. Okehampton became "Exhampton" for the duration of the book.

Common to Christie and Conan Doyle is the forbidding bulk of Dartmoor Prison. It was built two centuries ago in Princetown, at the centre of the Moor, and can hold 702 inmates. Both crime writers featured convicts escaping from it, most famously Selden, the Notting Hill murderer in The Hound Of The Baskervilles. The official museum (01822 890305) is housed in a dairy stable of the old prison farm.

Finally, John Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga (1922) in Wingstone Farm, to the southwest of Manaton, while a few miles north, Evelyn Waugh found the inspiration for Brideshead Revisited (1945) at a Tudor cottage in Easton Cross – now the Easton Court Hotel (01647 433469) on the A382. He once defined the charm of the place as "something more than comfort – a tranquillity which makes it uniquely agreeable for both work and rest".

Mark Campbell is the author of 'The Pocket Essential Sherlock Holmes' and 'The Pocket Essential Agatha Christie'

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