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Literary Hero: Sherlock Holmes

27 June 2017

Hound of Baskervilles crop

When you think of Sherlock Holmes you're likely to be picturing the dimly lit streets of London with an eerie fog lingering in the air but, did you know that the Norfolk countryside has also had its part to play in the popular novels?

 

WHO WAS SHERLOCK HOLMES?


The fictional private detective is the creation of British author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He first appeared in print in 1887 in 'A Study in Scarlet' where he meets, and ends up sharing an apartment with, Dr Watson. From here begins the first adventures of Holmes and Watson at 221B Baker Street. Holmes' detective skills came from drawing conclusions from minute observations. The storytelling is often through Watson's point of view as he recounts the detective's most interesting cases.

 

SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE 1859-1930

Born in Edinburgh, Doyle started his career as a physician after studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. It was while studying that he began writing short stories, it's believed that the character of Holmes was modelled on Doyle's university teacher, Joseph Bell. Bell was well known for his observation skills and provided his analysis of the Jack the Ripper murders to Scotland Yard to assist the case.


Sherlock Holmes featured in 56 short stories and four novels, though Doyle wasn't always so fond of his fictional hero; it's believed that he considered killing-off the character but was dissuaded by his mother who enjoyed the escapism of the stories. In an attempt to discourage publishers from pushing him for more stories, Doyle upped his fee but found publishers were more than willing to meet his price,  securing the future of the much-loved detective and making Doyle one of the highest paid authors of his time. 

 

THE NORFOLK NARRATIVE

Doyle is thought to have taken great inspiration for his stories from his visits to Norfolk; he even spent some time writing in the county. Here's a look at three locations with literary links to the world's best-known detective. 

Happisburgh North Norfolk 600

Happisburgh (Happisburgh lighthouse pictured above)Doyle visited The Hill House Inn in 1903 and found the inspiration to create 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men'. Apparently the idea arose when he spoke to the landlord's son who had created a code using stick man illustrations, through which he communicated with his parents. In 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men', Mr Hilton Cubitt, of Ridling Thorpe Manor in Norfolk, presents Holmes with a piece of paper showing a mysterious sequence of dancing stick men. The stick men appear to be conveying  a sinister message to the Cubitt family and, when Mr Cubitt is found dead, Holmes needs to solve the case quickly as Mrs Cubitt has become prime suspect in her husband's murder. Holmes and Watson take the train from North Walsham to work on deciphering the puzzling code. The pub has a commemorative plaque on the wall telling visitors 'Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 'The Adventures of the Dancing Men' here in 1903, in which Sherlock Holmes cracks a code inspired by Conan Doyle's visits to The Hill House'. The Happisburgh pub even has its own Dancing Men Brewery on-site.

Rollesby: 'The Gloria Scott', published in 1893, features the fictional location of Donnithorpe Hall. Research carried out by Bernard Davies of the Sherlock Holmes Society suggests that Donnithorpe Hall was modelled on Rollesby Hall in the Norfolk Broads. Bernard was a senior member of the Society and conducted major studies on the exact geographical locations of the Sherlock Holmes stories. From the descriptive details in the story, Bernard was able to pinpoint landmarks and look back at the history of the railway lines in the Victorian period. From his research he concluded that Donnithorpe could in fact have been Rollesby Hall. The 16th century hall was demolished in 1950.

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Cromer (Cromer seafront pictured above): In 1901 Doyle was holidaying in North Norfolk when he was invited to dinner at Cromer Hall. The impressive Hall was built in 1829 in the Gothic revival style and is believed to the inspiration for Baskerville Hall in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'. The description of Baskerville Hall bears a close resemblance to Cromer Hall with 'heavy mullioned windows', high chimneys, it's high-angled roof and 'a heavy block of building from which a porch projected'. It's also widely suspected that whilst spending time in Norfolk, and particularly Cromer, Doyle would have become familiar with the county tales of Black Shuck. Shuck is the ghostly hound which, as the legend goes, roams around the countryside bringing terror to anyone who crosses its path. Shuck was believed to be an omen of death and accounts of 'sightings' vary its size from that of a dog to a calf and even a horse! He prowls around under the cover of darkness, his footsteps leaving no sound but his howling cry would leave your blood running cold. Legend warned that anyone hearing the distant howl should shut their eyes because sight of the hound would result in their death within a year. Many theories suggest that this terrifying Norfolk beast inspired Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles. Perhaps he saw the wilds of Dartmoor as more of a haunting setting than the tranquil Norfolk countryside. 

 

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