Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A fun interesting read from a few years ago.

Dartmoor: In the footprints of a gigantic hound

Conan Doyle's canine monstrosity is 100 years old. A nervous Christopher Somerville plays literary sleuth on Dartmoor

WHENEVER fans of Sherlock Holmes hear the name of Dartmoor, it is impressions from The Hound Of The Baskervilles that come rushing to mind: a barren, mist-wreathed moor, a mysterious figure silhouetted against the rising moon, the face of an escaped convict "all seamed and scored with vile passions", and the blood-freezing howl of the fiery, fiendish Hound from the heart of the great Grimpen Mire.
Something about the moor fascinated Arthur Conan Doyle from the moment his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson spun him a yarn about a spectral hound that haunted Dartmoor. Researching his tale in 1901, Conan Doyle drew inspiration from the gloomy baronial halls, sucking bogs, abandoned tin mines and lonely houses all around - not to mention the great grim prison.
Doyle had killed off his famous detective eight years before. But Holmes simply could not be left out of such a ripping yarn. It was a wise capitulation on Conan Doyle's part: The Hound Of The Baskervilles has never been out of print, and rarely off the film and TV screen, since its first serialised publication in 1901-2 in The Strand Magazine. We love this Gothic horror tale, all of us, all over the world, whether we are dedicated Holmesians or mere casual browsers under the midnight lamp.
The Hound is 100 years old, but has never lost its fascination. When Philip Weller's admirable new book, The Hound Of The Baskervilles: Hunting the Dartmoor Legend, fell through my letterbox I knew that I was in the capable hands of a Holmesian par excellence. The author is chairman of The Baskerville Hounds, a group of enthusiasts dedicated to playing to the utmost what they term "The Great Holmesian Game" -pretending that Holmes and Watson were real and fitting their adventures to actual dates, locations and historical circumstances.
Imagination is always the best set designer. But this book promised to introduce some fascinating actuality. The prospect of expert guidance around Dartmoor, to points from which I could gaze on the originals of doom-wrapped Baskerville Hall, sinister Merripit House and the wastes of the great Grimpen Mire itself, was too good to pass up. I threw my Weller into a gladstone, looked out my stoutest boots and a trusty "Penang lawyer", sent down to Stanfords for the Ordnance map and to Spar for a pound of their strongest shag, and took the M5 into Devonshire on a blustery autumn day of the year 20--.
Baskerville Hall, seat of the Hound-haunted Baskerville family, has always been one of the prime Gothic literary settings - a dark old house in a tree-blanketed hollow under the moor with a sombre tunnel of a drive, twin towers, ivy-smothered walls and that scary Yew Alley where Sir Charles Baskerville died of sheer fright after running for his life from the Hound. There are three main candidates for Baskerville Hall on the eastern edge of Dartmoor, the only feasible location given the relative positions of neighbouring places in the story.
Fowelscombe, not far from the village of Ugborough, was a strong contender, in spite of its lack of a view of the moor. When Doyle was researching on Dartmoor in 1901 this grand Elizabethan mansion - then newly abandoned to decay - possessed twin towers, mullioned windows, crenellations and long wings, just as in the novelist's description of Baskerville Hall. I found Fowelscombe sunk in its hollow in a sad state of dereliction; a poignant, ivy-choked ruin.
The next candidate, Hayford Hall, was perfectly positioned deep in a tree-filled cleft under Dartmoor's rim west of Buckfastleigh, and had an old yew alley leading out on to the moor. The drive was lined with beeches whose leaves were streaming away on the autumn gale. I could only catch a glimpse of tall, tower-like chimneys through the trees, but Weller's book assured me that the house itself answered none of Doyle's description of Baskerville Hall.
The third possible source of inspiration, Brook Manor, lay in a suitably deep valley a couple of miles east of Hayford Hall. What best recommended this ancient house, though, was the character of the man who owned it in the mid-17th century, Richard "Dirty Dick" Cabell. Dirty Dick married Elizabeth Fowell of Fowelscombe, but proved an absolute bounder - so wicked, in fact, that legend says he was hunted to death on Dartmoor by ghostly black dogs.
In the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church at Buckfastleigh I found the mausoleum where Dirty Dick lies sealed into his tomb by a massive stone slab - he has a tendency to walk abroad, apparently. He might well have been Conan Doyle's inspiration for the character of wicked Hugo Baskerville, who became the first of his family to be Hounded to death when he hunted an innocent maiden over the moor by night.
I dentification of the prehistoric stone hut in which Sherlock Holmes camped out on the moor, unbeknown to faithful Watson, could be a nightmare, since Dartmoor possesses the remains of well over a thousand such primitive dwellings. But Weller persuaded me that there were really only two candidates.
It's a fact that Arthur Conan Doyle and Bertram Fletcher Robinson visited Grimspound, Dartmoor's best-known enclosure of hut circles, in 1901. A suitably moody rainstorm welcomed me to the site, where I soon identified the hut in which Doyle and Robinson probably sat to smoke their pipes - Hut No 3, the most thoroughly restored and most central in the big walled compound.
Grimspound lies too far from the central moor to be the correct choice geographically; but Ryder's Rings, an oblong walled settlement a couple of miles south-west of Hayford Hall, is perfectly placed at the top of a steep brackeny slope above the River Avon. Its forgotten hut circles, collapsed in the bracken, chimed exactly with the melancholy mood of the moor.
So to the scenes of the tale's denouement around Merripit House, the remote moorland dwelling of the ominous naturalist Stapleton and his exotically beautiful "sister", Beryl, on the shores of the fearsome quagmire called the great Grimpen Mire. Stapleton is unmasked - by a typically acute piece of Holmesian observation - as a murderous Baskerville bastard intent on extinguishing the young rightful heir to the estate, Sir Henry Baskerville, and claiming title, house and fortune for himself.
Although other candidates exist, only one area properly fits the bill - the moor south of Princetown. Here Fox Tor Mires makes the perfect great Grimpen Mire, while Nun's Cross Farm is surely the original Merripit House. In late afternoon rain I passed the gaunt Napoleonic barrack blocks of Dartmoor prison and walked the puddled track towards Nun's Cross Farm.
The shuttered building lay hidden in a walled quarter-acre of rough garden, its grey walls battered by the weather. Nothing lonelier or more eerie could be imagined - save for the vast flat brown waste of Fox Tor Mires that filled the adjacent valley.
Along the track through a moor fog Sir Henry Baskerville had run screaming from the hellish, fire-breathing hound that Stapleton set on his trail. Here Holmes gunned the Hound down in the nick of time. And over there, where the ruined walls of the old Whiteworks tin mines lay on the moor slopes, the desperate Stapleton, in flight from the collapse of his schemes, had leapt over the tussocks of the great Grimpen Mire until a false step sent the murderer into the ooze to be sucked down to his awful end.
Weller in hand, I gazed on this scene so often conjured in the imagination's eye, now brought starkly and stunningly to life.

Hound basics

OS grid references Baskerville Hall Fowelscombe 692551, Hayford Hall 688671, Brook Manor 713677; Holmes's hut Ryder's Rings in square 6764, Grimspound 701809; Merripit House Nun's Cross Farm 606698;Grimpen Mire Fox Tor Mires in squares 6170, 6270; Abandoned tin mine in Grimpen Mire Whiteworks mine ruins in squares 6170, 6171.
Remember that Fowelscombe, Hayford Hall, Brook Manor and Nun's Cross Farm are private property, and may be viewed only from nearby rights of way.
The Hound Of The Baskervilles - Hunting the Dartmoor Legend by Philip Weller is published by Devon Books at £24.95; order from Halsgrove Direct on 01884 243242 or email
The Baskerville Hounds - Contact The Kennel Maid, 6 Bramham Moor, Hill Head, Fareham, Hants PO14 3RU.

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