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Hunting the Hound of the Baskervilles

Image: Richard Cabell Tomb

In a burnt-out church in Devon where rumours say black magic was practised, a dark structure contains a darker secret, held down by a great stone slab. They say that dreadful creatures from the moor exacted terrible revenge upon the evil Richard Cabell whose remains lie buried here...........

Image: Buckfastleigh Trinity All Saints

Arthur Conan Doyle heard of the legend of a 17th century squire, Richard Cabell, from his friend Bertram Fletcher Robinson. Many people believe this led directly to his tale The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) in which a prominent Devon landowner called Sir Henry Baskervilleis killed by a gigantic hound that has chased him on the edge of Dartmoor. Cabell was supposedly hunted by wild hounds till he died of a heart attack after seriously mistreating a village girl. The evil Cabell was feared by local people. After he died he was entombed in a small building by the church with a stone slab on top of his grave so he could not escape again.

It is only partially true. Doyle actually heard Robinson's story in Cromer Hall, Norfolk, when it centred on a mysterious animal known in the neighbourhood as Black Shuck. The story of Cabell was a confused one. There were other Richard Cabells in the Buckfastleigh vicinity in the 17th century. The one buried here was not considered as bad as the legend painted him, and in any case it appears that the girl he mistreated did not die at his hands but lived longer than he did.

Whatever the truth about this Richard Cabell there s no doubt that places in this quarter of Dartmoor helped Doyle to create perhaps the most famous detective story ever written. Doyle toured the area with Fletcher Robinson and picked up inspiration from each of them, as well as drawing on his own memories of more distant locations. And his travels were made much easier by the fact that he and his friend were driven round the area by a coachman named Henry Baskerville.....

Image: Inspirations for Baskerville Hall


One feature of The Hound of the Baskervilles that shows its popularity is the length to which devotees will go to make their own connections with the story. And yes, that includes tracking down bits of the real landscape of Britain that are linked to it.

Some people dress up in deerstalker hats and Victorian-style coats and smoke Meerschaum pipes. Well, they probably just suck the things, this being an antismoking age. And come to think of it they aren’t likely to inject themselves with a 7% solution of cocaine, though you never can tell for sure. They are the equivalent of geeks in Darth Vader or Dr Who outfits who meet with other consenting adults in convention centres. Another branch of the species this year has been very prevalent: the outdoor-habitat Battle of Britain re-enactors. Personally, the characters they portray who are based on fiction don’t seem to me to be particularly interesting or to add much to the world they supposedly inhabited. The real-history buffs are a different matter. Their approaches to accurate portrayal help us to understand a world that is lost but delivered us to where we are now. You can get away with almost anything in the fictional world precisely because it is, and never was, anything other than a creation in the mind of its authors. For sheer entertainment value that’s fine: it probably does most folk some good to pretend to zap a few enemies and save the world every now and then. It’s when somebody tries to lash up fiction with reality that the trouble starts. It can too easily become cultural corruption.

Hunting around for the origins of the Hound story it becomes obvious just what examples of this there are. Lots of enthusiasts and plenty of commercial operators want to get in on the act, claim bits of the story for their own neck of the world or some ancestor’s part in it. These pages are not the place to go in to great detail about it. Just try googling the personalities and places that I have mentioned and you will see better what I mean. If you want to look in more detail, become a great detective yourself and gather the evidence published over the years in books by writers like William S Baring-Gould who concocted a detailed biography of Holmes and his acquaintances, or Philip Weller who has more recently examined the connections between the Baskerville story and Devon. Both are of great interest to Sherlock Holmes fans. Baring-Gould’s book stretches things rather a lot in treating Holmes as a real person who lived to the age of 103 and died in 1957. Does it matter? No. Plenty of writers and film-makers have embroidered their own decorative detail onto the stories that Conan Doyle wove as they have with so many other fictional creations.

Philip Weller is a little different. His book is called The Hound of the Baskervilles: Hunting the Dartmoor Legend. He is not writing fiction expansions to anything. He is claiming closer relationships between his county of Devon and the story that Conan Doyle shaped in his own imagination. It reads like a takeover bid on behalf of Devon tour operators. He declares that Sydney Paget’s original illustration in the first edition of the Hound of the Baskervilles in which Watson finds Holmes living rough in a stone hut with roof and door frame shows ignorance of the prehistoric remains on Dartmoor. Grimspound could not have been the model for Holmes’s hiding place because the huts have no roofs. It is also too far from the house that Weller decides must have been the original for Baskerville Hall. It is highly misleading to force connections between locations in fact and locations in fiction this way. He wants to invent a reality, for whatever reason, that never existed. Similarly, Weller makes Newton Abbott station the place where Watson arrives by train from London and transfers to a horse-drawn wagonette. This is because it must be about twelve miles from Baskerville Hall as the subsequent wagonette ride took two hours, and the train must have been a London express. But the story refers to a “small, wayside station” which does not sound like Newton Abbott. Watson and his companions might have changed trains to use a local branch line service.

The model for Baskerville Hall sends Weller off on what looks more like a literary wild goose chase. With the assiduity of a true detective he refers to a couple of dozen that have been suggested as Conan Doyle’s inspirations. His conclusions are incomplete, but being geographical determinist the model must have been drawn from two or three to the south east of Dartmoor as no single house fits every criterion regarding position, surroundings and architecture. This does some disservice to the author of the adventure and to the understanding of the process of writing fiction. The Baskerville Hound tale is out of the imagination and based on the broad experiences of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is not a documentary.

Philip Weller discusses his ‘candidates’ for the model for Baskerville Hall in some detail. The most likely ones for him are, as it happens, difficult to visit and even to see, tucked away as they are in the deep-set lanes and farmlands of Devon just off the actual moor. His book has excellent photos, however, of them and of other important locations connected to Conan Doyle’s writing. It was photos of the gravestones in my previous posting that helped me to locate them. But I am unconvinced by his arguments. It is outside the scope of this website page to examine them in detail here. Suffice it to say that two of them, Brook Manor and Hayford Hall look much too warm and inviting to suggest ‘Baskerville Hall’, built of dark granite and with elements of the mysterious and threatening about them. Far better are the two shown in old postcards above, both from dates around the time when Doyle knew them. Stonyhurst (spelled with an extra ‘e’ on the card) was Arthur Doyle’s school (he used that form of his name then) between 1868 and 1875. It was run by the Jesuits – and is still an important independent school – but Doyle apparently hated the way it was run and indeed what it stood for in his day. On leaving he became an agnostic. The other place, Cromer Hall in Norfolk, he visited in 1901 in the company of Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who later showed him the Devon locations. Fletcher Robinson told him of the legend of the marauding hound known as Black Shuck which was said to have terrorised people in that part of Norfolk. Here is Dr Watson’s description of Baskerville Hall as Conan Doyle penned it. There are strong similarities:

“In the fading light I could see that the centre was a heavy block of building from which a porch projected. The whole front was draped in ivy, with a patch clipped bare here and there where a window or coat of arms broke through the dark veil. From this central block rose the twin towers, ancient, crenellated and pierced with many loopholes. To right and left of the turrets were more modern wings of black granite. A dull light shone through the heavy mullioned windows, and from the high chimneys which rose from the steep, high-angled roof there sprang a single, black column of smoke”.

It is much more likely that Conan Doyle’s unhappy memories of Stonyhurst and interested thoughts about Cromer Hall, combined with views of Dartmoor granite houses, combined to feed his creative mind in writing the description. As I said before, the famous adventure story is – a story: not a documentary. It should not be forced into being a tourist itinerary, however good that might be for the economy and pride of Devon.

Weller, Philip (2001) The Hound of the Baskervilles: Hunting the Dartmoor Legend, Tiverton, Devon Books in association with Halsgrove

Image: Conan Doyle's Baskerville people


It's interesting dig up some of the contacts that Conan Doyle had who contributed elements to his story.

Whoops! - did I say dig up?

It was a friend of Conan Doyle's who told him folk tales about wild and murderous dogs in Norfolk and in Devon. Bertram Fletcher Robinson was acknowledged as an important contributor to the 'Hound of the Baskervilles' story by Conan Doyle himself, having supplied the central figure of the hound. He also took the famous author to many of the Devonian locations discussed in these postings. Fletcher Robinson died relatively younng in 1907, aged 36. He is buried in Ipplepen (left hand photos). We went to find the grave, having parked Church Path by the burial ground. Well, it looked like a proper lane ... after photographing the grave stone we drove further along the 'path' as it was going to be tricky to turn round. The lane got narrower. And narrower. We closed in the wing mirrors. With some sharp turns it looked at one point as though the lane would end in front of someone's gate. With a great sigh of relief the lane continued, widened - and released us from its threatened clutches.

It took two visits and help from published photos to find two more graves in Ashburton - St Andrew's Church. Henry Baskerville was Fletcher Robinson's carriage driver who took his boss and Conan Doyle around Devon to see those various places. His name became used for the man Watson must protect from danger when he goes to claim his ancestral home after a previous death. The headmaster, John Mortimer, of Ashburton, supplied the name of the village doctor who draws Holmes and Watson into the adventure.

Conan Doyle murdered his friend to cover up adultery and plagiarism? Click here!

Image: Locations around Dartmoor

Staverton station is a halt on the South Devon steam railway line close to Dartmoor, running from Totnes to Buckfastleigh. Railways feature in many Sherlock Holmes stories. Two film and TV versions of the Hound of the Baskervilles have used Staverton – one with Peter Cushing in1959 and the other Tom Baker in 1982. Dr John Watson made the journey to Devon from London by train but would have arrived in a mainline station like Newton Abbot. But Staverton gives a feeling of a steam railway station close to Dartmoor and the dramatisations mentioned used it to fill the film frames with convincing settings.

Close to Fox Tor Mires is Nun’s Cross Farm, no longer lived in. Hidden by neighbouring hills from general view it was probably the inspiration for Merrypit House in Conan Doyle’s story, where Stapleton lived.

The English Heritage site known as Grimspound is further away towards Hay Tor. Watson finds Holmes had in fact travelled to Devon after him rather than stay in Baker Street. Holmes slept rough in a stone hut, roofed over and giving adequate shelter. Grimspound is a prehistoric remain consisting of a number of hut circles – the remains of collapsed stone huts – within a stone perimeter wall. There are many across Dartmoor and Doyle is known to have visited a number including this one in the company of Bertram Fletcher Robinson who introduced him to many locations and, indeed, legends about phantom hounds that were responsible for the death of people like Richard Cabell, detailed below.

Image: Dartmoor Prison


Dartmoor prison: in Britain, the symbol of harsh punishment in the bleak setting of the cold, wet moors away from more civilised society. The worst offenders were sent there to break stones in years of hard labour.

Only it isn’t like that. Dartmoor houses 600+ largely white-collar offenders in a Category C regime. These are for men unlikely to attempt escape but who cannot be trusted sufficiently for an open prison. There are many educational programmes in ‘The Moor’ and the internal conditions are claimed to be much better than they were in the nineteenth century when the present prison buildings were constructed. The grey granite and the moorland location, isolated from all but the village of Princetown, made for a notorious reputation beloved of writers of fiction.

Such as Arthur Conan Doyle.

It suited Conan Doyle perfectly as a threatening background to his Baskerville tale in which the foreground was the empty and dangerous upland wilderness. Away from the life of London, distant from the mellow Devon farmlands, this was an alien place to the readers of the Strand Magazine in which the story first appeared, in serial form. To the Moor comes Dr Watson, leaving the great Sherlock Holmes many miles away in the capital. Watson has to act as Holmes’s eyes and ears, accompanying Sir Henry Baskerville who must take up his ancestral home and face the monstrous hound that has killed his uncle Sir Charles Baskerville on the edge of the moor. Watson meets the people who are associated with Baskerville Hall and its scattered community. He finds the tensions that define their varied characters and which could be the reason for the murderous scheme to end Sir Henry’s life, too.

The prison contributes the murderer known in the story by his surname alone – Selden. On arriving on Dartmoor Dr Watson sees an armed warden sat astride a horse on the lookout for Selden, who has escaped. Selden’s crime is left shrouded in mystery by Conan Doyle beyond it being called particularly vicious and despicable. Is this the man who Sir Henry must fear?

Dartmoor Prison is close to Fox Tor Mires, the inspiration for Grimpen Mire which claims victims in a dreadful form of death during the drama. Across the road from the prison is the Church of St Michael. The jail was built originally in 1809 to house French and then American prisoners of war. The POWs also built the church. By 1816 wars with the French and the Americans had ended. The prison closed. It was only in 1851 that it re-opened to house long-term convicts, the present buildings being built for them. In the churchyard are some small, granite stones, seen in the photo above. These mark the last resting places of men who died in the jail. They have only their initials and year of death to be remembered by. Dartmoor Prison might be a more salubrious place today than it was in the days when Victorian travellers passed its gates, but the modern tourist wanting to see it for him- or herself does not see other then the cold grey reality of the granite prison. Especially when the mists swirl around and the imagination turns again to the tale of the monstrous hound out there on the moors.

Image: Grimpen Mire

The climax of Hound of the Baskervilles comes when the hound is shot and the villain sinks to his death in the swamp of Grimpen Mire.

Conan Doyle took his inspiration for the treacherous Mire from Fox Tor Mire. This lies a short way south east of Princetown. A long lane runs straight out into the moor, turns sharply, dips down into a broad vale and peters out amongst the stone ruins of the Whiteworks tin mines. These are for all the world like prehistoric stone circles, low and almost become grown into the surrounding turf. Some of the old mine shafts remain, filled with water, scummy and dark-coloured. Apparently the tin workings have drained some of the ground so that the dangerous spongy marsh, running deep, is not as extensive as it used to be. But it is still a place where the walker must follow safe paths close to stone field walls built along more solid ground.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles the killing of the beast is the climax. Of the end of the villain in Grimpen Mire there is only Holmes and Watson’s surmise:

“As we at last reached firmer ground beyond the morass we all looked eagerly for them. But no slightest sign of them ever met our eyes. If the earth told a true story, then [the villain] never reached that island of refuge towards which he struggled through the fog upon that last night. Somewhere in the heart of the great Grimpen Mire, down in the foul slime of the huge morass which had sucked him in, this cold and cruel-hearted man is forever buried”.

You may read the story for yourself to find out the name of the ‘cruel-hearted man’.

[Centre picture above: Sidney Paget's original illustration from the novel with the butterfly-hunter, Stapleton, showing Dr John Watson Grimpen Mire]

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