02 November 2014

Devon Delights: A Return to Dartmoor

There was a a perfect foggy midst settling upon the moor. It was a scene befitting of Conan Doyle himself.
In fact I felt quite in a similar position as I traveled through Dartmoor by coach with 59 other Holmesians this September.

It was my second trip to the moors of Devon, but when you're surrounded by enthusiasts of the same stories, of the same characters, of the same author it was a whole different experience than my own initial exploration last year.

The residence was Dartington Hall, near Totnes.  The 14th Century, 50-room estate had many rooms with a view on the centre courtyard or surrounding gardens in this relaxing venue where we could all meet and mingle as well as serve as the starting into our adventures in Dartmoor!

The weekend kicked off Friday night with  a meal in the 14th Century Grand Hall—built between 1388 and 1400—at the Dartington Estate.  The Great Hall’s large wooden beams and towering windows illustrated the hall’s great stature.  One could imagine Hugo Baskerville himself magnificently gallivanting in front of the large rectangular fireplace that graced the front of the grand room, entertaining his entourage so much that everyone took some time to admire it.

The final event of the evening consisted of a video compiled by Paul Singleton entitled, A Hound It Was…Projecting the Baskerville Curse.  Running roughly 90 minutes, the video presented a look at the visual adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles from television and film; animated, in colour, as well as black and white.  Holmes stalwarts such as Cushing and Rathbone were among the numerous references in the piece, but other connections were also made: for example, a Holmes played by Tom Baker in 1982 and even a 1972 adaptation with William Shatner as Stapleton.

The journey through Dartmoor began bright and early on Saturday 20 September.  Much like Conan Doyle may have done, we all gathered in our form of modern transport to brave the wild, winding, rough roads of the moor.  The three coaches—red, blue, and green coded—packed with Holmesian pilgrims traversed the moorlands throughout the entire day.  Through the villages of Ashburton—(the home of Fletcher Robinson and Arthur Conan Doyle’s coach driver, Henry Baskerville), Bovey Tracey, and Moretonhampstead we went until reaching the moors themselves. 

As if on order from Sherlock Holmes himself, we drove through the early morning fog-covered moors barely sighting the surrounding landscape.  The fog accompanied us on our way as we dodged moorland sheep and cattle.  In a few miles, the fog began to clear, leaving in its wake amazing and bright views.  Horseman, hounds and ponies passed us on our way to our first views of the towering Tors mentioned by Watson in Hound of the Baskervilles —Vixen and Black Tors.  An unexpected stop at Black Tor provided an opportunity for the pilgrims to take pictures of the outcropping of rock and one couldn’t help but imagine a moon-lit silhouette far off in the distance.

The first afternoon was in Princetown, where we drove past Dartmoor prison—former home to Selden, the Notting Hill murderer.  A visit to the newly refurbished National Visitor Centre, formerly The Duchy Hotel and site where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had spent time writing Hound of the Baskervilles, provided a leisurely visit of the Centre complete with an area dedicated to Conan Doyle and his connection with the Centre and a spirited talk by a Centre staff member.   The Princetown Centre is home to a family-friendly exhibit on Dartmoor and its history as well as an exhibition room.  As visitors we were invited to enjoy ourselves with the items in Doyle’s re-created study and peek inside, what appeared to be a trunk left by Mr. Holmes himself!  

The next stop would be to take the view of the Fox Tor Mire:  the mire most credited with being identified as the deadly bog in Holmes and Watson’s adventure. All were advised to stay near the bus and not travel too far lest we be taken and, though a few dared to walk some yards for a better look, many heeded the warning and enjoyed the wondrous view of the Highland Moor from sturdier land.  In the end, we all returned to our transport safely and were ready for out next stop—Two Bridges—for lunch.

The post-lunch travel we were all ready to take on the next stops as we headed toward a view of Belliver Tor—a fair distance from Vixen Tor, leading many to not believe Dr. Watson when he says that he could take in the “fantastic shapes and Belliver and Vixen Tor.”  Driving the distance, it is certainly a strong argument that Watson had indeed made a mistake in the identification of the Tors.  Laughter Hole Farm followed as the probable site of Dr. Frankland’s home where Watson notes his litigations and telescopes. 
By mid-afternoon, we found ourselves in “the small, grey hamlet” of Postbridge.  It is common to identify of this site as a good candidate for Grimpen, where Mortimer lived and the telegram were sent from the Post Office, the remnant of which can still be seen today.  Everyone enjoyed the stop to visit the hamlet shops and the 12th Century clapper bridge. 

We loaded ourselves into the coaches once again to brave more winding Moorish roads to locate Grimspound.  Narrow roads and the modern hassles of inconvenient parking prevented a proper view of one of the best-known pre-historic settlements on Dartmoor. 

A stop at Widecombe in the Moor was the perfect opportunity wander a small village in the heart of Dartmoor.  The village, also a candidate for Grimpen, is more associated as part of the inspiration for the town of Coombe Tracey in The Hound of the Baskervilles.  After viewing so many Tors, we all were able to explore one for ourselves.  Hound Tor, not mentioned in Conan Doyle’s Hound, but certainly important to BBC’s Hounds of Baskerville as it served for the site Sherlock and John surveyed the Great Grimpen Minefield. 

The final evening stop was made in Buckfastleigh to visit the remains at the Church of the Holy Trinity and the tomb of Cavalier Richard Cabell of Brook Manor—undoubtedly the original “Hugo Baskerville” and influence for the legend.  Cabell’s former home, Brook Manor, even bears a similar description to Baskerville.  Finally, we were even treated to our own reading of the legend followed by some local insights to the legend. 

Sunday 21 September began a bit later.  One coach left Dartington Hall bound for the sunshine of the “English Riviera” rather than the fog and mist of the moorlands.  The Dartmouth Steam Railway, outfitted much like the Victorian trains of Holmes’s time, took us on a journey from Paignton to Kingswear (and back) to enjoy the sites along the way.  It wasn’t hard to imagine the many journeys Homes and Watson took on similar trains to Dartmoor or the many other destinations their adventures took them.

A yearly trip to Dartmoor looks like a nice plan on the horizon.  Maybe next year, camping!  

A ride on a steam train a la Orient Express
A train car with a special name, dear to my heart. 
A Victorian train and a bunch of Sherlockians--Holmes sweet Holmes