On the trail of Sherlock Holmes in Britain

by Hannah Stuart-Leach
Wednesday 31 January 2018

Find out what inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s eccentric super sleuth and follow in the footsteps of the actors who’ve played him. 

The famous detective’s home 

A policeman outside the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street
© Llubov Terletska

A good place to start your investigation into Holmes is, well, his home. Or at least his fictional home. The Baker Street address (237-41 rather than 221B) houses the Sherlock Holmes Museum, with faithful recreations of his Victorian lodgings as described in the books. Wonder at the curious collection of possessions, left haphazardly as though the man himself just left the room, then venture upstairs to see waxwork reenactments of some memorable Sherlock mysteries. 

London literary links, from fact to fiction 

Warm lighting and red seating inside the Royal Opera House, London

Most of Sherlock’s crime capers are set in the capital, featuring places frequented by his author. First stop: The Langham. The opulent 5-star hotel features in various Sherlock books and is where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle enjoyed ‘a golden evening’ sharing ideas with fellow writer Oscar Wilde. The atmospheric Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, on Fleet Street, was another of the author’s favourite spots.

Go to Simpson’s in the Strand, too. The traditional English restaurant is very evocative of Sherlock and Watson’s era, and you can easily imagine them ruminating on their latest case, just like in The Illustrious Client and The Dying Detective, perhaps while enjoying a steak and kidney pudding. And while The Sherlock Holmes pub, near Charing Cross station, wasn’t around in Doyle’s time, it’s filled with fascinating memorabilia collected with the support of his family. 

Keep your eyes peeled as you explore London, lots of landmarks get a mention in the books including the British Museum, Lyceum Theatre and Royal Opera House. Oh, and the Royal Albert Hall deserves a mention: Doyle was a spiritualist, and on his death an enormous seance was conducted there by friends and family to summon him from the grave. They even left a chair free!

You can book on the Sherlock Holmes Walking Tour of London.

Sherlock: The TV show 

Filming of the BBC's Sherlock series in Bristol
© Bristol Film Office

There are multiple film and TV versions of the Sherlock books, but a lot of contemporary fans will have arrived via the hit BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch. You can visit many of the filming locations where the Sherlock cast were spotted - in Cardiff, Bristol and London.

Bristol Film Office have put together a handy map for self-guided tours of the city, featuring locations such as Arnos Vale Cemetery where Sherlock visited the grave of Emilia Ricoletti in The Abominable Bride. In Cardiff and London, Brit Movie Tours runs group tours around the main locations. Highlights include the National Museum in Cardiff, as seen in The Blind Banker, and Speedy’s Cafe in London, which appeared in numerous episodes beneath Sherlock’s flat on North Gower Street. It’s a real cafe so pop in for some tea and cake (and maybe a souvenir t-shirt). 

On the big screen 

A couple browsing Sherlock exhibits at Portsmouth Museum

There have been around 250 on-screen portrayals of the Sherlock characters, going all the way back to 1900. Some interesting ones to watch before your visit are The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), the first Sherlock film in colour, and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), which includes a sighting of the Loch Ness Monster! Most recently, Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes) and Jude Law (Dr Watson) starred as the crime-solving duo in the 2009 thriller Sherlock Holmes. The action-packed take on the classic creation filmed all over the country, from The Historic Dockyard Chatham in Kent to Stanley Dock in Liverpool. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspiration 

Dartmoor landscape with dark clouds above

The author used his experiences travelling around Britain to get ideas for novels. The wild hills of Dartmoor led him to create The Hound of the Baskervilles. He visited in 1901 in search of suitably eerie settings, taking long, windswept walks each day and writing in his room at The Duchy Hotel in Princetown, now the Highland Moorland Visitor Centre. 

He also visited Norfolk, staying at The Hill House Inn in Happisburgh, which inspired The Adventure of the Dancing Men - note the stick men images, which came after a discovery that the landlord’s son communicated using such illustrations. 

And of course there’s Portsmouth, where the stories began. Doyle invented Sherlock after moving to the port city in 1882 to set up a medical practice (he was a doctor by day). His first two Sherlock tales - A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four - were written there. The free Portsmouth Museum has the largest permanent exhibition dedicated to him.


Hannah Stuart-Leach

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