Post by Joanna on Oct 19, 2016 17:05:41 GMT -5
In the Tracks of the Baskerville Hound
The wind is howling as I peer through the mist at a particularly bleak bit of Dartmoor trying not to let my boots sink into the thick, black mud. I’m on the edge of swampy, fog-shrouded Fox Tor Mire, which was the inspiration for Grimpen Mire in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s hardly surprising this gloomy landscape inspired him to write one of his darkest Sherlock Holmes novels.
In the story, the detective is investigating the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, who died with a countenance of terror on his face, the footprints of a giantic hound nearby. Conan Doyle wrote the novel after sharing a voyage from South Africa to England with Vanity Fair editor Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who regaled him with ghostly tales of his Dartmoor home. Robinson assisted him in developing the plot, drawing on the legend of evil squire Richard Cabell. The author asked Robinson to scout possible locations, which Robinson did with the help of a Devonshire neighbor, the Reverend Robert Duins Cooke.
Now, 85 years after Conan Doyle’s death, Cooke’s great-grandson, Alex Graeme, has become a Dartmoor tour guide too, and on this gloomy autumn day, his spooky eight-hour Hound of the Baskervilles tour seems the ideal way to get in the mood for Halloween. “My great-grandfather absolutely loved Dartmoor,” Graeme says. “Back in those days, the roads were awful and getting around the moor was difficult, so the fact that he dedicated so much time to getting to know it shows his passion for the place.”
Getting around the moor is significantly easier these days. At £360 ($442 US) for groups of up to six, Graeme’s tour is on the pricey side, but he has spent years investigating Dartmoor’s myths and legends and aims to help visitors understand how this place and its people inspired Conan Doyle to write his most famous work.
In the pretty village of Ipplepen, Graeme shows us Park Hill House, Robinson’s former home, and the much smaller 2 Wesley Terrace, home of Henry Baskerville, who was Conan Doyle’s chauffeur during his visits. A mile outside the village stands the 13th-century Old Church House Inn – considered one of the UK’s most haunted – where Conan Doyle drank with his friends. Back in Ipplepen, St. Andrew’s church has beautiful stained-glass windows and, in the churchyard, the leaning gravestones of Robinson and Reverend Cooke.
A few miles west, on the edge of the moor, Buckfastleigh’s Holy Trinity Church is a fragile skeleton following a 1992 fire. It is the resting place of the dastardly 17th-century squire Richard Cabell, thought to be the inspiration for Hugo Baskerville. “The squire was a violent brute,” Graeme explains. “When he died, locals were petrified that his spirit would escape, so they buried him in a coffin sealed with a thick slate lid and enclosed it in a special tomb.” Standing in the shadow of its overhanging roof, I have an involuntary shiver: the iron bars and reinforced stone coffin seem out of place in this peaceful locale. Though on stormy nights, the squire’s hounds are said to howl outside his tomb, and it is said that if you run around his grave seven times, then poke your fingers through the bars, Cabell will nibble them. According to some tales, Cabell became a vampire after his death.
Leaving Buckfastleigh, we drive in a biting wind to Dartmoor. It’s a spooky place, with swirling mist and roads that disappear into bracken. And in one of its remotest corners is the notorious Fox Tor Mire. “A false step yonder means death,” the evil Jack Stapleton warns in the book. Graeme explains that a vast granite bowl beneath our feet prevents water draining off, creating the swamp into which Stapleton eventually disappears.
In the novel, Dr. Watson speaks of “a spectral hound which leaves material footmarks,” and Holmes suspects Stapleton used phosphorous to give the hound its eerie glow. As we drive along Dartmoor’s fog-shrouded lanes, he tells me that today’s visitors often stumble across similarly fluorescent beasts – but these are less scary glow-in-the-dark ponies, painted with reflective paint to make them more visible to drivers so they won’t be hit if they wander onto the road.
We round a corner and are faced with the huge stone hulk of Dartmoor Prison near Princetown. It is impossibly bleak – a fortress set in vast moorland. In The Hound, locals live in fear of Selden, an escaped murderer who roams Dartmoor. Over a fireside pint at the cozy Rugglestone Inn, in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Graeme discusses his plans to close the prison and turn it into a whisky distillery.
When I tell him we’re staying at beautiful Orestone Manor, he asks, “You know about its history?” Fearing stories of haunted hounds and curses, I’m not sure I want to hear but Graeme continues, saying its former owner was John Callcott Horsley, creator of the world’s first Christmas card. My husband swears he sees a mysterious shadow in our room that night, but I like to think it was just Horsley, reminding me to start on my Christmas card list.
At Orestone Manor, a double room costs £110 ($135 US) orestonemanor.com , which will assist in organizing a group for anyone interested in the tour.
Source: Tamara Hinson, The Guardian, October 31, 2015.
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