Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s longest Sherlock Holmes story is undoubtedly the most famous novel with a Dartmoor setting. It is well known, so I won’t look too closely at the plot. It was written by Doyle after he had “killed off” the famous detective at the Reichenbach Falls in ‘The Final Problem’ and before he brought Holmes back in ‘The Empty House’. It was said to be an episode from Holmes’ earlier career.
But here I want to talk about some of the settings of the Hound on Dartmoor. It’s a place I know rather well, having walked every inch of the Moor over forty years and having been a walks guide there, as well as spending nine years as chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association in the days when it was a proper campaigning organisation.
The murder of Sir Charles Baskerville takes place at his home of Baskerville Hall. In point of fact, Doyle took his inspiration for the legend of the giant hound from legends in the Welsh Marches and the Black Shuck in Norfolk. Though it has to be added that Dartmoor has a considerable number of hound legends.
In particular, Doyle was probably thinking of the legend of Richard Cabell of Brook Manor, near Buckfastleigh, who led – tradition relates – an evil life before his death in 1677. He was buried in a particularly ornate tomb in Buckfastleigh churchyard, a tomb within a tomb within a tomb. He was often said to be accompanied on his hunts by a very vicious hound. Some have suggested, with no real evidence, that the hound tore his throat out. A whole pack of hounds are said to have rampaged across the Moor on the night of his death. A local legend says that if you walk seven times around his tomb and then put your finger in the keyhole of the door, Cabell, now a vampire will bite you! Some say his hound does the chore for him. I have to say I’ve tried it. And nothing happened. Or if it did I didn’t notice.
Brook Manor certainly fits the description of Baskerville Hall, though the location is too far off the high moorland to correspond to Doyle’s description. I would personally set the house somewhere in the vicinity of Prince Hall, on the Dartmeet to Two Bridges road. Not far away are Bellever and Merripit – the home of Stapleton the naturalist – which are mentioned in the book. The convict prison at Princetown, from which the prisoner Seldon has escaped, is just a few miles away.
A few miles into the Moor from Prince Hall is Fox Tor Mire, undoubtedly the setting for the Great Grimpen Mire of the story. In reality Fox Tor Mire is nowhere near as treacherous as its fictional counterpart. I have crossed it more times than I can count, and suffered little more damage than muddy feet. Though, I should add, it is not a risk to be taken by the inexperienced moor-walker. The mire was partially drained by mining operations over a century ago and may have been more difficult to traverse in earlier times. There are now more treacherous valley mires on Dartmoor, such as Raybarrow Pool, above Chagford, where I once went in up to my chest.
The village of Coombe Tracey in the novel, where lives the mistreated Laura Lyons is based on Bovey Tracey on the eastern side of Dartmoor.
The idea for the Hound was given to Doyle by his friend Fletcher Robinson of Ipplepen. Robinson took Doyle on tours of the Moor (his coachman’s name was Baskerville). Doyle also stayed at the Old Duchy Hotel at Princetown. Interestingly, the room he used became my office when I was chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, though the internal space had been somewhat adjusted by that point.
At one point in the story Holmes hides in a prehistoric hut on the Moor. This was based on the Bronze Age village of Grimspound, North-West of Widecombe, which Doyle visited during his moorland tour. Some of the huts in the old village were restored at around the same time. A few miles to the north is Fernworthy (not a village as suggested, but now a reservoir on the River Teign surrounded by some dull conifer forest and splendid antiquities). It is here that the litigious Mr Frankland is burned in effigy for closing a footpath.
Conan Doyle didn’t have a great knowledge of Dartmoor, despite being at one point a doctor in Plymouth. In fact in his Dartmoor short story “Silver Blaze” he puts Tavistock into the centre of Dartmoor, rather than on its western borders.
But there is no doubt that “The Hound of the Baskervilles” captures the spirit of Dartmoor, particularly the moorland of October. It is a story now completely associated with Dartmoor, though it is in only recent years that much has been made of it locally. Interestingly the only film version that was mostly filmed on Dartmoor was the version for BBC Television featuring Peter Cushing as the detective and Nigel Stock as Dr Watson – a fairly faithful adaptation.
The Hound is a good book to read if you are visiting the old Moor for the first time, even though the author does play fast and loose with Dartmoor geography.