As a real testament to people power, I just heard the Royal Courts of Justice have handed down their judgement in the judicial review against my local Borough Council’s planning decision regarding Arthur Conan Doyle’s home in Hindhead. The planning decision to carve up the house has been OVERTURNED due to “legal flaws” identified during the process.
If local people passionate about the preservation of significant buildings had not given their time, sweat and tears to this project, a lovely example of Edwardian architecture of local, literary importance would be town houses and flats by now.
This is by no means the end, as it is possible the owners may submit new plans, but at the moment, we should delight in victory and pat those at the Undershaw Preservation Trust and their supporters firmly on the back!
The full press release by the legal team representing UPT is here http://bit.ly/LGZKzj
The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the most well-known of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, certainly it is the most adapted for film or TV. When it was written in 1901, Arthur Conan Doyle had not written a Sherlock Holmes story for 8 years. To all intents and purposes, Holmes was lying dead at the bottom of the falls as described in The Final Problem. Conan Doyle worked around this issue by introducing the reader to a new mystery which took place before Holmes’ death. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a tale well-known to most of us. Dr Mortimer asks Holmes to look into the inexplicable and sudden death of Sir Charles Baskerville of Baskerville Hall in Dartmoor. Sir Charles made Dr Mortimer aware of a family legend of the curse of the Baskervilles involving a large and bloodthirsty hound supposed to roam the moor. Mortimer saw the paw prints of a “gigantic hound” at the place where Sir Charles died and is concerned for Sir Charles’ heir, a young Canadian, Sir Henry Baskerville. Holmes sends Watson to Dartmoor to act as bodyguard to Sir Henry, investigate and report back on a daily basis by telegram. Watson does a good job of describing the various residents of the moor and the goings-on in this eerie landscape. The story includes an escaped convict from a local prison, assumed identities, cruelty, family intrigue, ambition and the use of the landscape as a means to torment and frighten. It is an atmospheric story, full of suggestion and strange noises breeding anxiety in the reader. Conan-Doyle makes great use of the landscape and weather conditions to create a feeling of terror. Needless to say in the end, Holmes steals Watson’s thunder and solves the case with seeming ease.
I don’t know whether Arthur Conan Doyle felt inspiration from the landscape around his home, but according to WR Trotter in “The Hilltop Writers”, he was joined in Hindhead/Haslemere by several other literary heavyweights around the turn of the century. There was a 10 year period when writers such as Grant Allen, George Bernard Shaw, George Elliot, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Margaret Oliphant and Christina Rossetti and others moved here permanently or stayed for extended periods. With the industrial revolution came not only the railway, but also advances in printing and communications which allowed these writers to live in such wild country while remaining within easy reach of the capital city. Whenever there is a congregation of talent they invariably feed off each other and for a while Hindhead and Haslemere became a hub of intellectual activity that included artists and scientists as well as writers. The solitude of the hills, heaths and common land will have offered a welcome interruption to writing; a landscape to inspire.
The National Trust bought the Hindhead Commons and the Devil’s Punch Bowl soon after its inception at the instigation of Sir Robert Hunter, one of its founders. Hunter lived in Hindhead and was often found walking on the common. Arthur Conan Doyle was a member of the first Hindhead Commons Committee and often walked out with Hunter (according to The National Trust). Conan Doyle was an incredibly active man and known as an able sportsman, so I can imagine he took solace in the exercise the landscape afforded.
I have walked there in all weathers and although on a beautiful day the views from the hills are amazing and far-reaching, there is still something mysterious in this beauty. A week ago as I dropped one of the younger Fictionhabits at cricket practise, the low-lying cloud was clinging to the surrounding hillside, obliterating the summits, bringing a claustrophobic and eerie atmosphere to the village green. Historically, the Punchbowl was regarded with fear and superstition as a dark malevolent province of
smugglers and deadly spirits and few people dared set foot there. I think it is a combination of this history and the legends of devils and feuding gods together with the barren, sandy landscape as well as the acoustics within the Devil’s Punch Bowl itself that evokes some of its mystery. When you are at the bottom of the Devil’s Punch Bowl it is very quiet, which can seem quite weird. In bad weather, it is desolate, but there is something quite lovely about trekking the hillsides in the rain and admiring the hollow from above.
Did Arthur Conan Doyle take inspiration from his surrounds when writing The Hound ofthe Baskervilles? I don’t have any definite evidence that he did. I know he visited Dartmoor as part of his research and walked the moors for a couple of weeks taking in the atmosphere. He wrote the book itself, however, at Hindhead and there are some similarities between descriptions of Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles and the countryside around Undershaw.
Take, for example, the view Watson and Henry Baskerville first encounter when approaching the station and compare it to an engraving of a sketch by JM Turner from 1811 called Hindhead Hill.
“Over the green squares of the fields and the low curve of a wood there rose in the distance a grey, melancholy hill, with a grey jagged summit, dim and vague in the distance, like some fantastic landscape in a dream.”
Other descriptions in the book could also quite easily be Hindhead Common or the Devil’s Punchbowl. The following are a few examples all taken from Watson’s first descriptions of the moor.
“Bronzing bracken and mottled bramble gleamed in the light of the sinking sun” “Both road and stream wound up through a valley dense with scrub oak ad fir” “A steep curve of heath-clad land, an outlying spur of the moor lay in front of us”
Later in the story, while chasing a man during the night, Holmes and Watson “run through the gloom, blundering against boulders, forcing our way through gorse bushes” Gorse, bracken and heather are found in abundance on Hindhead Common.
This year, from 11th May – 25th September the British Library is running an exhibition called Writing Britain which aims to examine how the landscapes of Britain permeate great literary works. As far as I am aware, Arthur Conan Doyle does not feature, so I can only wonder at how the landscape close to my own home and only a stone’s throw from his, may have inspired his most celebrated piece of writing.
By the way…the judicial review of Waverley Borough Council’s planning decision regarding Undershaw took place at the High Court on Wednesday 23rd. No decision was made on the day, the judge will publish his findings by the end of July. I will keep you posted.
Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle was an in-comer to the Surrey Hills when he moved into his home, Undershaw, in Hindhead in 1897. He came here for a very specific reason. His wife, Louisa, suffered from tuberculosis and the family spent many months abroad seeking the right climate to keep her well. Another consumptive and Canadian author Grant Allen told Conan-Doyle there was no need for his nomadic life style. The climate around Hindhead and its height were perfect for keeping the symptoms at bay. Conan-Doyle rushed to Hindhead, found Allen to be right and promptly bought a plot of land.
Having sketched some plans of his own, he handed his designs to his architect friend Joseph Henry Ball to complete the draft and supervise the construction. The family moved into the house in 1897. The house is built in Edwin Lutyen’s classic Surrey vernacular style, with red brick, soaring roof and tall chimneys. It was modern beyond compare and included one of the first domestic electricity generators on site. It is nestled below the intersection of the road leading from Haslemere and the old London to Portsmouth road. This position is sheltered from behind by a small copse and its south-facing aspect overlooks the valley below with far reaching views towards the Downs. Conan-Doyle specified large windows at the front of the house to let in maximum light and commissioned a stain-glass window with his family’s coat of arms. This is what it looked like shortly after the family moved in. Conan-Doyle’s children are shown in the picture.
I have known of Undershaw’s existence since soon after I moved to the area, but never visited it, as its location was at a busy intersection that never saw me visit as a pedestrian. However, last year the A3 Hindhead tunnel was opened, diverting traffic away from this notorious bottleneck.
In the days of the stagecoach, the road from London to Portsmouth was a busy one, and the section through the Surrey hills as it skirted around the Devils Punch Bowl was a lonely and bleak one, an ideal hunting ground for highway men. In those days the road was slightly higher on the hillside than today. There is a grisly murder case linked to these parts which is commemorated with the Sailor’s stone at the side of the road and at Gibbet Hill (where the murderers were hanged) overlooking the Punch Bowl. By the time the railway came to the Surrey hills, the road was much quieter.
This is what the road would have looked like when Conan-Doye and his family moved to Undershaw.
The position of the sailor’s stone would have provided the perfect vista of the natural cleft in the countryside.
It is more wooded now, but still quite a barren and eerie spot.
It was while living at Undershaw that Conan-Doyle wrote some of his most important work. It was here he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, and where he resurrected Sherlock Holmes after his faked tumble into the Riechenbach Falls. Undershaw was his home for 10 years until Louisa died and he remarried.
Over the Easter weekend I finally went to find Undershaw and take a look at it for myself. I knew there have been issues with the house, that it has fallen into a sad state of repair. Here are the pictures I took.
The arch on the main road welcoming guests to the hotel. The main drive to the house is further along on the right.
The side of the house as you come down the drive. This will have been where carriages/cars will have been parked and stored
The front of the house looking at it from the sweeping front lawn.
The right-hand side of the front of the house.
The view of the garden from the house. My photo doesn’t do it justice. Of course it is dreadfully overgrown, but there is no denying that when well maintained the views towards the South Downs must be incredibly inspiring.
Conan-Doyle had intended handing the house down to his son, Kingsley, but unfortunately he died just before the end of the first world war. Finally, in 1935 Conan-Doyle sold the house and it was turned into a small hotel which operated until 2004, when it was sold to a property developer. The developer has not maintained the house and it is now at the mercy of the elements. In 2010 my local borough council, Waverley, granted planning permission to turn Undershaw into a series of terraced houses. After appeals and protests the plans are on hold pending a judicial review due to take place later this month on 23rd May. I have no personal ideas of what should happen to the house in the long-term, there are plenty of Sherlock fans with vocal opinions on what should happen to the place. But it is a sad state of affairs that the home of one of our most celebrated authors should either be allowed to become a wreck or be turned into soul-less dwellings, stripping out all of its heritage.
There is a fabulous group of local Conan-Doyle fans who have formed The Undershaw Preservation Trust working towards preserving and protecting Undershaw as a single dwelling. They have lots of famous and hopefully influential followers and supporters, plus lots more information about Undershaw and its history.
In order to write this and my future posts about Arthur Conan-Doyle, Undershaw and Hindhead I have to acknowledge and give thanks to various sources. I have added links so you can carry out your own further reading: