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:
- The Undershaw Preservation Trust
- Wikipedia – Arthur Conan-Doyle, Undershaw, Hindhead Common
- The Hilltop Writers by W.R Trotter (borrowed from Haslemere Library)
My next post in this feature will be about The Hound of the Baskervilles