Rather wonderfully, Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes sees action in Winchester in three of his stories. Apart from London, nowhere else in the country features so many times, although Holmes and his side-kick Watson are most frequently called to investigate in London’s suburbs and the home counties.
Born in Edinburgh, educated at the Catholic hothouse of Stonyhurst and then at Edinburgh University, Conan Doyle settled in Portsmouth in 1882, setting up his medical practice in salubrious Southsea. 1LYCETT, ANDREW, 2007. Conan Doyle: the man who created Sherlock Holmes. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. At the same time, he was working hard to establish himself as a writer, and by the end of his nine years in Southsea, he had published two novels featuring Sherlock Holmes and half a dozen other books, including Micah Clarke (1889), an historical novel about the Monmouth rebellion which gallops all over Hampshire and the South West, and The White Company (1891), another historical novel partly set in the New Forest (which he loved).
Other novels such as The Firm of Girdlestone (1890) and Sir Nigel (1906) also include references to Winchester, particularly its gaol and assizes.
Extract 1 – The Copper Beeches
The first and most substantial Sherlock Holmes story in Winchester is ‘The Copper Beeches’ from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892). The story is built around that staple of detective fiction – false identity – and has two curious incidental aspects. It begins with Holmes grumbling about the lack of stimulus in his work: ‘As to my own little practice, it seems to be degenerating into an agency for recovering lost lead pencils and giving advice to young ladies from boarding-schools.’ The last straw is a letter from Miss Violet Hunter asking his advice on whether or not to accept a position as a governess. She visits Holmes in Baker Street and Watson reports her interview with her prospective employer thus:
‘ “May I ask where you live, sir?”, said [Miss Hunter].
‘ “Hampshire. Charming rural place. The Copper Beeches, five miles on the far side of Winchester. It is the most lovely country, my dear young lady, and the dearest old country house.” ’
Miss Hunter takes the position but a fortnight later Holmes receives this summons:
Please be at the Black Swan Hotel at Winchester at midday tomorrow (it said). Do come! I am at my wits’ end. Hunter.
‘Will you come with me?’ asked Holmes, glancing up [at Watson].
‘I should wish to.’
‘Just look it up, then.’
‘There is a train at half past nine,’ said I, glancing over my Bradshaw. ‘It is due at Winchester at 11.30.’
On the journey to ‘the old English capital’, Watson is beguiled by the fresh and beautiful landscape but Holmes ruminates on the horrors of the rural scenery:
‘It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside. … Had this lady who appeals to us for help gone to live in Winchester, I should never have had a fear for her. It is the five miles of country which makes the danger. … Well, there is the tower of the Cathedral, and we shall soon learn all that Miss Hunter has to tell.’
The ‘Black Swan’ is an inn of repute in the High Street, at no distance from the station, and there we found the young lady waiting for us. She had engaged a sitting-room, and our lunch awaited us upon the table.
At lunch, Miss Hunter recounts her story:
‘When I came down Mr Rucastle met me here, and drove me in his dog-cart to Copper Beeches. It is, as he said, beautifully situated, but it is not beautiful in itself, for it is a large square block of a house, whitewashed, but all stained and streaked with damp and bad weather. There are grounds round it, woods on three sides, and on the fourth a field which slopes down to the Southampton high-road, which curves past about a hundred yards from the front door. The ground in front belongs to the house, but the woods all round are part of Lord Southerton’s preserves. A clump of copper beeches immediately in front of the hall door has given its name to the place.’
After this, the story sees Miss Hunter unwittingly passing herself off as the daughter of fat horrid Rucastle, who was after his daughter’s inheritance, but Holmes’ intervention saves the day and he concludes with approval that Violet Hunter ‘is now the head of a private school at Walsall, where I believe she has met with considerable success.’
What to see
Holmes’s enthusiasm for railways and their timetables clearly marks him out as an early trainspotting type, but this doesn’t extend to cathedral spotting. Winchester Cathedral’s ‘tower’ barely deserves the term and it certainly can’t be seen from the London & South Western railway line. This same railway line also played a significant part in a novel published in 1864 by Mrs M E Braddon. She was the author of the wildly popular Lady Audley’s Secret and her follow-up was Henry Dunbar: the story of an Outcast. This finely crafted sensation novel, in the Wilkie Collins style, was built around the doppelgänger trope, plus railway stations at Basingstoke, Winchester and Southampton, and a bizarre murder in Winchester’s water meadows. Even more coincidental, Conan Doyle had a summer home in the New Forest at Minstead while Mrs Braddon had her summer home just a few miles away at Lyndhurst.
However, Conan Doyle is on surer ground when his troubled governess chooses the Black Swan for her assignation. This was a fine hotel on the south-west corner of the High Street and Southgate Street, notable for its large carved black swan rampant over the High Street entrance. (The hotel was demolished in 1934 and a replica bird still exists on the site of Black Swan Buildings.) The smartest hotel in the city was the George, on the opposite corner, but this would have been beyond the means of Miss Hunter (and was itself demolished in 1956).
As for Copper Beeches, ‘five miles on the far side of Winchester’ takes the traveller to Otterbourne on the main road to Southampton. Here, in the 1890s, there is only one house which fits Miss Hunter’s unflattering description and that is Elderfield, still standing on the corner of the road to Brambridge and opposite St Matthew’s church. The only disguising factor in the story is that the house sits back one hundred yards from the main road, which is itself an anomaly as the story hinges on a passer-by being able to identify someone sitting in the drawing-room.
The second curious feature of ‘The Copper Beeches’ is that the house so described was the actual home of the very successful, very moralising, novelist Charlotte M Yonge. She was extremely well known in her day, and although shy and retiring, it’s improbable that Conan Doyle wouldn’t have been aware of her life at Otterbourne, especially as she’d been domiciled at Elderfield since 1862.2HORROCKS, PETER, ed 1991. The Tri-Metallic Question: the handbook of the Winchester Expedition of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. London: Sherlock Holmes Society of London.
Extract 2 – Silver Blaze
The second story with a Winchester dimension is ‘Silver Blaze’ from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894). It is the story of a race horse, but delightfully is also the source of what has become the most famous quotation about a dog in literary history:
‘Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’
‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’
‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’
‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.
The dog failed to bark because it had been drugged, leading to the disappearance of the best known horse in the country, Silver Blaze, and the death of his trainer, all at the training stables of the irascible Colonel Ross. The stable was on the north side of Dartmoor, about two miles from Tavistock. Holmes identifies the murderer, secretly locates the horse, strikes a deal with a rival stable, persuades Ross not to scratch the horse from the list of runners for the esteemed Wessex Cup, and returns to London.
Four days later Holmes and I were again in the train bound for Winchester, to see the race for the Wessex Cup. Colonel Ross met us, by appointment, outside the station and we drove in his drag to the course beyond the town.
Silver Blaze wins in fine style but is only revealed to be the favourite when the dye is washed from his face and legs, revealing the ‘missing’ horse. Ross is jubilant although taken aback to learn that it was Silver Blaze who had killed the trainer, kicking out when threatened with a scalpel and so hobble his chances in the race. Remarkably, instead of uproar from the bookies and a stewards’ inquiry over entering a horse in disguise – ringing in turf parlance – Holmes goes on to place a bet of his own on the next race, and then reveals the whole story to Ross and Watson on the train home from Winchester.
What to see
There had been a race course at Winchester from at least the time of Charles II and was patronised by him until his death in 1685, which also put a halt to Sir Christopher Wren’s work on his palace. It was a popular and successful circuit for about three hundred years, until its sudden and unexplained disappearance from The Racing Calendar in 1888. The race course was at Worthy Down, a long oval track four miles north of Winchester on the road to Sutton Scotney, between the settlement of South Wonston and Worthy Down camp to the south. By the time of the Silver Blaze race, there was a grandstand, weighing enclosure and stables. Nothing remains however, apart from several generations of youngsters with fond memories of Mr Ward’s riding school at the top of the down, the pair of Race Course Cottages, reputedly built with timber from the grandstand demolished in 1917, and a farm track which on its north-west side bears a strong similarity to the layout of the original circuit.
The course is also celebrated, after a fashion, in Jane Austen’s last piece of writing, the poem ‘Venta’, dictated to her sister while on her death-bed in College Street, Winchester. The second verse runs:
The races however were fix’d and determin’d
The company met & the weather was charming
The Lords & the Ladies were sattin’d & ermin’d
And nobody saw any future alarming.
Extract 3 – The Problem of Thor Bridge
The third Winchester story also concerns a governess in peril, from Conan Doyle’s last, and perhaps weakest collection, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927). Grace Dunbar is on remand in Winchester gaol for the murder of her mistress but it is the husband, an American financier called J Neil Gibson who implores Holmes to save the beautiful young creature from the gallows. Gibson is an unpleasant blustering ‘Gold King’ who cares little for the death of his wife but is besotted with Miss Dunbar, although he appreciates that the evidence against her looks compelling. Holmes summarises the case for Watson:
‘ … and the scene is a grand old manor house, the centre of an historical English estate. Then as to the tragedy. The wife was found in the grounds nearly half a mile from the house, late at night, clad in her dinner dress, with a shawl over her shoulders and a revolver bullet through her brain. No weapon was found near her and there was no clue as to the murder. No weapon near her, Watson – mark that!
‘Nor could [Miss Dunbar] prove an alibi. On the contrary, she had to admit that she was down near Thor Bridge – that was the scene of the tragedy – about that hour. She couldn’t deny it, for some passing villager had seen her there. … This bridge – a single broad span of stone with balustraded sides – carries the drive over the narrowest part of a long, deep, reed-girt sheet of water. Thor Mere it is called. In the mouth of the bridge lay the dead woman. Such are the main facts.’
Holmes and Watson travel to ‘Thor Place, the Hampshire estate of Mr Neil Gibson’ and meet the local constable.
‘This conversation had taken place in the little front room of Sergeant Coventry’s humble cottage, which served as the local police-station. A walk of half a mile or so across a wind-swept heath, all gold and bronze with the fading ferns, brought us to a side gate opening into the grounds of the Thor Place estate. A path led us through the pheasant preserves, and then from a clearing we saw the widespread, half-timbered house, half Tudor and half Georgian, upon the crest of the hill. Beside us there was a long, reedy pool, constricted in the centre where the main carriage drive passed over a stone bridge, but swelling into small lakes on either side. Our guide paused at the mouth of the bridge and pointed … to where Mrs Gibson’s body lay.’
After visiting and inspecting the house, Holmes and Watson ‘were compelled to spend the night at Winchester’ and then ‘were allowed to see the young lady in her cell.’ Following this interview the pair return to Thor Place: ‘It was not a long journey from Winchester to Thor Place – and we had a first-class carriage to ourselves.’ Back at the bridge, Holmes conducts a cavalier experiment with Watson’s trusty revolver, demonstrating that the insanely jealous Mrs Gibson in fact killed herself, having set up bogus evidence to incriminate the innocent governess.
What to see
The real problem of Thor Bridge, for the Holmesian scholar, is where on earth it is, if indeed it is anywhere. The recording angel Watson naturally writes to protect ‘the secrets of private families to an extent which would mean consternation in many exalted quarters if it were thought possible that they might find their way into print.’ His deliberate obfuscation accounts for several anomalies in this story. Twice he refers to Thor Place as being on heath, when the nearest heath-land in Hampshire is either on the Surrey borders or the New Forest, neither near Winchester. Nor are there any notable half-timbered Tudor houses in the county. As for stone bridges, the only one with a balustrade is the City Bridge over the Itchen in Winchester itself.
There are several possible estates near Winchester which might fit the bill as ‘a considerable estate in Hampshire’ but none which tie in with Watson’s misleading clues. To the south of the city, Cranbury Park is Georgian and has stream-fed ponds but no bridges to speak of; Hursley House, also Georgian, hasn’t even any ponds. To the north of Winchester there are firmer prospects: Hurstbourne Park, but Victorian and hardly near Winchester; Norton Manor, a sturdy 17th century house with Tudor origins, a fine lake, and Sutton Scotney railway station nearby on the ill-fated Didcot, Newbury & Southampton line; Norsebury House, Chawton Manor, both possible but no ponds or lakes. None of these is compelling compared with two substantial estates with the necessary water features, proximity to Winchester, and crucially a nearby railway station. Avington Park, three to four miles north-east of Winchester, has (or had) a nearby railway station, is passably Georgian with medieval origins, and at least one handsome stone bridge over the River Itchen which courses through the grounds, though without the balustrade. The house is served by the village of Itchen Abbas and so features the ‘village inn’ where Holmes and Watson spent an evening smoking their pipes – the Plough still provides hospitality, though no smoking rooms. Critically, the local station of Itchen Abbas, on what was then the Mid-Hants Railway, provided an easy ride from Winchester. Sadly this line was abandoned in 1973 but survives in truncated form as the Watercress Line and can still be travelled from Alton to Alresford.
The other candidate for Thor Place is the Grange at Northington. This was accessible from both Itchen Abbas station and also Micheldever on the main London & South Western Line. It has lakes aplenty fed by the Candover stream and a stone bridge to cross them, it tops a hill, and is Georgian in date though certainly not half Tudor. The house was one of the finest in England, the apotheosis of Greek revival and of national and international architectural importance. The Grange doesn’t fit all of Watson’s ‘criteria’ but has one significant claim which is that it was owned by the Baring family, then international bankers of massive authority. Alexander Baring, who bought the house in 1817, had significant American connections and the subsequent Baring dynasty carried considerable influence in political and social life for nearly two centuries. Known locally as the Over-Barings, it is perhaps understandable that Watson deceived his readers with conflicting clues.
There are still handsome views of Avington Park along the Itchen Valley and although a family home, the house can be hired for business and pleasure. The Grange, or what’s left of it following demolition of the west wing in 1972 by the Hon John Baring, can be readily visited, being in the guardianship of Historic England while still owned by the Baring family. It is also home to the Grange Festival, which promotes opera in a new theatre created within the orangery.
Sources & links
There are hundreds of sites, from all round the world, devoted to Sherlock Holmes and his creator. Some of the most informative, stylish and entertaining are the Sherlock Holmes Society of London; the Sherlock Holmes Society of England, and the Sherlockian. The Arthur Conan Doyle Collection (Lancelyn Green Bequest) is also worth a visit (in both senses) at Portsmouth Central Library, PO1 2XD.
Notes and references