The London of Sherlock Holmes

IF you seek the city of Sherlock Holmes, the fog-bound London illuminated by gaslight and dreams, you can still find it to a surprising degree. On a visit last August, I discovered that Holmes was an apt guide to London, where the game's still afoot,'' and so is the touring.

 

 Mr Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street
In ''The Red-Headed League,'' Holmes remarks to Watson, ''It is a hobby of mine to have an exact knowledge of London.'' So, using his tales, I set out to follow Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's clues on foot.

 
The Holmes pilgrim will be surprised by the mix of old and modern buildings in Baker Street. This heavily trafficked artery between Regent's Park and Oxford Street is filled with small businesses, sandwich shops and banks, and doesn't always evoke hansom cabs clip-clopping along cobbled streets - especially in the morning rush hour!

Many business along Baker Street have over the years tried to foster an informal association with the detective, and Holmes's fictional address 221b Baker Street. Some businesses such as the dry cleaners and a bank have even posted 'historical plaques' on their properties not far from the Baker Street Underground station. The first time I found them, an English friend turned to me and said, ''Don't you think it is odd we are standing here, looking for the imaginary address of an imaginary person?''

Sherlock Holmes has assumed a reality few fictional characters have. The Sherlock Holmes Museum has a full-time employee answering 40 to 100 letters and requests a week addressed to him. His 221-B Baker Street vies with No. 10 Downing Street as the most famous address in London - but who could argue with the claim that 221b Baker Street is in fact the most famous address in the world?

Things on Baker Street have changed in the last 10 years. G. K. Chesterton, noting the astonishing popularity of Conan Doyle's creation, proposed 70 years ago that London needed a statue of Holmes. Though it took decades, that idea was finally realized in September 1999, when a nine-foot bronze statue by the English sculptor John Doubleday was unveiled outside of the Marylebone exit of the Baker Street station. The imposing and calm Holmes, holding his pipe, now looms over his rightful place, providing the magnet his followers have always sought.


The first stop for any visitor to London - Holmes fan or not - must be the  Sherlock Holmes Museum, an evocation of No. 221-B, even to the 17 steps to the first-floor rooms that were reputably occupied between 1881-1904  by the Great Detective and his faithful friend Doctor Watson. Everything in the three-story museum is presented in an agreeably understated manner, without the hyper-appeal of lasers and holograms found at so many new London attractions. Nothing is displayed that is not mentioned in the stories, and the crowded and ornate Victorian spell is so expertly cast that you feel Holmes and Watson may walk in at any moment.

The Museum's souvenir shop is the largest shop in the world specialising in Holmesian items such as walking sticks, deerstalker hats, pipes, chess sets and hundreds of other items. It also has a great collection of "Mrs Hudson's" antiques for sale.

While making one's way down Baker Street, it is worth turning off along Paddington Street to see Sherlock Mews and also James Taylor & Co., shoemaker to Sherlock Holmes. Back on Baker Street, No. 109 is one of the few three-story red brick flats on the street dating from 1900, looking also as No. 221-B might have in Conan Doyle's day. Baker Street would have been quiet and placid in that era.

 
As you near Oxford Street, you will come across the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square,  one of London's loveliest museums. The Wallace's quiet, ornate galleries provide a welcome respite from the city's pace. It has many paintings by the Vernets, a French family of painters, in Rooms 11 and 23. In ''The Greek Interpreter,'' Holmes confesses to Watson that he is descended from the Vernet family, and ''art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.''

Upon reaching Oxford Street, it's a short walk east to Regent Street, which curves splendidly to Piccadilly Circus. On the left, just where it curves at the Quadrant, is the Cafe Royal, a splendidly elegant French restaurant since 1865 and the place where Holmes was attacked in ''The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.''

 

 

 

A little farther on, opposite the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus, was the Criterion Bar, where Watson first heard mention of Holmes, an eccentric fellow studying at St. Bartholomew's Hospital who needed a roommate. Past the Circus on Regent are the stately clubs of Pall Mall, one of which might have been the Diogenes Club, Holmes's brother Mycroft's club, where members were forbidden to speak.


Turning east, continue to Charing Cross Road, the great avenue that just before the young Sherlock arrived in London, was cut through from Oxford Street to Trafalgar Square, sweeping aside some of the poorest slums. The Victorians boldly transformed the London of Dickens into that of Conan Doyle, creating not just Charing Cross Road, but rebuilding Regent Street, enlarging Piccadilly Circus, laying out the great Shaftesbury Avenue, and most magnificently of all, constructing the three-mile Embankment along the Thames.

In front of the Charing Cross Hotel, you can stand near the spot where Holmes caught a spy, where Watson banked (and kept his box of notes) and where, just across the street, they sent off urgent telegrams. It is here, not Baker Street, where the most incidents in the Holmes saga are recorded.

Among the many bookstores of Charing Cross, Murder One is a must for anyone who loves detective stories. It claims to stock every mystery story in print in Britain, and specializes in Sherlock Holmes material from all over the world. South of Murder One, along Cecil Court, where there are clusters of specialty book shops, Nigel Williams has a good selection of first editions of Conan Doyle.

  

After Charing Cross Road becomes Tottenham Court Road, a right onto Great Russell Street leads to the British Museum, across from which is the Museum Tavern. This place, the pub in Holmes's Christmas tale, ''The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,'' seems hardly changed. The outside lamps are gas, inside is old wooden paneling. When he came to London in the late 1870's, Holmes lived around the corner on Montague Street, near where Conan Doyle himself lived when he moved to London.

 

Heading south on Shaftesbury and then on Neal Street brings you to Covent Garden, where the Christmas goose in ''The Blue Carbuncle'' was procured. The bustling wholesale flower, vegetable and fruit markets of Holmes's era have been swept away, replaced by crowds enjoying performance art and singers putting on free shows.

 

 

 


Nothing satisfied Holmes more after the conclusion of a particularly baffling case than to end the evening at the renowned Simpson's-in-the-Strand. Strolling south to the Strand, you'll pass the recently renovated Royal Opera House, often attended by Holmes in its previous incarnation. See as well the police court on Bow Street where Holmes makes an astonishing deduction to conclude ''The Man with a Twisted Lip.''

SIMPSON'S, with its classic English menu and white-vested formal waiters, has been a part of the London scene since 1828, one of the few places that allows you to feel that you have entered Victorian society. All it takes is reservations (and a tie for gentlemen) and there you are, being soberly served as if you were Prime Minister Gladstone, who came for the rolling steamers of roast beef or lamb ready to be cut to one's specifications. Amid the gleaming crystal and old dark Adam paneling, it's clear why Watson describes in 1902 the pleasures to be had sitting here at a table ''looking down at the rushing stream of life on the Strand.''

  

 

Another favorite destination of Sherlockians is a small pub tucked in at the turn of Northumberland Street, near Charing Cross Station. The Sherlock Holmes Public House and Restaurant, near Old Scotland Yard and the Turkish baths frequented by Holmes and Watson, is in what was the Northumberland Arms, the hotel mentioned in the greatest of all mystery stories. It was there that Henry Baskerville stayed when he arrived in England to claim his inheritance, and only his finding a boot in the hallway started Holmes toward a solution to the deadly curse of the Baskervilles.



The pub is often crowded and serves good ales and classic pub grub. Exhibits line the walls detailing the adventures of the great detective, including a mounted head of the ghastly hound, an army service revolver of the type Watson carried, and old Strand Magazine drawings by the master illustrator Sidney Paget. Upstairs, a 10-by-12-foot reproduction of the famous sitting room of 221-B, created for the 1952 Festival of Britain by the Abbey National Bank, is on display, too. Behind glass is a wax figure of Holmes in the window by which he foiled an assassination attempt in ''The Empty House,'' and the violin, and the pipe rack and the morphine needles of Holmes's most unfortunate habit.

 

A bit more refined menu is served upstairs in a crowded room with a clublike atmosphere. I ordered Mrs. Hudson's Steak and Ale Pie (named for Holmes's landlady), a grand, flaky puff pastry atop generous portions of cubed steak and potatoes, which came with a wonderful salad.

On my last night in London, I managed to return to the pub 10 minutes before it closed. Savoring the special Sherlock Holmes Ale, I sat outside as a street cleaner swept the deserted Westminster Street. Soon, I found myself strolling along the Strand, remembering the passage from ''The Resident Patient'' when Holmes turns to Watson and says: ''But the evening has brought a breeze with it. What do you say to a ramble through London?"

Getting Around
Many London sites and restaurants with links to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories are either in the Regent's Park area or easy walking distance from Trafalgar Square.

The Baker Street Underground station is served by many lines, including the Bakerloo, Metropolitan and Circle. The platform for the Jubilee line is adorned with murals illustrating the Holmes tales. As you emerge from the Marylebone exit of the station, you immediately come upon the new Sherlock Holmes statue - if not Sherlock Holmes himself handing out his personal business cards on behalf of the Museum.

The Nos. 13 and 139 buses run between Baker Street and Trafalgar Square.

Uncovering Holmes
The Sherlock Holmes Museum, 221-B Baker Street, London NW1 6XE, (44-171) 935-8866, is a charming three-story evocation of the great detective's house, with book and gift shop. Open daily 9:30 a.m to 6 p.m. Admission costs adults $8.40; $5.60 for ages 6 to 16, at $1.40 to the pound.


The Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, W1M, (44-171) 935-0687. Known for its collection of 18th-century French art, it is open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 2 to 5 p.m. Free.

Where to Eat
Simpsons-in-the-Strand, 100 Strand WC2R OEW, (44-171) 836-9112, offers elegant dining (jacket and tie are required in the Grande Divan room), with somber and solicitous service and classic English fare -- beef cut to order from rolling steam tables, and Yorkshire pudding. Open daily for lunch and dinner (dinner only in the Grande Divan on Saturday). Dinner for two with wine costs about $160.

Where to Stay
Please see our links section for reserving hotels in London or contact us at the Museum with your requirements and we will suggest a hotel.