When most people think of Devon and Dartmoor, there are probably a number of things immediately associated with this part of SW England; cream teas, picture postcard cottages, windswept ponies, clotted cream fudge, isolated tors in bleak moors and sandy beaches.
How many associate it with Sherlock Holmes though?
It seems more of us should, considering it was the inspiration for one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s best known adventure mysteries of the infamous, fictional sleuth. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was apparently inspired by the desolate beauty of Dartmoor, Doyle visited on a number of occasions after the second Boer War. He was so inspired that he decided to resurrect Holmes from the dead, whom he had killed off in a previous novel “The Final Problem” then set what is possibly his most popular mystery story in the Devon moors.
Having spent a day touring Devon, and Dartmoor with Alex founder and guide of Unique Devon Tours discovering the heritage and links the county has to the story I’ll think of Devon slightly differently in future. The tour company, which is a labour of love for Alex offers featured tours but also bespoke packages touring not only Devon, but almost anywhere his clients are interested in, though he usually prefers to show off his home county.
The “Hound of the Baskervilles” tour is an intriguing way to see Devon, providing fascinating insights into the links between the region and the story. It’s also a great way to see the most beautiful views of Dartmoor with an interesting twist, add a tasty lunch in a lovely country pub and it really is all good. Though some pleasant spring weather does help.
The links to Doyle make for an informative and entertaining mystery trail, which genuine fans of the author should find enthralling. Driving from clue to clue, linking towns, country houses, chapels, churchyards, tombs and bottomless moors pits to tell the story behind the inspiration, all told with passionate authority by Alex.
His passion is well founded too, as his family actually has links to the story; his great grandfather was the priest in the local church where journalist and friend, Bertram Fletcher Robinson worshipped, with whom Doyle stayed during his visits. Robinson, one-time editor of “Vanity Fair” is also thought to have collaborated with Doyle in writing the story.
There is also plenty of scope for debate between Doylians and Holmesians. Inspiration for Baskerville Hall is often attributed to the home of one of Doyle’s friends that lived in Wales, however it seems Robinson’s coachman was also called Henry Baskerville; which seems a good shout for staking an inspiration claim. The tour includes visits to separate cemeteries to see the gravestones of Bertram Fletcher Robinson and Henry Baskerville and his wife Alise.
The story is said to have been conceived as a result of the legend of a notorious and particularly vicious, local squire that owned land above Buckfastleigh. Richard Cabell III was an especially nasty piece of work that loved hunting with dogs, is alleged to have murdered his wife and struck a deal with the devil for his soul. He was known as “a monstrously evil man”, that when he died it is said a pack of black phantom dogs breathing fire howled over his tomb, and that he rides the moors accompanied by the foul pack. Definitely the stuff of legend.
His corpse is entombed in ‘the sepulchre‘ at the Holy Trinity church situated above Buckfastleigh Abbey. Today the church is nothing more than a shell, a place of serene, derelict beauty, peaceful, which on a lovely day in spring, we had all to ourselves, not another soul in sight.
I understand it is a completely different proposition if visited at night!
The tomb, appears more to be about imprisoning the resident than keeping anybody out, a large, heavy slabs rest on top of the tomb and the outer building has heavy bars like a prison cell. Legend has it that running around the tomb thirteen times and poking a finger through the keyhole allows Cabell to gnaw on it; yes, you guessed it, I tried it, but cannot confirm whether my finger nail was chewed by a long dead, soulless squire.
This means, unfortunately, there aren’t any pictures of the tomb, as the one available has the evidence of an overweight, sweaty ex-soldier stumbling around the tomb and it’s been metaphorically burned.
Before driving into Baskerville country proper, the moors, we dropped by Cabell’s home, from where we sent postcards, though, this gave rise to another mystery; the cards never arrived!
Once on the atmospheric moors, it’s easy to understand these as the inspiration for many of the scenes set in the novel. Strolling around Fox Tor Mires, even in daylight it’s a simple matter to imagine that it’s inspired many legends and small wonder Grimpen Mire arose from bogs and hollows of this bleak landscape.
There was still enough time to take plenty of images of picture postcard cottages, windswept ponies and some lovely stone bridges where we discovered a hound worthy of the Baskerville legend. A black dog almost as big as the famous ponies, which fortunately for us didn’t breathe fire and was much friendlier than the beast of legend.
Alex offers the chance of a cream tea if time permits, we managed to include one and even found time (and space) for lunch at the lovely Rugglestone Inn, which was filling, tasty and good value.
I enjoy the tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, especially the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, but do not consider myself an avid fan. This innovative tour however, was a pleasant, interesting way to discover some of the hidden gems of Devon and Dartmoor, and can recommend it to anybody in need of a jog around an evil squire’s tomb in spring; day is surely preferable to night.
The tour costs £280 for two people, or £320 for three to six, including all expenses except refreshments or souvenirs and can be booked through Unique Devon Tours. If seeking suitable accommodation, Bulleigh Barton Manor in Ipplepen is worth looking at.