Searching for Sherlock
Dallas Morning News
It’s noon on the dank, mist-fingered streets of old London and I’m sitting outside a cafe, perusing passersby from behind my newspaper. Most are innocently conducting their business but at least three look suspicious. I only wish I had a pipe, deerstalker and oversized magnifying glass to aid my investigation.
I’m not a qualified detective but when Sherlock Holmes is on your mind, you can’t help viewing the world as a series of clues. And London – the home of Holmes and many of the murderous scenes he deciphers – is jam-packed with evidence of the masterful crime-solver.
Which brings me back to the cafe. The hottest recent adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories is the modern-day BBC TV show Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson. Fan of the show? You’ll know the pair haunts Speedy’s, the small cafe beside their 221b Baker Street flat.
But it doesn’t take a detective to realize all is not as it seems here. London has a real-life Baker Street but Speedy’s and Sherlock’s front door are filmed a mile away on North Gower Street. Luckily my razor-sharp sleuthing skills were equal to unmasking these secret filming locations – i.e. I Googled them.
The cafe’s busy tables host two well-defined groups: lunch-grabbing office workers and Sherlock nuts snapping surreptitious selfies. I pretend I’m a local but my cover is blown when I order the chicken and bacon Sherlock Wrap, something only a fan would do.
Munching on lunch at my al fresco table, I plot the rest of my Sherlockian day out with forensic precision. Fusing old and new, there’s plenty to see.
Hopping the Tube to Embankment Station, I start with an In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes walking tour. Led by a twinkle-eyed guide named Corinna who would be a perfect Mrs. Hudson it snakes through back alleys, covering sites from the stories. Our group – including Japanese, Polish and New Jersey fans – learns that while Holmes lives on Baker Street, the stories are mostly set in the West End.
We stop at a handsome edifice that was once Charing Cross Hospital, ogle the grand façade of Simpsons-in-the-Strand restaurant and linger in cobbled Covent Garden, a setting from The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. We also inspect Goodwin’s Court where bow windows and gas lamps bring the Victorian era to life.
Intriguing Conan Doyle facts are provided en route. Born in Scotland, the author knew little of London when he arrived and he originally named his main character Sherrinford Holmes. He sold his first tale, A Study in Scarlet, for just £25.
As the tour concludes, I ask Corinna why she thinks Holmes endures. “We all love a good mystery, don’t we? And I think people really enjoy searching for the clues in the stories,” she says, recommending The Sign of Four for first-time readers.
The tour ends outside Northumberland Street’s handsome, recently-refurbished Sherlock Holmes Pub. But I postpone my end-of-day libation and instead plot two extra stops via the Tube.
Alighting at Baker Street, near my hotel (the Park Plaza Sherlock Holmes, of course), I find an Underground station where the wall tiles are patterned with an instantly-recognizable pipe-wielding profile. There’s also a towering Sherlock statue outside encircled by giddy snappers. Many are on their way to the real 221b Baker Street.
Colonizing a slender heritage townhouse, it’s home to the Sherlock Holmes Museum, London’s most popular Holmesian attraction. The £15 (about AUS$30) admission fee and summertime queues are a deterrent to some fans but the recreated period rooms are an evocative immersion into Conan Doyle’s world.
I’m soon ascending the house’s creaky staircase where I find a cozy clutch of Victorian rooms, lined with antiques and oddball artifacts – including voodoo dolls and a revolver in a hollowed book. Reaching the top floor, though, I suddenly face a cold-eyed waxwork of Sherlock’s archenemy Moriarty.
Tempted to pitch the evil baddie through a window, I instead wrestle with my anger and head back downstairs to the busy gift shop. Resisting the lure of Watson teapots, deerstalker hats and head-scratching puzzle books designed to hone deduction skills, I instead hit the streets for my penultimate pit stop.
Since season two of the BBC show, an older building at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital has become an unlikely pilgrimage destination. In the cleverly titled Reichenbach Fall episode, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock seems to leap to his death from the building’s roof – and worshippers have been flocking here ever since.
But they’re not just snapping photos. The area’s old red telephone box and adjoining walls are covered with scrawled messages supporting their hero. “Sherlock lives” is ubiquitous but there’s also “Sherlock forever,” “Moriarty is real” and the enigmatic “I’m glad you liked my potato.” Inside the booth, an empty wine glass has also been carefully placed.
It’s a reminder to return to Northumberland Street for a final toast. The Sherlock Holmes Pub serves Sherlock House Ale and Watson’s Traditional Sunday Roast but its walls are also lined with memorabilia and photos of celluloid Sherlocks. There’s even an artifact cabinet with a model of “the remarkable worm” for true devotees.
Heading upstairs, I also discover a museum-like room behind glass. Recreating the great detective’s study, there are countless books, a violin and some Black Shag Tobacco. And in the center – looking cadaverously pale – I find Sherlock himself. He may be a mannequin, but he looks like he could still out-sleuth me anytime.
If you go:
Park Plaza Sherlock Holmes Hotel (www.parkplazasherlockholmes.com) is at 108 Baker Street near Baker Street Underground Station.
Speedy’s Sandwich Bar & Cafe (www.speedyscafe.co.uk) is at 187 North Gower Street near Euston Square Underground Station. Visit www.sherlockology.com for additional BBC show locations.
In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes tours (www.walks.com) start at 2pm every Friday and cost £10 (AUS$20).
Sherlock Holmes Museum (www.sherlock-holmes.co.uk) is at 221b Baker Street, near Baker Street Underground Station.
St. Bartholomew’s Hospital is on West Smithfield, a short walk from St. Paul’s Underground Station.
Sherlock Holmes Pub (www.sherlockholmes-stjames.co.uk) is at 10 Northumberland Street, near Charing Cross Underground Station.