Lower Venton Farm Widecombe in the Moor Dartmoor Devon, TQ13 7TF, United Kingdom, 01364621466, email@example.com
Arthur Conan Doyle
NC 28754 ©1997, 2008 by Jim Hargan
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THE DARTMOOR OF THE BASKERVILLES
By Jim Hargan
I sprang to my feet, my inert hand grasping my pistol, my mind paralyzed by the dreadful shape which had sprung out upon us from the shadows of the fog. A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame . . .
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902
“I am writing a new novel – a real chiller.” So wrote Arthur Conan Doyle from his hotel room in the Dartmoor village of Princetown. Doyle was writing what was to become the most popular of all the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Doyle first heard of Dartmoor's hounds of hell in March 1901, while staying in Norfolk with his friend Fletcher Robinson. During those cold, rainy March evenings, Robinson would tell stories from his childhood on the high moors of Dartmoor – horrifying stories of the Devil hunting for unbaptized babies with his packs of demon-hounds. The Dewer — who is the Devil Himself — would appear at the cliffs of the Dewerstone dressed in black, carrying a whip, accompanied by a huge black dog; he and his devil dog would drive any unfortunate wayfarers over the cliffs to their deaths on the rocks below. But the moormen most feared the Dewer as He led the Whist Hunt at the head of a howling pack of gigantic red-eyed Whist Hounds. He and His Whist Hounds would emerge from Wistman's Wood — a collection of knarled, twisted oaks of incredible age — to hunt down the souls of unbaptized babies; some say, to transform them into the Hounds themselves. The moormen would tell of a man, too full of ale, who accosted the Whist Hunt with a bold “How's hunting?” The Dewer laughed and answered, “Very good” — and tossed to the man his own child's corpse. The moormen would also tell of a white hare jumping into the lap of an old woman who had been sitting on a stone. As the Whist Hunt rode up, the old woman hid the hare in her apron, and the Dewer rode by, cursing. As the Hunt disappeared, the hare changed suddenly into a beautiful young girl, who thanked the old moorwoman for saving her life. The moormen believed that anyone who witnessed the Whist Hunt would die within the year.
Doyle, captivated by these folk-tales and by Robinson's vivid descriptions of life on the moors, immediately determined to write his next novel about Dartmoor. Within days Doyle was in a hotel in the most remote corner of Dartmoor, hiking for miles over the empty moors with Robinson as his guide. Doyle quickly decided that Sherlock Holmes would be a fitting protagonist, as Holmes' cold scientific mind would form a counterpoint to the supernatural terror of the devil-dogs. Yet Dartmoor was to be no mere backdrop for the great detective this time. Instead Dartmoor was to be the reason for the novel's existence, and the novel's main character.
Doyle had to portray Dartmoor as he would any other main character, accurately and subtly, with feeling and sympathy. However, when he chose Sherlock Holmes as his principle human character, he saddled himself with stolid Dr. Watson as a narrator – and Watson would never paint Dartmoor with purple prose. Instead, Doyle has Watson toss out casual details, seemingly random or trivial. Separately, each snippet is hardly noticeable. Together, they form a coherent and sensitive characterization, not merely of Dartmoor, but of a specific, limited, and highly unusual section of Dartmoor: the high moors drained by the River Dart.
Rich valleys surround Dartmoor with a patchwork of meadows, hedgerows, forests, and villages, a peaceful landscape of stone bridges and thatched farmhouses – but above the valleys loom the moorland, a boggy, granite-topped plateau covered in grass, bog, and heather. The sudden contrast between the rich valleys and the empty moorland awed Watson on his first approach to Dartmoor. “Behind the peaceful and sunlit country-side there rose ever, dark against the evening sky, the long, gloomy curve of the moor, broken by the jagged and sinister hills.” Watson quickly left the peaceful valleys behind. The lonely moors are the scene of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Watson described his first drive into Dartmoor with so much detail that you can easily follow his route to this day. Watson's train arrived at “a small wayside station . . . a sweet country spot . . .” — certainly not the Princetown railhead, surrounded by empty moors and within sight of the infamous Dartmoor prison. The other two railheads, at Mortonhampstead and at Ashburton, are both “sweet country spots,” but Watson's long ride by wagonette into the heart of the moors exactly matches the ancient miners’ road at Ashburton. “In a few minutes we were flying swiftly down a broad, white road . . . The wagonette swung round into a side road, and we curved upwards through deep lanes . . . We passed over a narrow granite bridge and skirted a noisy stream which gushed swiftly down, foaming and roaring amid the grey boulders.”
In fact, Watson was traveling down a medieval tin-miner's road which follows the River Dart deep into the heart of the moors. Tin-mining had been practiced in Dartmoor since at least 1195, and had become extremely profitable by 1400. Medieval tin-miners would look for alluvial deposits along the River Dart. To these miners, floods were both a blessing and a curse, as the flood waters would reveal new lodes but would also wash out the road. To protect their main trade route from floods the tin-miners built two large stone bridges with high arches on massive, pointed piers. Both Holne Bridge and its upstream counterpart, New Bridge, carry traffic today, and buses driving up the Dart road must inch slowly across structures built for medieval packhorses.
Watson and his traveling companions “. . . quickly left the fertile country behind and beneath us. . . . The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with boulders.” Watson was entering the moors through a landscape of rolling grassy hills, broken by strange granite spires. While Dartmoor's granite normally does not erode or dissolve readily, local variations in mineral content can cause weaknesses, especially when the minerals are exposed to the acidic waters of the bogs. These local weaknesses can cause the granite to become crumbly in spots while remaining strong in other places. Over time, this process has carved Dartmoor's granite into strangely shaped towers, spires, and cliffs — Dartmoor's famous tors.
The tin-miners' road ends in the midst of the moors, where it meets what used to be the main stagecoach road between Exeter and Plymouth. It may seem odd that the stagecoach lines would prefer the hostile, empty moors to the rich valleys below, but there was one excellent reason: mud. As Watson observed, the roads in the rich valleys were “. . . deep lanes worn by centuries of wheels, high banks on either side . . .” Those high banks could easily trap a coach in a mud hole. On the high open moors, coaches just went around the mud. In the eighteenth century a string of inns along this road helped the Dartmoor natives supplement the returns from tin-mining and sheep-farming. Today the old coach road remains the main highway through Dartmoor and many of its coaching inns still serve travelers.
Watson turned off the tin-miner's road before its end to reach Baskerville Hall. Watson's lengthy drive through the open moors made it clear that Baskerville Hall was isolated in the midst of the empty moors. Yet the next day Dr. Watson walked to the isolated moortop village of Grimpen by following “the edge of the moor.” This was no casual error; Doyle had not shifted Baskerville Hall from the middle of the moor to its edge. Instead, Doyle had placed Baskerville Hall and nearby Grimpen in a specific part of the moor. Watson had traveled up the Dart to an isolated island of rich fields along the upper East Dart River. This is a locale with a uniquely Dartmoor landscape, created by a group of 18th Century local gentry known as “The Improvers.”
The Improvers believed that Dartmoor's rocky tors and boggy moors could be “improved” into productive farmland. During the late 1700's they put their belief to the test by “improving” several moorland areas in the headwaters of the River Dart. The improvements worked, but at too great a cost to turn a profit. The improvements never spread beyond their original core, and remain to this day an island of rich fields surrounded by wild moorlands. This is the Dartmoor described by Doyle: an oasis of civilization, remote and sparsely inhabited, isolated by a wide expanse of empty wilderness.
With its island of improved fields lies just to the north of Baskerville Hall, and the dangerous Great Grimpen Mire lies just to the north of Grimpen. The village is unremarkable, “a small gray hamlet” whose only two large buildings are the doctor's house and the inn, and whose postmaster doubles as the grocer. The real Dartmoor has few moortop villages, as most of the moormen live in widely scattered farmsteads. However one moortop village, Postbridge, matches Grimpen closely. Like Grimpen, Postbridge lies on the moortop by the coach road, surrounded by a small island of improved fields. Postbridge has the same buildings as Grimpen — a huddle of cottages, an old coaching inn, a grocery/post office, and one fine house, now the Lydgate House Hotel. Postbridge's inn was built in 1789 as “The Greyhound” at the place where the coach road bridged the East Dart. By Doyle's day The Greyhound had been replaced by the pub-less Temperance Hotel; although Watson called it an “inn,” he never popped in for a pint of bitters. The inn at Postbridge has long since relapsed to its old ale-serving ways, and now operates as the East Dart Hotel.
In contrast to the village of Grimpen, Doyle gave much attention to the nearby Great Grimpen Mire. Doyle describes Grimpen Mire as a very large moss bog lying to the north of Grimpen, beyond the Exeter coach road. These bogs consist of a bed of sphagnum moss — the same kind we buy for gardening — floating on trapped groundwater. It makes a treacherous surface. You can sink deeply into mud, or break through into deep water. If you are unlucky enough to hit a pocket of spring water under the moss, you can sink through without a trace, without even churned mud to point toward your grave. Watson was to witness a pony sinking into the Grimpen Mire: “Something brown was rolling and tossing among the green sedges. Then a long, agonized, writhing neck shot upwards . . .” Later the murderer would also disappear into the Grimpen Mire, leaving no trace.
The Grimpen Mire is unusual in being broken by small hillocks, little islands in the great mire. Holmes and Watson followed an obscure, almost invisible path to one of these hillocks. You can find similar hillocks in Fox Tor Mire, the largest and most notorious of Dartmoor's mires, and you can reach one of them by a path nearly as treacherous and difficult as the one used by Holmes and Watson. The path is clearly shown on government-issued maps, and is now trodden enough to be followed, though with some difficulty. On one end of the path is a ruined tin mine, much like that described by Doyle; on the other end is a medieval stone cross, raised by monks to warn travelers against straying into the mire.
Baskerville Hall itself is the one thoroughly unauthentic feature. It is supposed to be a 14th Century castle, and there simply are no such castles on the moor. In the 1300's, as today, the rough moors were almost uninhabited, the abode of a few tin-miners and sheep-farmers and no one else. Medieval barons had no desire to live in such a land, and no need to build expensive castles to protect it. By the late 1800's, however, Doyle had found a dozen or so large manor houses in the improved areas of the upper Dart, and one or two of these might have been sufficiently gothicked up to fool Doyle into thinking it was medieval.
Apart from its alleged age, several of Baskerville Hall's features ring true. Its moor-gate, separating civilized gardens from rough wilderness, is a common Dartmoor feature. A second feature is its avenue of old trees, “where the wheels were again hushed amid the leaves, and the old trees shot their branches in a somber tunnel over our heads.” Such avenues are found throughout the Improved areas, seemingly scattered at random. The Improvers did not plant them on purpose. Dartmoor farmers liked to top their hedges with beech saplings, by nature tall trees that required regular trimming. When a farmer neglected any one of these hedgerows for a few years, the beech hedge would grow into a row of great beech trees straddling a stone wall. Such hedgerows would be placed along both sides of the approach lane to an Improver's country house — and by Doyle's time would have grown into a double row of great beech trees, forming a tunnel-like avenue. You can see such an avenue at the approach to Prince's Hall near Dartmeet, an Improver's country house turned into an elegant small hotel.
Despite Baskerville Hall's seeming isolation, Doyle surrounded it with a remarkable variety of features. The moor-gate behind Baskerville Hall opened onto "the wide moor,” yet Watson reached a after a very short walk. Beneath this tor Watson found a prehistoric village of round huts, so well preserved that the roofs remain intact. If this seems incredible for an empty moor, such close associations are quite common in the real Dartmoor. Dartmoor contains the largest collection of Stone Age sites in all of Europe, with literally hundreds of ruined villages of small round stone huts scattered all over the moor. The larger of these Neolithic sites are commonly on the shoulders of tors, as at Baskerville Hall. In Doyle's time several Neolithic sites were so well preserved that the hut walls were unbroken, and had been reroofed by tin-miners during the previous centuries. You can still see such huts, their roofs removed by vandals but otherwise intact, at Grimspound to the east of Postbridge — one of Doyle's favorite spots.
Postbridge is map-perfect as the location of Baskerville Hall and Grimpen. The village of Postbridge is a dead ringer for Grimpen, right down to its inn and its single large house, and is in exactly the right place on the coaching road and in an oasis of “improved” land. It has a large mire which is in the described distance and direction, and is perched above the “improved” lands on a high shelf (an unusual layout which Doyle described in detail). Postbridge's major tor, Bellever Tor, is exactly the right shape, size, and direction, and has a stone age village on its shoulder (as described by Doyle). Postbridge has three of the four real place names mentioned as local to the area: Merripit, Laughtor House (spelled Laftor House by Doyle) and Bellever Tor itself. While Baskerville Hall may be a fantasy, a large old farmhouse, Bellever Farm, stood in exactly the right distance and direction to both Postbridge/Grimpen and local lanes. Unfortunately, this paper case is weak when checked against details. Unlike Grimpen Mire, Postbridge Mire has no hillocks, no tin mines. The Neolithic village by Bellever Tor is nearly invisible, little more than a few faint ground marks. And nobody could look at the plain, old Bellever Farm (now a youth hostel) and imagine the elegant Baskerville Hall.
The real inspiration for Baskerville Hall and Grimpen can be found spread over the face of Dartmoor, but especially in the headwaters of the River Dart. Grimpen is probably modeled after Postbridge, on the East Dart River. Fox Tor Mire, drained by the Swincombe River into the West Dart, must have been Doyle's model for Grimpen Mire, with its twisting path, odd hillocks, and tin mine. Watson's impressive view from the local tor can be seen from North Hessary Tor, just outside Princetown. Sherlock Holmes' hiding place in a prehistoric hut matches Grimspound so closely that a visitor can make a good guess about the hut Holmes used. The goyals (standing stones) described by Watson are found all over Dartmoor, with the largest being The Grey Wethers overlooking the East Dart above Postbridge. Other features — tin mines, quarries, moor-gates, tree-lined lanes — are common throughout the Dart River headlands.
Yet the close match between Baskerville and Postbridge is probably no coincidence. Doyle felt free to borrow Dartmoor's finest sites for his own purposes, but he used these sites in ways that closely followed the logic of Dartmoor's landscape. Always, Doyle placed the features of Dartmoor in authentic locations, at realistic distances, and in proximity with their natural neighbors. Doyle may have based his descriptions on a map of Postbridge; or he may have used his own talent and intelligence to create Grimpen and its environs. Whatever Doyle's method, his Dartmoor transcends mere description to become a character in its own right, second in Doyle's writings only to Holmes himself — and in its own book, second to none.
Businesses Mentioned in this Article
Lydgate House Hotel, Postbridge. East Dart Hotel. Prince Hall. Bellever Youth Hostel.
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