Friday, 23 July 2010

Elementary, My Dear London

This has been a marvellous year for Australians buying DVDs from the UK. With the Australian dollar hovering at the unusually high equivalent of 60 British pence, the temptation to buy TV series that aren't easy to obtain here has been overwhelming.

My best buy was the complete box set of the 1980s Sherlock Holmes TV series, which ran for several years and serialised about 40 of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original short stories and novels.

It starred Jeremy Brett in an exceptional and unique portrayal of the great detective, and was responsible for many viewers discovering the original stories in book form.

It's been great fun rewatching it. Which reminded me of how much fun I've had in London in years gone by, retracing Holmes' steps.

When Narrelle and I first travelled overseas together in 1990, we made a pilgrimage to Baker Street to visit the real-world manifestation of Holmes' home turf. There were lots of impressions from that visit which have stayed with me, including little signs of Holmes' lingering presence in the vicinity.

These included a street called Sherlock Mews, a shop called "Where's Watson?", and the Sherlock Holmes Hotel featuring Dr Watson's Bar. On what would have been be the site of Holmes' residence was a 1930s office building, Abbey House, bearing a plaque with the famous silhouette and a quote from the first Holmes story A Study in Scarlet.

More intriguingly, a blue plaque resembling London's historical markers was fixed above the Victorian-era building further along at 239 Baker Street. It was inscribed "221b, Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective". Note that it didn't make the fine distinction of calling him a fictional consulting detective.

In fact it belonged to a newly-opened Sherlock Holmes Museum at 239 Baker Street, now 20 years old and allowed to use the address 221b by special permission of the local council.

There were also Sherlock silhouettes woven into the tiles on the walls of Baker Street Underground station, and across town we had a drink at the Sherlock Holmes pub on Northumberland Street near Trafalgar Square.

The most Sherlockian fun we had, though, was in connection with the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. We attended a dinner with its eccentric and likeable members in an extravagantly Victorian building, at which we traded greetings with people bearing aliases such as that of the despicable snake-fancying Dr Grimesby Roylott of The Speckled Band.

The supreme highlight was when the two of us followed some of the London walks contained in a slim booklet the Society had published, outlining routes which took in elements of various Holmes stories (it still seems to offer it for sale, if this volume is the one I remember).

The best was the walk extracted from the story The Empty House, which marked Holmes' return from apparent death in his struggle with Professor Moriarty in Switzerland. Near the conclusion of this new adventure, Holmes led Watson on a complex journey through back streets, mews and alleyways to an empty house which turned out to face 221b.

As Watson puts it, "Our route was certainly a singular one. Holmes's knowledge of the byways of London was extraordinary, and on this occasion he passed rapidly and with an assured step through a network of mews and stables, the very existence of which I had never known."

The author of the walk had done himself proud, picking up the fragmentary description of the route which followed, in order to craft a fascinating passage through the modern-day London byways to Baker Street.

All of which underlines two things I've always thought about travel. Firstly, that it's immensely satisfying to focus on a personal interest rather than going for a "tick the boxes" approach to seeing a destination. And secondly, that the things you remember most fondly are the things you do by yourself, well away from tour groups and tourist traps.

But perhaps that conclusion is elementary.