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Monday, January 18, 2016

Arthur Conan Doyle & The Other Side of Dartmoor

In Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr John Watson describes Dartmoor Forest as a dark, dangerous, and wild place. This is largely the way we found it during our two days there last year. But there were a few exceptions to the rule, and one of those was in a Bed & Breakfast near Hay Tor.

Hay Tor is a cluster of boulders, strewn across the top of a fell in Dartmoor. The wind rushes up and over these small hills, or fells, battering your body and howling in your ears. But at our Bed & Breakfast near Hay Tor, the air was quiet and still. After continually getting inundated by the angry elements, I enjoyed wandering the grounds outside our room, and marvel at the beauty of the gardens.

I suppose part of the reason for this is that this little neighborhood was surrounded by trees, that form a natural windbreak, preventing the wind from rushing over this area and tearing their plants, bushes, and flowers to shreds. Had Baskerville Hall been surrounded by tall trees, Arthur Conan Doyle might have described the estate differently. Come to think of it, I believe Dr John Watson mentions a number of tall shrubs that formed barriers around the grounds, so perhaps these offered Baskerville Hall a little shelter from the wind. But then, Sir Henry only employed two servants, a butler and a cook. Had he employed a full-time gardener, perhaps Baskerville Hall could have enjoyed a more pleasant aspect.

I suspect Arthur Conan Doyle wished readers to see Baskerville Hall as dark and forbidding as the surrounding countryside. Of his four Sherlock Holmes novels, only one takes place in and around London. Half of the first novel, A Study in Scarlet, takes place in the wild western state of Utah, where cowboys drive cattle across the range, covered wagons bring settlers to untamed lands, and bandits pillage and murder those they encounter. Half of his final Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear, takes place in a mining town in the United States. There, the local branch of a men's club has become the headquarters for organized crime. The men in this group steal from nonmembers, extort businesses, and beat and kill other residents in their lust for riches and power. So it makes sense that for his third novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle sought to make a Dartmoor Forest seem wild and forbidding to English readers. 

Given the way the elements had raged at us, my wife and I brought food with us, and planned on eating in our room that night. But the air was so still, the temperature so moderate, and our surroundings so beautiful, we enjoyed a pleasant, relaxing dinner at a picnic table outside our room. Which just goes to show that no matter how vividly an author describes a particular place, you really can't know what it's like until you actually visit. But then, isn't that a great reason to travel: to check out the places that inspired authors like Arthur Conan Doyle to use them as settings for their stories?

Dragon Dave

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