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The thinking man’s lair

Sherlock’s home is so vividly depicted, it lures Robert Macfarlane out of the open air

Robert Macfarlane | September/October 2014

Sherlock Holmes must have been a very bad neighbour. There were the hours of violin practice. There was the drug use. There were the visits at all times of day and night to his chambers: clients in noisy distress, criminals bristling with violence, coppers clumping up the 17 stairs that led from the muddy street to the first-floor door. There was the laboratory in the sitting-room, where he mixed malodorous broths upon an acid-scarred bench. And there were the occasions when, in one of his “queer humours”, Holmes would sit in a fireside armchair with his “hair-trigger [revolver] and a hundred Boxer cartridges” and “proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R. [Victoria Regina] done in bullet-pocks”. Party-wall agreements don’t usually cover handgun graffiti-art.

When I think of Holmes’s London, I think not of pea-souper alleyways, but of 221b Baker Street. So many of the stories start there, with Holmes and Watson companionably scalping their boiled eggs at the breakfast table, or with Holmes curled morosely in his purple dressing-gown, the air fuggish from cigar smoke, and a sheaf of unanswered correspondence “transfixed by a jack-knife” into the “very centre of his wooden mantelpiece”. The very centre: even in his passions, Holmes is exact.

Across 56 stories and four novels, Conan Doyle gave us hundreds of details about Holmes’s lair. The “criminal relics” he keeps near his bed, the framed picture of Gordon of Khartoum, the hypo­dermic syringes that lie gleaming in a bureau drawer, the wax replica of his own head that gazes down from the summit of a bookshelf—all are clues to the unsolvable enigma that is Holmes. To Sherlockologists, 221b is a Wunderkammer crossed with a case file.

It is the place where Holmes does much of his finest thinking—making the rapid deductions, “always founded on a logical basis, with which he unravelled the problems…submitted to him”. Not for Holmes the peripatesis of Aristotle, Kierkegaard or Rousseau, who all felt the mind worked best when they were walking. Holmes thinks on his buttocks, sunk into his armchair by the bearskin rug, eyes closed, “lost in tobacco and thought” as Watson’s zeugma has it. Faced with the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville, Holmes sends to Stanfords, the famous Covent Garden map shop (still there today), for a large-scale “Ordnance map” of Dartmoor. He spends all day allowing his “spirit” to “hover… over” the map, transporting himself from the confines of his room to the open spaces of the moor—and goes some way to solving the case before even leaving home. He is not a psycho, as Moriarty makes out in the BBC “Sherlock”, but a metempsycho.

Last autumn I spent a day and night exploring subterranean London with an urban adventurer by the name of Goblin Merchant. We went after dark to a north-London park, climbed a fence, lifted a grating and landed in a vast underground reservoir, drained of its water. It was a cathedral of brick, gorgeous in its repeating and elegant arches, and as we entered I felt an impossible flash of recognition. Later I learnt that this was where a scene in the Guy Ritchie film “Sherlock Holmes” had been shot. Quite by chance, I had found my way into another of Holmes’s chambers.

Even in the books, Baker Street is only one of Holmes’s homes. He keeps  numerous “refuges” in other parts of London, in which “to change his personality”. These disguise-stocked safe-houses are like Superman’s phone booth, only more dignified and spacious. In them, Holmes transforms himself into “Captain Basil” or another of his alter egos. But from them, he always returns to Baker Street, stepping through the door—once with “a huge barb-headed spear tucked like an umbrella under his arm”—to be greeted by the patient and loving Watson.

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