Another day, another journey and another interesting place to see! Forget the boring days at the office when you have to curb your imagination and concentrate on Excel spread sheets and invoices! The monotony of ordinary life magically disappears when we set out to discover ancient ruins, wild spots and castles. Well, this column might be entitled “One castle a day”, but sometimes we make a small excursion and go where no castles can be found. Remember our trip to Malvern Hills to see the fabled British Camp, an Iron Age fort? It was hardly a castle in traditional sense of the word, but what a royal experience it has been!
Our personal definition of a “castle” is quite broad. It includes all mansions, manor houses, forts, fortified houses, real castles, ruined castles, mock castles, palaces, grade I and II buildings, remains of a castle (including archaeological digs and motes) and all other locations where a castle might have once stood. The reason why we decided to include so many objects in this column is very simple. Today’s understanding of the term is completely different than before. The meaning has evolved and changed with each age, historical period, culture or even a society. Let us give you an example. A simple wooden fort in Iron or Bronze Age would be considered a castle by local inhabitants as it housed the chief of the tribe. Renaissance palazzo before the unification of Italy was treated in the same way. Even 200 years ago (just a blink of an eye in the history of a mankind), country manor houses in United Kingdom were sometimes referred as castles. In general, a castle was a main residence of a local ruler and his family, a seat from where the leader ruled over his or her land. It served many purposes: a family home, a court of law, a capitol, a prison, a garrison, an academic and scientific centre, a temple or even a monastery. It was the heart and soul of a small community, a large kingdom or entire country. Nobody really cared of detailed descriptions, technical terms or labels – they are the invention of 19th century. There was no need for confusion. Look at the popular fairy tales you know from your childhood. Princes, kings, queens, princesses, the nobles – they all live in castles. Very simple and zero problems. It could be fun to add a bit of historical realism to folk tales and legends but that’s not what we are going to do. Are there any long houses and mead halls in Eddas? Is Cinderella living in a mock castle with a large mottle, drawing bridge and neo gothic towers? Is Rapunzel kept in a keep? What about Pocahontas? Is she sleeping in a wooden Indian fort or maybe just a tipi? So many questions and no answers! Please don’t be frustrated if one day you will come across an article about a pyramid or megalithic temple. They are not castles per se but treat them as monuments of our history and development. One monument a day is not a good title so let’s stick with castles. Castles are cool!
The castle of the day is a noble residence erected in 1839. Quite new compared to the old proud ruins we have described in previous issues. Yes dear readers, we are about to embark on a trilling adventure that features big black hounds, a world renowned consulting detective (the one that invented the job!), a family curse and a posh hotel with a swimming pool!
Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical man, the pioneer of forensics and a talented detective in his own right is one of the most beloved and well-known British authors. Hundreds of books, essays and scientific papers have been dedicated to his life and work. He had several official biographers and even his personal letters and diaries have been published. Each step he took, each town he visited, every person he had ever known – everything has been studied, documented and investigated in the smallest details. There is nothing new under the sun – as Sherlock Holmes himself used to say. It would seem that the popular author has been stripped naked to just bare facts, numbers and dates. A tragic end for a person who earned his living by writing murder and mystery tales!
If we ask any respectable Sherlockian about “The Hound of Baskervilles”, we would receive a very quick answer. The book has been released in 1902, is set in 1889 and is one of four novels written about the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. Upon release, the book received rave reviews and to this day, it is considered the best book penned by Conan Doyle. In 1999, The Hound of Baskervilles” was given a perfect rating from scholars of 100 – a score so rare that only a handful of books in existence have been rated that high.
It is wildly accepted that a young journalist from Daily Express, Bertram Fletcher Robinson introduced the writer to the legend of gigantic phantom dog roaming the moors of Devon. At that time, Arthur Conan Doyle returned from his long stay in South Africa and started thinking of writing again. He was so impressed with tales heard from the journalist that he immediately thought of them as the next case for Sherlock Holmes. As for Robinson, there are several surviving accounts of his friends and family members recollecting that he was very proud and boasted that he was the one who ensured the resurrection of the unsociable genius. Indeed, such accomplishment cannot be easily ignored. Doyle pushed Sherlock Holmes to his death along with Professor Moriarty eight years earlier during the events of “The final problem” and refused to mention him ever again. Many people tried to persuade him to change his mind but none has been successful. Doyle felt that the pressure and public demand for sensational stories were dragging him away from more ambitious work. It is also worth mentioning that Bertram Fletcher Robinson had a coachman named Henry Baskerville who received a copy of the book signed by Conan Doyle himself with dedication that he was sorry for borrowing the coachman’s name and turning him into a main character. This particular copy has not survived to this day, but Henry Baskerville was a real person. He is listed on the 1901 census as living in Ipplepen and being in the service of Earl of Devon, of Powderham Castle. According to Sherlokian historians, Henry often picked up the writer from Bovey Tracey or Ashburton railway stations and drove him to Heatree House in Manaton, a large residence of Kitson family with whom Conan Doyle was closely acquainted with.
You don’t have to be a master detective to deduce that there is something more to the story of Baskervilles. We mentioned a posh hotel with a swimming pool at the beginning of this blog and this is when things are getting really interesting. What would you say if we told you that everything you have read so far is incorrect? What if Arthur Conan Doyle was a cunning man who preferred to keep few mysteries of his own? What would happen if all Sherlokian scholars have been mislead just like the writer wanted them to be? We are going to start a small revolution here and prove that the original Baskerville Hall is not even close to Devon. Revealing a real place where the best crime novel of all times has been born might come a shock to you, so be prepared. Welcome to the small Welsh village of Clyro, the last secret place of Sherlock Holmes!
Clyro (Cleirwy meaning “Clear Water” in Welsh) has always been a tiny hamlet hidden amongst the lovely Welsh hills. The village lies in Powys municipality and has approximately 600 inhabitants. It is located some 2 miles away from Hay-on-Wye (a site of internationally acclaimed literature and arts festival) and about 25 miles from Hereford. There isn’t much that people from Clyro could use as their claim to fame. A large castle once existing in the 14th century is now gone and all what’s left is a large dried motte. A small Roman fort has been discovered about 20 years ago in the village centre but according to archaeologists, it never played any important role and probably has been abandoned several decades after being constructed. Even the picturesque village church called Saint Michael and All Angels, thought erected in the 15th century, has been completely remodeled in Victorian times. History lovers could only be interested in Francis Kilvert, a curate of the parish church between 1865 and 1872 who regularly wrote about the village and its inhabitants in his excellent diaries. The diaries are counted among the finest examples of memoir genre in English literature and are still in print. Kilvert lived in Ashbrook house that now serves as a private art gallery and a commemorative plaque has been placed there in celebration for his contribution to the local community.
On the outskirts of the village, a weary traveler will find a tall, grey stone mansion that has been standing there since its creation in 1839. Today it is a hotel, but in Conan Doyle’s times, this grand mansion belonged to an ancient noble family, so old that their genealogical roots could be traced to the Norman conquest and Battle of Hastings of 1066. The house is known as Clyro Court but in reality this is the true Hall of Baskervilles. How can we be so sure, some of you may ask? Well, read on and we shall give you five undisputed proves that show we are 100% right!
1. English country side – Arthur Conan Doyle is Scottish, but he chose to make his most famous character strictly English. Sherlock Holmes tells Doctor Watson that “My ancestors were country squires, who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class”. Holmes has a great knowledge of English country side, habits of its people, folklore tales, local legends and he is an expert on country manors and houses as shown in “The Valley of Fear”. His mastery is explained in books through his ancestry and may suggest that Holmes’ close or extended family lived in a country manor similar to that of Baskerville Hall. However, Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character and all his knowledge comes from the writer, Arthur Conan Doyle himself. It is possible that Edinburgh based doctor simply researched the topic of English land gentry in smallest details to make his detective realistic and believable. Or maybe he had good teachers. Arthur had a large circle of friends, most of whom were children of landowners in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and in Devonshire. Two specially close friends were the Kilverts from Devon and Baskervilles from Clyro – both old, entitled noble families with large manor house residences. They would make a great source of information to the writer.
2. The Baskerville Family – Clyro Hall has been constructed by Thomas Mynors Baskerville (1790 – 1864) second son of Peter Richard Mynors from Treago near Ross-on-Wye and Meliora Powell. He inherited the title and estate in Wales from his third cousin, Colonel Thomas Baskerville who passed away on May 4th 1817 without leaving any heirs. Thomas Mynors was married twice, first to Anne Hancock (she died childless in 1832) and then to Elizabeth Mary Guise with whom he had six children. He died in 1864 and was succeeded by his first born son, Walter Thomas Mynors Baskerville. We are not sure if Arthur Conan Doyle befriended Walter first or became acquainted with him through Walter’s son, Ralph Hopton but it is believed that he visited Clyro Hall just before Walter’s death in 1897 and it wasn’t his first stay there. Between 1900 and 1910, Conan Doyle was a constant visitor and even a business partner to Ralph. Ralph inherited Clyro Hall in 1905 and two years later decided to enlarge the estate by buying two well prospering farms in Radnorshire. Powys Council Archives are in possession of an official legal document signed by Ralph and Conan Doyle after the purchase. The writer is either acting as a witness or a surety.
3. Popularity – Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson made Arthur Conan Doyle a millionaire and the first celebrity writer in existence. The demand for new stories featuring the detective was so great, that people were queuing in front of The Strand Magazine’s offices on Southampton Street long before opening, something that has never happened before. The novels and short stories were often sold out within hours and the public still wanted more. Many Londoners were looking for Baker Street ready to hire the duo whom they perceived as a real people. Arthur Conan Doyle had to hire a literary agent who was helping him reply to fan mail and his personal life began to leak to news magazines (an early 20th century equivalent of tabloid press). It is understandable that the writer wanted to remain anonymous and enjoy the privilege of working undisturbed by fans or the press. David Hodby, a current owner of Clyro Court, is convinced that the Baskerville family were a bit troubled that the author used their name and a local legend of phantom black dog in his work, allowing the readers to identify them easily. They asked Conan Doyle to move the story from Welsh border to some other location. It wasn’t a hard task to do – at the time of writing “The Hound of Baskervilles”, Arthur was staying in Devon and gladly agreed to protects his friends. The fact that a coachman he used from time to time was also named Baskerville, served as a perfect cover up.
4. The Phantom Dog – a legend of the big black dog is very popular in English folklore. Every region has at least one mysterious hell hound appearing in solitary locations and bringing death to those who see it. Conan Doyle’s first wife Mary Louise (nicknamed Louisa) had extended family living in Wales and introduced the writer to the story of Hergest Ridge, the Black Vaughan and Elen the Terrible. This is a fascinating tale and quite a nice detective story in itself. Being a crime writer, Arthur Conan Doyle was no doubt inspired by it and used it in his book. You can read the story yourself here:
5. The Baskerville Hall – “The Hound of Baskervilles” gives the reader a detailed description of Baskerville Hall. John Watson finds it gloomy, mysterious yet beautiful. Strangely, the interiors of Clyro Court are almost identical with the design of the fictional
manor! Please take a look at the attached pictures and you will immediately see that a “square balustraded gallery (that) ran round the top of the old hall, approached by a double stair” is right there! Doctor Watson also mentions that his bedroom was very spacious and located next to Henry Baskerville’s. Clyro’s Court rooms are unusually large (most of them contains Victorian styled four poster beds with carpeted stairs) and are located very close to each other. The dining room has a dark ceiling with old beams exactly as described in the book and the billiard room where Watson relaxes with a cigarette is located at the back of the building and serves now as the hotel’s office. Clyro Hall has large gardens and grounds surrounding the manor (130 acres) that can be seen from the first floor’s bedrooms. Again, just as described by Conan Doyle, the manor is surrounded by wooded park and a moor. Do you remember the famous night walk among the yew trees? A yew alley can also be found near the house as well as “grassy space which lay in front of the hall door”.
Clyro Hall is now known as The Baskerville Hotel. It has been changed many times since Arthur Conan Doyle’s era. It has been sold in 1945 to local council and served as a boarding school until 1986 when it was bought by David Hodby. The hotel is a perfect retreat for a family holidays, even well behaved dogs are welcome! Some quests we know were complaining about loud music coming from the night club, but it is a popular destination for stag and hen parties! And we cannot forget about the heated indoor swimming pool and sauna – what else can you ask for?
You can book you stay at:
Baskerville Hall Hotel
Clyro Court – Hay-on-Wye – Powys – HR3 5LE
Tel: +44 (0)1497-820033 Fax: +44 (0)1497-820596
A couple of links for you dear detectives in training:
Baskerville Family history:
http://www.burkespeerage.com/search.php (type BASKERVILLE ands scroll through results)
http://www.houseofnames.com/baskerville-family-crest (Baskerville coat of arms explained)
Articles about the sensational discovery of Baskerville Family’s 42 pieces cutlery set auction from 2008:
A very interesting article about the rest of the Baskerville set and a fantastic investigation! Sherlock Holmes would be proud!
Bigwood Fine Art Auctioneers – auction house that was selling the cutlery set in 2008:
Our trip to Baskerville Hotel wasn’t planned at all. They have a large parking space that was used by Hay-On-Wye Literary Festival after torrential rainfalls turned the traditional field parking in town into a lake. We took the opportunity to walk around the lovely gardens, see how the hotel looks like inside and we even discovered that a very known person has booked a room there! It is definitely a place worth visiting – especially if you own a big black dog (Labrador retriever) like us!
We don’t know if we managed to convince you, but at least you have now something to think about. With the new series of Sherlock returning next year, there will be plenty of interest not only in the excellent acting duo (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) but in the Clyro Court as well!
Rita and Malicia Dabrowicz