Dartmoor, England (dpa) – Dartmoor. The word is the epitome of eerie, evoking mist swirling over thick gorse, forbidding prison walls and the most famous Sherlock Holmes story of all: «The Hound of the Baskervilles.»
In the novel, the London detective and his sidekick Dr. Watson must solve a mysterious death: Sir Charles Baskerville was found with an expression of utter horror on his face – with the paw prints of a gigantic hound close by.
To research the idea, Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) travelled to the lonely expanses of Dartmoor in England’s southwestern county of Devon in 1901. One of his main sources was the local vicar and Dartmoor expert Robert Duins Cooke.
Today, Cooke’s great-grandson Alex Graeme takes tourists to the locations where the novel was inspired. His eight-hour «Hound of the Baskervilles Tour,» offered by no one else, is also a perfect Halloween adventure, with shivers guaranteed.
It starts innocently enough: Alex comes to the hotel with his car, which makes the tour a lot easier than in Doyle’s time, who had to roam mostly on foot across the inaccessible heathlands.
At Ashburton cemetery, one of the first stops, «Henry Baskerville» is curiously inscribed on a weathered tombstone. Doyle simply borrowed the resonant surname from the coachman who drove him here over 120 years ago. Henry passed away peacefully in 1962, aged 81.
The landscape in the Dartmoor national park is dominated by brown and green tones, occasionally broken up by wild ponies that huddle by parked cars for warmth. Landmarks on the horizon are the tors – towering rock formations resembling collapsed building blocks.
It’s still light, but beholding this gaunt natural beauty, one can almost hear the forbidding words that Charles Baskerville wrote before his death, read to Holmes by Dr. Mortimer: «I counsel you by way of caution to forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted.»
In the distance, black clouds hang ominously over Dartmoor Prison. Built in 1806 for French prisoners of war, its grim granite edifices still confine almost 700 inmates today. In Doyle’s novel, an escaped convict creates additional tension.
However, the place most associated with the story is the ruins of Holy Trinity Church on the edge of the village of Buckfastleigh, now standing in forlorn solitude amid a sea of slate tombstones.
In 1992, the church burned down after an act of arson, possibly connected with black magic and Satanism said to have been practiced here. That it attracted such people was likely due to the massive burial chamber, which stands undamaged next to the church’s bare, roofless walls.
Here rests the landowner Richard Cabell III, nicknamed «Dirty Dick,» who was feared as being particularly cruel during his lifetime and who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil. Since his death in 1677, the passionate huntsman is said to gallop across the moors on stormy nights as a phantom with his dogs.
It is precisely this legend that Doyle wrapped into the heart of his story: here, it is an evil 17th-century Baskerville who stalks young women on the moors at night until he is finally hounded to death by a dog.
Alex recounts that the local population feared Cabell’s ghost so much that they locked his coffin in the burial house behind thick walls and iron bars, under a mighty stone slab for good measure.
According to an old tradition, if you walk around the chamber seven times and then put your hand through the bars, Cabell or even the devil himself will snap at your fingers.
From the ruins it is then on to the desolate bogland of the Fox Tor Mires, believed to have been Doyle’s model for the fictional Grimpen Mire, where the hellhound wreaks havoc.
And this is where it happens during the tour: right on the road, on a hilltop, a giant, inky silhouette blocks the way ahead. Chills race through the passengers’ bones. It is only after a second look that it proves to be a large cow.
Slowly, Alex starts up again, and the horned ruminant disappears behind the hill. When the car reaches the hill, there is nothing to see – the animal seems to have dissolved. All that can be heard is the whistling wind.
This is the cue to seek something more contemplative and calming. The cosy «Two Bridges» hotel restaurant near the moss-covered, twisted oaks of Wistman’s Wood, also on the tour program, seems ideal.
But guess what – it’s also haunted, this time by the spectre of the Wisht Hounds, bloodthirsty dogs with burning red eyes that prowl the vicinity.
In the rustic pub, however, where many hikers take refreshments and rest, a fireplace crackles reassuringly as Devon cream teas with scones, clotted cream and jam are served.
And the beasts of the moors and the mind? Howl as they might – they have to stay outside.
The eight-hour «The Hound of Baskervilles Tour» with Alex Graeme is not cheap. It costs £450 ($550) for two people, £525 pounds for four, and £595 for a group of six.
By Christoph Driessen, dpa