On a rainy day in England, I decided to play detective. I set off to find the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London and other things Holmesian…
By Jim Ferri
Vacations-with-a-purpose, aka “theme vacations,” have been around forever.
If you like wine, enjoy cooking, want to save gorillas in Africa, or are interested in a gazillion other things, there are ready-made theme vacations for you.
And the vacation doesn’t have to be a long one; it can be a “mini-theme” vacation lasting only a day or two, or even less.
I made my own theme vacation. On a rainy day in London, I decided to find a theme and follow it about the city for a few hours when I had nothing planned.
Given the cultural cornucopia that is London, I quickly realized the number of potential themes was overwhelming. I could have chosen art, literature, history, or any one of a thousand other ideas that quickly came to mind.
But I decided instead to do some sleuthing. I headed for the Underground and set off to find Sherlock Holmes.
First, Let’s Review the Evidence
At the onset, understand that Sherlock Holmes was fictional, and not a real person. That needs to be said since many people believe he was real.
And second, he remains extremely popular. Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed human literary character in film and television history. His character has been played by 180+ actors in 250+ movies.
The Holmes character was created by Arthur Conan Doyle, a Scottish ophthalmologist. He turned out to be a better writer than a doctor.
Doyle came to London to help advance his writing career after a British publication published his novel “A Study in Scarlet.” It was in that novel that Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, was introduced to the world.
Soon after that, when the Managing Editor of a prominent Philadelphia magazine was in London to launch a British edition, Doyle was invited to dine with him at London’s famous and opulent Langham Hotel. Doyle left that dinner with an agreement to produce a second novel about Holmes. It would be “The Sign of Four,” which established his reputation.
At the dinner, another writer, an Irishman named Oscar Wilde, left with a contract to write the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
By the way, the Langham still stands at the top of Regent Street, a dowager from Victorian times. In its time, it was the place to stay and was frequented by such guests as Robert Browning, Mark Twain, and Henry Morton Stanley, the latter en route to Africa to find Dr. Livingstone.
It’s been remodeled on the inside, but its outside is still precisely the same as it was when Doyle had dinner there – and when he returned many times after – 120 years ago. It also appears in a number of his books, making the hotel almost a shrine for Sherlockians.
Searching for the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London
When I arrived at the Baker Street Station in London’s Marylebone neighborhood, I found Holmes’s silhouette in his deerstalker cap adorning the wall tiles as I exited. It was a nice touch, a foreboding of a pleasant day of theming ahead.
It also reassured me I was close to 221b Baker Street, the address made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in all those Holmes tomes.
When exiting the station, if I turned left, I would have come to a statue of Sherlock Holmes nearby. I instead continued to the right and headed up the street, setting my sights on 221b Baker Street, one of the most famous addresses in the world. To some it’s more famous than 10 Downing, the residence of the British Prime Minister.
In a few minutes, I discovered that 221 Baker Street was not adjacent to 220 or 222. It was, in fact, further up the street between 237 and 241 Baker.
The reason is that during Victorian times the numbers on Baker Street ended at 85, before three different streets were merged and named Baker in the early 1900s. I’d guess that Doyle invented 221b so people wouldn’t be knocking on someone’s door asking to see Sherlock Holmes.
It turns out that Doyle invented a lot of things in his writing, something that keeps the Sherlock Holmes Society in London and The Baker Street Irregulars in New York City quite busy, as they happily track down clues about the most famous and brilliant detective of all time. There’s even a website devoted to him, Sherlockian.net, a curated directory about everything Holmesian.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum
In 1989 a promoter bought a rundown boarding house at 239 Baker Street, and the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London was born. The building dates from the early 19th century, but it’s been converted to look like Holmes’s flat as described in the books.
Outside I met an actor dressed as a policeman, complete with the old Bobby uniform and helmet. He was busy posing for photos with visitors and directing everyone into the museum store to buy their tickets. (Entrance fee: Adults £15, under 16, £10)
I bought my ticket and headed up the stairs to the parlor. There were 17 steps, the number noted in the novel “A Scandal in Bohemia.” I hoped to meet the actress who plays Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’s fictional housekeeper, who I had read gives tours of the Museum, but she wasn’t there that day.
However, I did find Dr. Watson up on the second floor and had a chat with him. The whole place – furniture, decorations, wax figures a la Madame Tussauds — was all contrived, of course. Still, it was well-faked, which made it interesting for just about everyone.
Downstairs in the museum store, there was every piece of Sherlock Holmes kitsch you could ever imagine — little Sherlock-pipe key rings, pocket puzzles, deerstalker hats, Sherlock chess sets, milk pitchers, dozens of different books, Sherlock teddy bears, refrigerator magnets, dolls, you name it, it was there – even Sherlock Holmes rubber duckies for the tub.
I poked around the place for a bit, wondering who would buy half of this stuff, until I realized the woman at the register was doing a very brisk business.
Off to the Sherlock Holmes Pub
Since it was lunchtime, I decided to set off for the place most Sherlockians see as more authentic, the Sherlock Holmes Pub. This is where in “The Noble Bachelor,” Holmes tracked down Francis Hay Moulton.
As it turned out, the pub was nowhere near Baker Street, and I had to take the Underground over to Charing Cross. After I exited at Charing Cross, a passerby pointed me in the direction of Northumberland Street, and I found it about 100 yards down the short lane, not far from Trafalgar Square.
The pub offers the usual bar food of Nachos, Mac & Cheese, and burgers. You can also enjoy things that are a bit more traditional…Sausage & Mash (£10.99), Steak & Ale Pie (£12.99), and Fish & Chips (£13.99).
There were more Brits than tourists inside. But based on the bottles of Heinz ketchup scattered about the tables, I quickly deduced that they must have many American visitors in the high season.
The waitress confirmed my suspicion and revealed that the most popular menu item with Yanks was the Shepherd’s Pie at £6.95.
I stayed with the tradition and ordered a plate. It went well with a pint of the £1.70 Sherlock Holmes Ale, most likely another American favorite.
The Sherlock Holmes Pub also has an in-house Sherlock Holmes Museum on the second floor. According to Sherlockians, it is more authentic than the Baker Street museum, including a better replica of the 221B parlor room.
However, at the pub, you won’t be able to take a selfie with Doctor Watson.
If you go:
The Sherlock Holmes Museum
221b Baker Street
Sherlock Holmes Pub
10 Northumberland Street
St James’s, Greater London, WC2N 5DB
1c Portland Place
Regent Street, London, GB W1B 1JA