I have loved Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories for years, since student days when my friends and I would read them out loud to each other and relish the marvellous language, laugh at the unintentional humour, and of course enjoy the wide-ranging adventures. We also were great fans of the Jeremy Brett TV series, who became ‘our’ Sherlock, just as much as Basil Rathbone was for an earlier generation and Benedict Cumberbatch is for today’s. And as a murder mystery writer myself, it’s easy to view Sherlock as a kind of patron saint of fictional detectives.
So when I was given the chance to go to Switzerland, in the very footsteps of Sherlock and his faithful Watson (and of course, before them, Conan Doyle himself in 1893), I decided to make the most of it and compare my own ‘adventure’ with the original stories. This begins with “Adventure XI – The Final Problem”. Watson was writing this after “that event which has created a void in my life which the lapse of two years has done little to fill.” Moriarty’s brother has been bad-mouthing Sherlock in public and so Watson feels he has no choice but to defend the honour of his great friend by writing a true account of the events of third and fourth of May 1891 in Meiringen, Switzerland. “It lies with me to tell for the first time what happened between Professor Moriarty and Mr Sherlock Holmes.”
Holmes had come to Watson’s consulting room on the evening of the twenty fourth of April, in an unusually nervous state, having been in a fight and concerned that someone is out to kill him. Watson knows him well enough to take this seriously when Holmes proposes that the doctor should “come away with me for a week to the Continent”. They then have a attempted secret, fraught and complex journey that ends at the Reichenbach Fall at Meiringen in Switzerland with the seeming death of Sherlock Holmes at the hands of Moriarty, today, the fourth of May.
I have just returned from my week on the Continent, a journey that included 30 separate train journeys and felt almost as fraught at times as Sherlock and Watson’s! We weren’t being pursued by murderous maniacs but it could feel scary climbing up snowy mountain passes and overlooking gorges thousands of feet deep as we explored the same terrain in Switzerland. Apparently it was “not in Holmes’ nature to take an aimless holiday”, nor is it in mine, and I am delighted to be able to share with you some of the amazing scenery and historic sights that form the backdrop to this most famous detective story.
On that April night, Holmes gives to Watson a detailed description as to how he is to get to Victoria station in London where they are to meet up on the train: “the second first-class carriage from the front will be reserved for us.” On our trip last week, we too had to take the equivalent of Watson’s brougham (a taxi) to the station but were to travel instead with ‘Great Rail Journeys’ and leave from St Pancras International on the Eurostar to Brussels, however it was usually the first class carriage at the front of the various trains that were reserved for us as we shot across the continent.
We arrived at Eurostar to find they had mysteriously voided our tickets (our wonderful and unflappable guide said this had never happened before in her experience!) and we had to wait half an hour to be re-instated. But Watson’s relief that “my luggage was waiting for me, and I had no difficulty in finding the carriage” I’m glad to say was usually our experience after that wobbly start. S and W get off the train at Canterbury as they are being followed, meaning to go to Newhaven to cross to Dieppe, fooling Moriarty with luggage labelled for Paris. The intention is to “make our way at leisure into Switzerland, via Luxembourg and Basle.” This was exactly our route, although “at leisure” is hardly the way to describe our one-night stay. Again, there were no master criminals on our trail to stop us, only several thousand students demonstrating in Luxembourg at an unearthly hour of the morning (for students), blocking our way to the train station (just across the road). There were several occasions when I could sympathise with Watson at this point in the story, “looking rather ruefully after the rapidly disappearing luggage-van which contained my wardrobe…”. There was also the same problem as when to snatch snacks at the various stations and stopping points. Sherlock is well-known for always interrupting Watson with the promise of adventure when he is just about to eat. Watson must have groaned inwardly when Sherlock declares: “The question now is whether we should take a premature lunch here, or run our chance of starving before we reach the buffet…” You and me both, Watson.
Instead they too make their way to Brussels, then on to Strasburg and Geneva. Holmes tells Watson to return to London, as Moriarty now has nothing to lose and is a desperate man. But “it was hardly an appeal to be successful with one who was an old campaigner as well as an old friend.” Watson is determined to be faithful and not let Holmes go on alone, whatever the cost.
They have a “charming” week wandering in the Rhone Valley, going through the snow of the Gemmi Pass by way of Interlaken to Meiringen. “It was a lovely trip, the dainty green of the spring below, the virgin white of the winter above…”
But of course Holmes cannot forget that they are hunted men. Near the Daubensee a large rock is dislodged and falls down next to them from the ridge above. Holmes is not depressed by this, however, but seems to exalt in this ultimate competition of two great intellects and strategists. “Again and again he recurred to the fact that if he could be assured that society was freed from Professor Moriarty he would cheerfully bring his own career to a conclusion.”
“It was on the 3d of May that we reached the little village of Meiringen, where we put up at the Englischer Hof…” in 1891.
This is where we also stayed – now called the Park Hotel du Sauvage,
and still with many of the period details of the time.
And the plaque to prove it…
We had large rooms with stunning views of the mountains. My room looked out on the Reichenbach Fall area itself.
Like Watson and Holmes, we found that all the Swiss running and serving in the hotel spoke excellent English. Watson wrote that at the advice of the owner of the hotel “on the after noon of the 4th we set off together, with the intention of crossing the hills and spending the night at the hamlet of Rosenlaui.” (I was amused to be given ‘Rosenlaui’ as the codeword for the day to use the wifi at a local institution).
Watson continues, “We had strict injunctions, however, on no account to pass the falls of Reichenbach, which are about half-way up the hill, without making a small detour to see them.” This week we were very glad of a mini-bus to take us up the hill as we knew it was an hour and a half to make the steep walk back down again.
Conan Doyle’s description of it as “a fearful place” was true as to the rock formations – basically when you looked down – but when you looked up at the falls itself, instead of a “torrent, swollen by the melting snow”, we only saw a small rivulet of water (someone unkindly described it as “the Reichenbach Trickle”). We were wondering whether Conan Doyle had seen it later on in the year when more snow had melted, but no, he seems very precise about it being on the fourth of May. So this is rather a mystery in itself, unless global warming is to blame.
There was “an immense chasm” underneath but the rock did not look particularly “coal-black”, nor was there a “boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip.” The waters did look green, but there wasn’t a curtain of hissing spray that with the swirling water could “turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour.”
If we did go giddy it was due to less oxygen than usual at that height, plus the need for tea or coffee at the local restaurant, fortunately situated on the path back.
Of course, Holmes and Watson are ‘tricked’ by a fake message about someone who needs the doctor’s help back at the hotel and so Watson writes: “As I turned away I saw Holmes, with his back against a rock and his arms folded, gazing down at the rush of the waters. It was the last I was ever destined to see of him in this world.”
Or so he thinks…
Part Two will look at the impact of Sherlock Holmes on Meiringen and the amazing way that this small Swiss town has taken him to their hearts.