"There rose ever, dark against the evening sky, the long, gloomy curve of the moor, broken by jagged and sinister hills."
So wrote Dr. John Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles, talking about the bleak landscape of Devon in southwest England. It's a description that fits perfectly the approach to Grimspound, one of the locations used by Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for Hound.
In Hound, probably the most famous Holmes story, the London consulting detective and his trusted companion, Dr. Watson, leave the cozy warmth of 221B Baker Street and come to Dartmoor, a desolate area of nearly 775 square kilometres of disorienting granite hills and boggy, treacherous mires that can suck a man to his death.
Grimspound is the site of a Bronze Age hut circle, one of many on the moors, where a few dozen families and their domestic animals lived 3,000 years ago. It's a particularly well-preserved example, with the stone ruins of 24 huts and a rocky, waist-high wall that still completely encircles the camp, which is why it's believed to be the one Conan Doyle used in Hound. (It's in the ruins that Holmes makes his base, to observe the goings-on of various characters.)
You might think that, since Grimspound is in Dartmoor National Park, the way to it would be well signposted. It isn't. "We're very informal," says Jonathan Stones, a park ranger. "We don't do big trail markers." Park rangers do offer several tours, some including Grimspound, but if you were looking for it on your own you'd need to drive northeast from Princetown along B3212, turn south onto Challacombe Road and look for five worn granite steps on the left of the road. Drive slowly or you'll miss them.
From the steps a narrow path winds uphill, crossing a burbling brook and passing a few of the moor's wild ponies. The hut circle is about a 10-minute climb from the road. You may meet the odd hiker; more likely, you and the wind will have the site to yourselves.
Conan Doyle took liberties with the moor's geography when writing his novel. Grimspound really ought to be next to Fox Tor, south of Princetown. In the book, Fox Tor is where the escaped convict, Selden, hides. Conan Doyle says there's a deadly bog between the tor and Baskerville Hall and this accords with reality, but where the grand house should sit is the less-impressive Whiteworks Cottages.
If you want to see the model for Baskerville Hall – and the origin of the legend Conan Doyle based Hound on – ask for directions at the park office in Princetown. It's in a valley near Holne and it's called Brook Manor. (It's still lived in, so can only be viewed from the road.) There, in the 1600s, dwelt Richard Cabell, reputed to have sold his soul to the devil. When he died, a phantom pack of wild dogs is said to have gathered at his tomb and howled, their shrieks carrying across the dark and lonely moor.
Considering its importance, I thought it would be bigger. Not that walls 3 1/2 metres thick and 12 metres high are insubstantial, but I'd expected a castle that had endured five sieges, taken nearly eight years to build and was the last royalist fortification to fall in the English Civil War to have more bulk. It site is still a commanding one, on a rock 60 metres above the sea, but the water, which once lapped its base, has retreated, diminishing the effect a bit.
Nevertheless, it played a major role in Welsh history. It was built by Edward I as one of his 14 Ring of Iron fortresses meant to keep the Welsh subdued after the death of the last Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gauffydd, in 1282. Harlech, says Blue Badge guide Donna Goodman, "was considered to be the strongest of the Ring of Iron castles." Today it, along with three other of Edward's Welsh castles (Caernarvon, Conwy and Beaumaris) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The four made the cut, says Goodman, because "they are the finest examples of medieval castles in the world." Harlech is the smallest of the four, but it its prime, when its walls were lime-washed to a brilliant white, "it would have looked like Camelot," says Goodman.
Harlech's most prominent turn at centre stage came at the start of the 1400s. Owain Glyn Dwr (anglicized as "Owen Glendower"), "perhaps the most conjured name in all of Welsh history," according to one of the castle's information panels, had raised the flag of Welsh rebellion in 1400 and had himself declared Prince of Wales. By 1404 he controlled virtually all of the country and had captured the castles of Aberystwyth and Harlech.
Harlech he made his headquarters. He and his family moved in. Here he held court and signed a treaty with Charles VI of France. In the summer of 1405 he convened a Welsh parliament at Harlech. But his days as ruler were short-lived. In 1409, after persistent cannonading (the balls from it are lined up on the floor of the gatehouse), the English retook Harlech.
Although his wife and two daughters were captured and taken to the Tower of London (where they died) Glyn Dwr managed to slip away. He continued to lead a guerrilla movement, but by 1412 it had run out of steam. Unlike most deposed rulers, though, it seems Glyn Dwr was neither caught or killed, nor went into exile. He simply vanishes from history. One tradition has it he lived with his daughter, Alys, across the Welsh border in Herefordshire, presented himself a friar and died an old man. Books have been written speculating on his fate. Meanwhile, Henry of Monmouth, the man who retook Harlech, became the sole Prince of Wales – and later Henry V.
And the castle? After Cromwell's parliamentarians took it in 1647 they rendered it untenable, pulling down roofs, tearing up floors and staircases, but not destroying it outright. A ruin, Harlech still stands – a small, but pivotal piece of Welsh history.
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