Hound of the Borderlands

Originally in Welsh Country

This drawing by Suki Humphreys was used in the original WELSH COUNTRY publication.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was Arthur Conan Doyle's most successful story. Few would disagree with this statement. It was the novel that brought Sherlock Holmes back (albeit retrospectively) before a readership that was clamouring for the return of the fictional detective; the story was the subject of at least nineteen feature-length films; and it paved the way (not altogether happily for Conan Doyle) for more than thirty later stories featuring the Baker Street sleuth.

Yes, but the story is set in Devon, you may be thinking. The mists of Dartmoor, places like the Grimpen Mire and the isolated and lonely Baskerville Hall, are things that make the story come alive. It is these, besides the Hound itself, that most people remember. What's any of this got to do with the Welsh border-country? You may well ask this question, but you might just be surprised by the answer.

The Hound may have a great deal to with the Borders. Baskerville Hall is the name of a real place near Clyro, close to Hay-on-Wye. It was originally called Clyro Court, and was built in 1839 on the Baskerville Estate for his second wife Elizabeth by Thomas Mynors Baskerville. Thomas was the second son of Peter Richard Mynors of Treago near Ross-on-Wye. He had inherited the Estate from a distant cousin, Colonel Thomas Baskerville, who had died childless in 1819.

The Baskerville family were descended from Normans who had come with Duke William in 1066, originally rendering their surname as 'de Beceurville'. Apparently Nicholas de Beceurville, the earliest to bear the name, was a son of Balderic the Teuton, and a first cousin of Duke William, or William the Conqueror, as he is more usually known as today. Conan Doyle was a family friend of the descendants of Thomas Mynors Baskerville. The story goes that it was they who told him of the legend of the huge hound of 'Black Vaughan', a Lord who had died in the fifteenth century. Black Vaughan and his dog were said to haunt Hergest Ridge, which actually forms part of the Wales-England border.

Slightly different versions of this story place the original Baskerville Castle a few miles to the north, on the Herefordshire side of the border at Eardisley, Bredwardine, or Kington, though Hergest Ridge is usually named as the haunt of the hound. Supporters of these versions of the legend point to personal- and place- names like Mortimer and Stapleton. It was a Doctor Mortimer who first enlisted the aid of Holmes in the story, and of course the Mortimers were powerful Marcher Barons in Norman times.

Most people know that the landscape of Dartmoor was the setting actually used for the story: the original of 'Grimpen Mire' is probably Fox Tor Mires. There are, too, legends about hell-hounds roving Dartmoor. Many of these involve Richard Cabell, a seventeenth-century squire with an evil reputation, rather similar to that of the legend of the Baskerville ancestor, Hugo, who appears in the story.

One tale is that, when Cabell died, fire-breathing black dogs raced over Dartmoor, howling. Another is that Cabell, who had made a pact with the Devil, galloped over Dartmoor on a black horse following the hound sent by their mutual master. Yet another is that Cabell was a wife-beater who killed his wife and her pet hound. The spirit of the hound haunted Cabell thereafter, and eventually caused his death. Other stories of hounds on Dartmoor not associated with Cabell concern the 'Wish Hounds' which roamed the moor in a ferocious pack. The 'Wish Man'; 'Wisht Man' or 'Wise Man' was once a popular name for the Devil.

Proponents of the Dartmoor-based origin of the story usually point to Bertram Fletcher Robinson, a Liverpudlian who in the eighteen-eighties came with his family to Ipplepen, Devon. He later became a journalist and a good friend of Conan Doyle. Robinson's importance as an inspiration for the Hound of the Baskervilles was acknowledged by Conan Doyle in the first edition of the book-form version of the novel (it was first published in serial form by Strand magazine). Conan Doyle himself recorded a research visit to Dartmoor in company with Robinson, when they investigated sites like Fox Tor Mires and Grimspound.

Yet the two had visited the North Norfolk Coast for a golfing holiday not long before this, in March, 1901. There, they would have heard tales of 'Black Shuck', a ghostly hound that terrorised a large area around Cromer. Christopher Marlowe, the great dramatist and a contemporary of Shakespeare, was said to have seen the beast at Stiffkey Salt Marshes, just to the west of the isolated Blakeney Point.

The reputed favoured trail of the hound in Cromer was through the grounds of Cromer Hall. Conan Doyle and Robinson stayed in this Gothic pile, which could well have served as the model for the Baskerville Hall of the novel. And, while they were there, they were apparently driven in a carriage by one Harry Baskerville. Robinson is reputed to have given him a copy of the novel when it was published, inscribed with the dedication 'To Harry Baskerville, with apologies for using the name.'

So what are we to believe? Did the legend of Hugo Baskerville, one that forms the centrepiece of what is surely the UK's best known detective story, originate in the Welsh Border Country, in Devon, or in Norfolk?

Quite possibly all three had a lot to do with the genesis of the story. Hearing the Norfolk tale with Robinson may have resurrected older memories of stories told to Conan Doyle about Hergest Ridge and fired his imagination. As the idea for the novel took shape in his fertile writer's brain, Doyle might have decided to use the setting of Dartmoor. This would have been an ideal location, especially since Robinson would have had a local knowledge of the area, one that had devil-hound legends of its own.

We will never know this for sure now, but one thing is certain: The Hound of the Baskervilles was responsible for bringing the fictional Sherlock Holmes firmly back to life, even if the hound's legendary antecedents had quite the opposite effect on the local population.


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