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"The only approach to the house was over a drawbridge" [VALL]

If you happen to be in or near Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent, by all means make your way to Groombridge Place. Any time will do, but particularly in September, 2015 when it's Conan Doyle Month there.

Conan Doyle was a Crowborough resident and was friends with the owners of Groombridge Place during the early 1900s. He visited the house frequently as a guest and used it as inspiration for The Valley of Fear in 1914.

According to the Groombridge Place website, here are the details for the month's celebrations:

Every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday throughout September tickets will be available for "Sherlock Holmes and The Valley of Fear" guided tour (1pm and 2pm). Tickets £2.50 per person, available in advance or on the day.
  • Saturday 19 September ‘The Homecoming’ Sherlock Holmes Murder Mystery and Dinner (7pm – 10:30pm) £40 per person *Booking essential*
  • Saturday 19 September ‘Sherlock Holmes: The myth and the facts’ Illustrated talk with Dr Antony Richards 4pm – 5pm £2 per person, pay on the door or in advance *Booking essential*
  • Friday 25, Saturday 26, Sunday 27 September ‘Remembering Sir Arthur…’
  • Theatre Evening – includes tapas and wine in our cafĂ© and a performance in the adjacent Conan Doyle Theatre. Choice of performances at 7:45pm and 8:45pm, with tapas available from 7pm until 10pm. Tickets £20 per person, includes choice of 3 tapas, and a glass of wine. *Booking essential* 

"A Case of Identity"

Aside from the fascinating history of Groombridge Place, the property should be of interest to Sherlockians because of its associations with the Manor House of Birlstone in The Valley of Fear. But first a little history in the identification.

H.W. Bell, BSI ("The Valley of Fear") was one of the early and great Sherlockian scholars and Baker Street Irregulars. Bell was a Bostonian (being an inveterate member of The Speckled Band of Boston) who carried on correspondence with a number of other Sherlockians, including Dorothy Sayers and Edgar Smith. Smith was impressed with Bell's Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Chronology of Their Adventures (1932) and he included Bell's "Three Identifications" in Profile by Gaslight in 1944. It was in this monograph that Bell determined that Birlstone Manor was based on The Moated House at Brambletye. In 1945, the year after the BSI began issuing investitures, Bell received his — "The Valley of Fear" — specifically because of this (and it should be noted that the four novels — STUD, SIGN, HOUN and VALL — were considered uber-investitures and were given to some of the earliest and most significant Sherlockians of the day: Vincent Starrett, Christopher Morley, Edgar Smith and Bell, respectively).

H.W. Bell's identification of Birlstone Manor
The Moated House at Brambletye

However, in Montgomery's Christmas Annual 1955, James Montgomery, BSI ("The Red Circle") took up another investigation — "A Case of Identity," as he called his entry — and respectfully corrected Bell's misinformation after having lunch with James Keddie, Jr., BSI ("The Crooked Man"), Cheetah of The Speckled Band, in 1954. Keddie had with him three leaves from a second printing of The Valley of Fear, published in 1915 — one of which included this inscription from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself:

"With all kind remembrance from Arthur Conan Doyle who hopes you have pleasant memories of Groombridge House which is the old house herein described. June 22/21."
That settled the matter nicely.

But what of the "old house" itself? Here we have the description of Birlstone Manor from VALL:
About half a mile from the town, standing in an old park famous for its huge beech trees, is the ancient Manor House of Birlstone. Part of this venerable building dates back to the time of the first Crusade, when Hugo de Capus built a fortalice in the centre of the estate, which had been granted to him by the Red King. This was destroyed by fire in 1543, and some of its smoke-blackened corner-stones were used when, in Jacobean times, a brick country house rose upon the ruins of the feudal castle. The Manor House, with its many gables and its small, diamond-paned windows, was still much as the builder had left it in the early seventeenth century. Of the double moats which had guarded its more warlike predecessor the outer had been allowed to dry up, and served the humble function of a kitchen garden. The inner one was still there, and lay, forty feet in breadth, though now only a few feet in depth, round the whole house. A small stream fed it and continued beyond it, so that the sheet of water, though turbid, was never ditch-like or unhealthy. The ground floor windows were within a foot of the surface of the water. The only approach to the house was over a drawbridge, the chains and windlass of which had long been rusted and broken. The latest tenants of the Manor House had, however, with characteristic energy, set this right, and the drawbridge was not only capable of being raised, but actually was raised every evening and lowered every morning. By thus renewing the custom of the old feudal days the Manor House was converted into an island during the night - a fact which had a very direct bearing upon the mystery which was soon to engage the attention of all England."

Map of Groombridge Place, Plate IX from Montgomery's Christmas Annual 1955: A Case of Identity

So let's take a look at some of the grounds and the house that inspired Conan Doyle to create Birlstone Manor. All images are plates from Montgomery's Christmas Annual 1955: A Case of Identity.

Plate XII: "The long, low, Jacobean house of dingy, liver-coloured brick lay before us."

Plate XIII: "The long sweep of the dull-coloured, water-lapped front."

Plate XIV: "The Manor House, with its many gables and its small, diamond-paned windows."

Plate XV: "The only approach to the house was over a drawbridge."

Plate XVI: "Those strange peaked roofs and quaint overhung gables were a fitting covering to grim and terrible intrigue."

Plate XVII: "Forty feet in breadth, though now only a few feet in depth."

Plate XVIII: "The beautiful broad moat, as still and luminous as quicksilver."

As Montgomery wrote, "Pitifully few are the shrines made forever sacred to us by Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion." Groombridge Place is a poignant and clear one that should be enjoyed by all. Particularly this month.

[Editor's note: we have an extra copy of Montgomery's Christmas Annual 1955. There were only 300 copies printed, and they were distributed by James Montgomery's widow Constance following his sudden death on November 9, 1955. If you are interested in purchasing it from us, please get in touch.]

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons ("Groombridge02" by Hans Bernhard (Schnobby)).