The battle to save Conan Doyle's former Hindhead home, Undershaw, is stranger than fiction
PUBLISHED: 13:15 18 March 2014 | UPDATED: 11:56 25 March 2015
The world-famous super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes may have been given a new lease of life by the BBC just recently, but Conan Doyle’s former Surrey home in Hindhead has fallen into the shadows. The fight for Undershaw’s fate has seen battle lines firmly drawn, but its conclusion remains unwritten. Viv Micklefield investigates
Flickering candles throw dancing shadows across the oak panelling. With a sleight of hand, platefuls of food appear on the table in front of us. If ever a restaurant’s final service captured the ethereal mood of its surroundings, the meal I had at Hindhead’s Undershaw Hotel almost a decade ago, was one such occasion.
Since then, the curious visitor has been forced to keep their distance from the former home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Now owned by Fossway Ltd, but currently for sale at £1.3m, the building lies empty and increasingly dilapidated; the result not just of vandals stripping the lead from its roof but also of windows smashed and plasterwork torn down. Yet while preservationists and property developers continue to argue its fate, a new ruling will decide if there’s sufficient evidence to promote the building from its present Grade II to a higher listing. The question is: how strong are the connections to the Sherlock Holmes author?
“Something has to be of special architectural and historic interest to be listed at all,” explains Dr Andrew Brown, a planning and conservation director for English Heritage, whose inspectors make the listing recommendations, approved by the Minister for Culture. “It’s particularly interesting when we have buildings that are important because of what happened in them, not just because of their architectural quality. This presents some different and interesting challenges for conservationists, about how to make sure these survive into the future. It’s not just about the fabric, it’s about the spirit of the building in many ways.”
Escape to the country
For Undershaw’s passionate campaigners, that’s exactly what sets this house apart. Back in the 1890s, Hindhead and the rolling heathland covering this corner of Surrey was widely known as ‘Little Switzerland’; its healthy air offering the doctor-cum-author’s first wife Louise somewhere to convalesce as she battled tuberculosis. The four-acre plot, purchased for £1,000, also provided peaceful surroundings in which to write, with the capital’s clubs and literary publishers just a short journey from Haslemere’s new railway station.
Despite its current condition, Undershaw’s large rooms, tall chimneys, gable ends and red-brick with tile hung exterior still bear the hallmarks of the so-called Surrey vernacular. The style popularised by the eminent 19th century architect Richard Norman Shaw is found county-wide. Yet Conan Doyle’s 11-bedroom residence, complete with a stable block, lodge, and its very own electricity generating station, was no off-the-shelf design.
Builder and close friend Joseph Henry Ball is said to have worked from his client’s own plans. These included installing shallow steps on the main staircase as well as special doors catering for Louise’s needs. And much of the rest of the interior reflected her husband’s wish to enjoy the trappings of a country gentleman. Kathy Clark, a conservation officer for the Victorian Society, which champions the study and protection of English architecture from this period, describes Undershaw as: “A characterful building in its own right.” And she continues: “Conan Doyle inserted heavily personalised features into the house, such as armorial stained glass showing his family crests, which provide a strong link to his occupancy.”
The trail continues
However, it is the bigger picture revealed by Undershaw, of the author’s personal and working life, that really excites the society, which first applied to have the building re-listed back in 2006. “It is where he wrote his best-known work, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and resurrected his most famous creation in The Return of Sherlock Holmes,” says Kathy. “The family homes of writers of Conan Doyle’s cult standing are significant to innumerable people worldwide as the birthplace of the literary works they love.”
Of the 13 short stories written here and later published in The Strand Magazine, The Adventures of the Solitary Cyclist is actually set within the surrounding countryside. And the house also appears to have been an inspirational retreat for the nation’s literati with Bram Stoker, writer of Dracula, Virginia Woolf and nearby resident JM Barrie, amongst the many visitors. Local literary historian Dr Marion Dell confirms: “Conan Doyle is important because he was such a dominant figure at the end of the 19th century; it would be such an asset to the area to be able to tell the story of him and his family.”
Although the Conan Doyles and their young children did not reside exclusively in Hindhead – this was, after all, when the author tried to enter Parliament, volunteered for the Boer War and turned investigator in the George Edalji case – plenty of clues remain to suggest that they embraced Surrey’s social scene during the 10 years they lived there, particularly after Conan Doyle’s appointment as Deputy Lord Lieutenant. Newspapers report his efforts to start a rifle club and congratulate him on hosting a fancy dress ball, hailed a “brilliant success”. He’s also known to have organised cricket festivals, ridden with the Chiddingfold hunt, and been a founding member of the local golf club.
And perhaps, equally significant to his future life: it was reputedly while at Undershaw that Conan Doyle’s affair with Jean Leckie, later to be his second wife, began.
An inspector calls
Had it already joined the ranks of Surrey’s top listed buildings such as Woking’s Sutton Place and Godalming’s Munstead Wood, which are both Grade I, or Dorking’s Polesden Lacey and Abinger’s Goddards, which are both Grade II*, perhaps Undershaw’s long-term future might already be secured. As it is, despite a programme of emergency repairs carried out by Waverley Borough Council designed to stop further deterioration, it’s become a ticking time bomb.
This hasn’t, however, deterred the Undershaw Preservation Trust from trying to keep Conan Doyle’s memory here alive. Backed by the likes of TV’s Sherlock co-writer Mark Gatiss, academics and thousands of online followers, they’ve organised petitions and flash mobs. And having won a High Court appeal in 2012, they continue to resist any proposals to divide up the property.
The trust’s co-founder, John Gibson, believes that despite costing an estimated £2m, a sensitive restoration with some public access retained would add to the area’s attractions, following the completion of the Hindhead Tunnel. “It could be a family house, a country hotel, a museum, anything you like. But if it’s made into a terrace of houses, all access will be lost and all future options will be closed,” says John.
Meanwhile, although gaining a Grade II* listing won’t necessarily freeze a building in time, according to Dr Andrew Brown this does send out a message. “If it got its star,” he observes, “Undershaw would sit up there amongst the top eight per cent of buildings in the country. It would acknowledge that it deserves a bit more TLC.”
And it doesn’t take a super-sleuth to work out that’s just what this house needs right now.
Find out more about the Undershaw Preservation Trust by visiting at saveundershaw.com
5 more literary homes in Surrey
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not the only well-known author who lived locally...
The Chestnuts, Guildford: At the house he’d bought his unmarried sisters, Lewis Carroll wrote the Alice in Wonderland sequel, Through the Looking Glass
Aldworth House, Haslemere: The Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson penned some of his most acclaimed works at Aldworth House before his death there
Star & Garter, Richmond: Stays at this Thames-side hotel inspired some of Charles Dickens’ best-known novels such as Nicholas Nickleby
Monument Green, Weybridge: A Room with a View is among the novels composed here by EM Forster
Maybury Road, Woking: Two of HG Wells’ most famous sci-fi adventures, The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man, were written inside this semi
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