My friends Steve and Kate visited Bobbi and I over the Christmas season. We had a very fun, very full two weeks...but in the time since they have gone, I've had several reminders of things that we did not get to do. It is a reminder of the truth of Samuel Johnson's remark that: ...when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
We did, however, take a detour to visit the exterior of "221b Baker Street", the residence of Sherlock Holmes. From the outside, the building is everything one could hope for, but Kate expressed a reluctance to go in. What if the recreation of Holmes and Watson's lodgings did not live up to the imagination? I understood how she felt. The Holmes stories live so vividly in the mind that it is difficult to believe that he and Watson are not as real as Victoria, their Queen.
Apparently, I am not the only one to think so. The museum at 221b Baker Street receives mail from all over the world addressed to the Consulting Detective. In addition, the Abbey Bank, it's former headquarters located at 221b Baker Street, has commissioned a bronze statue of Holmes which greets passengers as they emerge from the Baker Street Tube Stop. A circular blue heritage plauqe, that ubiquitous official marker of London's historical buildings, marks the address as Holmes' own.
And eventually, my curiosity got the better of me. Persuading my partner in crime, Dr. Bobbi, to accompany me, I set out for the fictional address...determined to see what I could see.
Frankly, the museum exceeds expectations. Every single detail feels correct. Watson's bowler and Holmes' deerstalker are on the hat rack by the door...gas lights illuminate the narrow wooden stairway, and the walls are chock full of authentic Victorian prints. The tables, too, are dusted, and here and there, delicate pieces of brick-a-brack, freshly cut flowers and lace doilies attest to the fact that the landlady, the good Mrs. Hudson, has had a hand in the decoration.
Kate may have a loyalty to the set designed for the Granada Television series starring Jeremy Brent, and much of my imagination of the scene stems from that and also the room inhabited by Rathbone and Bruce- but both sets draw inspiration from closely studied descriptions offered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (or Dr. Watson, if you prefer)...and both are, in a way, validated by this recreation.
The famous sitting room is much smaller than it appears in the films. According to the stories, Holmes could leap from his bedroom to the window in one bound, and I suspect that the movies utilize a slightly bigger set because the of need to accommodate film crews and cameras in addition to the action. Other than it's small size, however, the sitting room is exactly what you expected.
Think of a piece of Holmesian memorabilia: the violin? It's there. The glass? Of course. The chemistry set? Present. A small syringe, ready for a dose of seven percent solution, hidden away in the desk? Look closely, you'll find it. The Persian Slipper full of tobacco is, of course, included. How about Queen Victoria's initials, shot into the wall by Holmes in a fit of boredom...yes, the bullet holes are there too, covered now by a glass case to prevent further damage to Mrs. Hudson's plaster.
There are also a few things you might not expect. Watson's room, for example, is filled with the tools and books of his medical trade. Dr. Bobbi was particularly impressed by bound copies of "The Lancet" from the 1890s. A few mementos of Watson's time in army are present as well. Mrs. Hudson's sitting room, while never, to my knowledge, depicted in the stories, is here. These extra details allow the visitor to feel as if they have transcended even Watson's descriptions.
Even if you are not a Holmes fan, a visit to the museum is a fascinating glimpse into Victorian life circa 1890. The furniture, the breakfast table, the bedding, the books, even the toiletries and chamber pots allow for a long glimpse into what truly is the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
An advantage to an extended stay such as ours allows the visitor to pick and choose the times when they shall go forth and explore, and, by going on a weekday morning, in the middle of January, we had the lodgings all to ourselves...we were even allowed, for a moment, to sit in the chairs by the fireside- just as if we were waiting for the great detective's return from his latest case.
Oh, yeah....and we got to try on the hats, too.