Familiar inspiration for fine detective

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to Happisburgh in 1903 he was inspired to set one of his classic Sherlock Holmes tales in that part of Norfolk. Now the village’s heritage is under threat from coastal erosion, but it is being highlighted by the next EDP Blue Plaque.

Lying in a quiet Norfolk coastal village just a stone's throw from the sea, it was the perfect retreat for a famous writer who wanted to work in solitude.

His writing desk was placed at the window, facing a bowling green and the sea, and the author was left in peace, with a maidservant on call to attend to him when he needed.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle liked the hotel so much that he became a regular visitor, and as well as providing peace and quiet, the Hill House also provided inspiration - in the form of a curious hand-written script formed by stickmen that the landlord's son had written in the guest book.

Conan Doyle was so taken with the code that while staying there in May 1903 he wrote a Sherlock Holmes story called The Adventure of the Dancing Men, rated by aficionados of the great detective as one of the best.

The building's claim to literary fame will soon be marked with the latest in the EDP's series of blue plaques, which commemorate the more surprising aspects of our region's cultural history.

In the past we have highlighted the time that Muhammad Ali visited Norwich to promote Ovaltine, and marked the Sex Pistols' infamous gig in a tiny Norfolk coastal village, while Sir Michael Caine unveiled a plaque at the school in West Runcton to which he was evacuated as a child in wartime.

Most Read

This plaque, to be unveiled in July, will highlight Happisburgh's heritage - one that is under threat owing to coastal erosion.

The Hill House is now considerably nearer the sea than it was in the days when Conan Doyle came to visit. Erosion at Happisburgh means that this landmark in Norfolk's literary history faces an uncertain future, with crumbling cliffs bringing the Hill House ever closer to a watery end.

"Happisburgh is a village with a very impressive history, right through from the church with its connections with the sea - there's a mass grave in the churchyard with 119 of Nelson's sailors - through to the Hill House, parts of which date from the 15th century," said Clive Stockton, landlord of the pub.

"Sadly if the worst happens and we don't manage to get the sea defences that we need, all that will be lost. It's very important that we celebrate and record as much of Happisburgh's history as possible."

Conan Doyle stayed at the Hill House on a number of occasions, getting to know the Cubitt family who ran it - and he also gave a character in the Dancing Men, local squire Hilton Cubitt, the same surname as the landlord.

EDP reader Patricia Riches contacted us to explain: "My mother, Phyllis Hales, was the granddaughter of the landlord Robert Cubitt. His widow Emma ran the Hotel until 1919, when my mother's mother and father took over and ran it until 1934.

"Conan Doyle got the idea for

the dancing men from my

mother's uncle, Gilbert Cubitt,

who cut out strips of paper dolls when he was small and signed

his name in alphabetical code of dancing figures."

Mrs Riches, who lives in Happisburgh, said that her late mother had passed on stories she had heard from her parents of when Conan Doyle came to stay. While staying there he used a room known as the Green Room as his study, where he was waited on by Edith Cubitt.

"He used that room so that he could come and go out of the back without disturbing the other visitors," said Mrs Riches.

Conan Doyle's visits to this area of Norfolk had a strong influence on his work. The Dancing Men sees Holmes and his trusty friend Watson investigate the case of Hilton Cubitt and his American wife, who live in Ridling Thorpe - a fictional name inspired by the north-east Norfolk villages of Ridlington and Edingthorpe.

Holmes and Watson alight from a train at North Walsham station on a summer's day in 1898 and make their way to Ridling Thorpe, where Hilton Cubitt's wife Elsie has been overcome with fear after being plagued by cryptic messages written in the curious "dancing men" script.

The script is at the heart of a mystery driving Elsie to distraction. They have been married for around a year and until recently all was well. She is American, and before the wedding, asked Hilton to promise her never to ask about her past, as she had had some "very disagreeable associations" in her life, although nothing to be ashamed of herself. Hilton swore never to ask - but when they start to receive cryptic messages in the form of tiny dancing figures, he asks Holmes to investigate.

It was not the only one of Conan Doyle's famous tales to be influenced by Norfolk. He had a passion for the county, making a number of visits in the 1890s and early 1900s, not just to Happisburgh - where he was the first person to bring a motor car - but elsewhere along the coast. One of these influenced perhaps his most famous story, although sadly for Norfolk he chose to relocate it in Devon.

In 1901, he had returned from a stint as a field doctor during the Boer War where he had contracted enteric fever. He decided to recuperate in Norfolk by taking a golfing holiday with a journalist friend, Bertram Fletcher Robinson.

They stayed in Cromer at the Royal Links Hotel and it was in the private sitting room that Robinson recounted the local tales of a hideous black hound that roamed the North Norfolk coast.

The local legend had it that the tracks of a ghostly hound run through Mill Lane past the old Links Hotel and over the hill into the grounds of Cromer Hall, a place to which Conan Doyle was a regular visitor, being an acquaintance of Lord Cromer.

It is said that the coachman who took him there went by the name of Baskerville, and not long after that Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The story of the Dancing Men was one of the many that have been used as a basis for a film adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories. It was adapted into Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, starring Basil Rathbone as the great detective and Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson.

Conan Doyle lived from 1859 to 1930 and wrote his Holmes stories between 1887 and 1927. He killed Holmes off in a duel with his arch rival Moriarty by the Reichenbach Falls, but continued to write more stories about the great detective set before his death, of which the Dancing Men was one.

It remains a classic of the Sherlock Holmes canon - and it all started in a Happisburgh hotel.

Do you know anything about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's time at Happisburgh? Perhaps you once knew people who could remember his visits? If so we would love to hear from you. Call Keiron Pim on 01603 772431 or email keiron.pim@archant.co.uk

We are also keen to know more about Charles Dickens' time in Happisburgh - it has been suggested that he also stayed at the Hill House. If you can help, then contact us as above.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter