It was a chilly Friday morning when I stood in the shadow of London’s 17th century St. Paul’s Cathedral, which drips with history. This is where such figures as Lord Horatio Nelson and Christopher Wren are entombed. It’s also where the city’s most famous detective -- not everyone regards him as fictional -- runs amok in the new movie “Sherlock Holmes,” which opened Friday.
Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle more than 120 years ago and the subject of hundreds of film interpretations ever since, Sherlock Holmes is still the world’s favorite private investigator. And despite his questionable claims to existence, legions of fans flock to London every year to soak up his back story. On a recent visit, I wielded my virtual magnifying glass and set off in search of the great man.
In the action-packed movie, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock and Jude Law as Dr. Watson, the exterior of St. Paul’s appears with shiny carriages trundling past like today’s double-decker buses. But when the story shifts to the landmark’s interior, the filmmakers moved to a nearby church that has a long career as a movie stand-in for less accessible sites.
Tucked along a hidden Smithfield passageway -- an ideal place for a fog-bound encounter with a London ne’r-do-well -- St. Bartholomew the Great is even older than St. Paul’s and has appeared in movies as diverse as “The Other Boleyn Girl” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” In “Holmes,” it portrays the crypt of St. Paul’s, and during a quiet moment on my visit, I chatted with twinkle-eyed verger Phil Stewart about the recent shoot.
“There were 30 or 40 crew members here for three days, and they had to clear away all the pews,” said Stewart. “Law and Downey had their own trailers, and I remember that Law was always on his phone in the courtyard between takes. Guy Ritchie [the director] was very nice, and he was often practicing his guitar when they weren’t shooting.”
After perusing the church’s handsome Norman architecture, I hopped on the Underground to Baker Street station -- a Holmes pilgrimage spot. Even the station’s wall tiles are adorned with pipe-wielding silhouettes. I joined the throng outside photographing a towering statue of the detective in contemplative pose. It was unveiled by the Sherlock Holmes Society of London in 1999, and it’s a not-too-subtle clue that this is the heart of Sherlockville.
Luckily, there’s no mad-eyed Hound of the Baskervilles, but there is a street address where, according to the books, Holmes once lived. A short stroll away, I pushed through the heavy door of 221b Baker Street to find the charming Sherlock Holmes Museum. Like all of London’s “house” museums, this one celebrates its namesake with re-created period rooms and antiques, all reminders of a life well lived.
Ascending the town house’s narrow, creaky staircase, I entered a cozy-looking Victorian parlor where I met the man himself, standing at his fireplace in a faded smoking jacket. The elderly gent, also known as actor Stewart Quentin Holmes, turned out to be a warm, talkative fellow with a deep appreciation for Sherlockian mythology.
“I get asked fairly frequently if he really existed, and some people are very disappointed when they hear the news,” said Quentin Holmes, a fan of Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” and the “utterly believable” Basil Rathbone movies. “I’m a little worried about the new film, but I think the original stories are more than strong enough to endure,” he added.
After nosing through rooms filled with oddball artifacts -- including voodoo dolls and a revolver in a hollowed book -- I reached the top floor and its menagerie of waxwork characters, including a cold-eyed Professor Moriarty. Although tempted to pitch the arch baddie through the window, I instead hit the ground-floor gift shop with its Sherlock teapots, deerstalker hats and pens shaped like syringes, a sly reminder of the detective’s persistent drug problem.
Back on the Underground, I headed to Embankment station for a two-hour “In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes” walk, led by jocular guide Richard Burnip. It takes in public gardens and back alleys and passes many of the sites featured in the books. Our 20-strong group learned that although Holmes “lived” on Baker Street, most of the stories were set here in the West End.
Much of the walk involved real buildings featured in the tales. We peered at a handsome edifice that was once Charing Cross Hospital, checked out the grand façade of Simpsons-in-the-Strand restaurant and lingered over the evocative Covent Garden cobbles, a key setting in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” We also ducked down an alleyway called Goodwin’s Court. Lined with antique bow windows and working gas lamps, it was like stepping into one of Holmes’ books.
There was also some intriguing information about Conan Doyle himself, born 150 years ago. He hailed from Edinburgh, Scotland, and had little knowledge of London when he arrived. His original names for the detective included Sherrinford Holmes and Ormond Sacker, and he was offered just 25 pounds for the first story, “A Study in Scarlet,” which was serialized in Beeton’s Christmas Annual.
As the guided amble drew to a close, I asked Burnip about the Holmes über-fans who sometimes take his tours. “I have a problem with people thinking he’s real,” Burnip said. “I did have one earnest fellow who came up to me at the end of a walk with all sorts of information on him that isn’t in the books. But he was harmless, so it was quite touching, really.”
With the sunlight waning and a murderous chill suddenly descending on the area, the walk weaved toward a happy storybook ending on Northumberland Street, just off the Strand. A few steps from Charing Cross station, the Sherlock Holmes Public House revels in its dual role as a tourist haunt and popular Victorian-era drinkery.
I perused the Holmesian memorabilia lining the pub’s walls -- including some photos of great celluloid Sherlocks -- then headed upstairs. The bar’s restaurant has its own diorama-style depiction of Holmes’ sitting room, featuring a cadaverously thin sleuth surrounded by the tools of his trade.
Back downstairs, I quaffed a Sherlock Holmes Ale and discussed the movie with landlady Katie Beck. “So long as it’s not as bad as some of those Rathbone ones with their cars and Nazi chases, I’ll be happy,” said Beck, who sees no problem with Sherlock fans rolling in for a beer. “If you still believe in Santa, why not believe in Holmes too?”