Sherlock fans take dedication to new heights with trip to the site of literature's greatest cliffhanger
The appeal of Sherlock Holmes seems never-ending – recent film versions have starred Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, on television he's played by Benedict Cumberbatch with Martin Freeman as Dr Watson and a new American series – Elementary – starts next week and stars Jonny Lee Miller as the great detective and Lucy Liu as a female Dr Watson.
When I found myself peering over a dizzying abyss in central Switzerland the other day, it was Sherlock Holmes himself who inspired my alpine ponderings.
It was here that I found myself thinking long and hard about Dartmoor.
For the abyss in question was filled with the roar of the Reichenbach Falls – and I could see the very spot where Holmes and his arch-rival Professor James Moriarty fought and took their infamous tumble.
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Anyone who has read the stories of Sherlock Holmes will know that the world's first consulting detective did not perish in that terrible cauldron – he disappeared from the world, only to re-emerge in deepest, darkest, Dartmoor eight years later.
That is how long it took for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to revive his most famous creation after the supposed death in The Final Problem. In truth, the writer was fed-up with the sight and sound of Holmes – which is why he killed him off in the fearsome falls above Meiringen.
All done and dusted. When you see the gaping abyss that plays host to the 1,000ft-high Reichenbach Falls – as Conan Doyle did when he visited Switzerland in 1893 – you know there is no way a living soul could survive the drop.
But, of course, the inhabitant of 221b Baker Street was not of flesh and blood – in fact, the only blood that might have been let was Conan Doyle's own, because countless thousands of fans around the world were angrily baying for the return of their favourite detective.
And they got him – eight years later when Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles…
Even then, Conan Doyle was obviously against the idea of a full resurrection – he set the Dartmoor tale before the vertiginous events that occurred in Switzerland. It wasn't until two years after the publication of The Hound that a living, breathing Sherlock Holmes was brought back for good. In The Adventure of the Empty House, his faithful pal Watson is told how the celebrated sleuth had no choice but to fake his own death.
If that explains why I was thinking about Dartmoor while peering down the Reichenbach's fearful chasm, it does not outline what I was doing there. And that is a very strange and jolly tale to tell – one, indeed, worthy of the pen of Dr Watson…
As it happened, he was there with me. So was Holmes. And 221b housekeeper Mrs Hudson, and the brother Mycroft Holmes – along with Sir Henry Baskerville and a chap from the Red Headed League. There was Irene Adler – the only person who ever out-foxed the great detective.
We had a military presence too in the form of Colonels Warburton, Carruthers, Sebastian-Morran and Lysander-Stark, ably abetted by a scattering of aristocrats such as Lady Frances Carfax, Lord Robert St Simon and Lady Alicia Whittington.
We even had royalty – there was the King of Bohemia and the Queen of Scandinavia – and, last but not least, Queen Victoria herself.
Very important, these last folk. Because the Swiss like a bit of ceremony – so everywhere we went in that truly beautiful land, we were wined and dined and our pet royals were generally bowed and scraped to.
Which is as it should be when the worldwide organisation called the Sherlock Holmes Society of London goes on its occasional pilgrimage to Meiringen and the Reichenbach Falls. They only do it once every seven years and when they do… well, a very big song and dance it is – the likes of which I have never seen before and probably will never see again. With one exception – the Sherlockians have invited me along when they do their next pilgrimage to Hound of the Baskervilles country – an event I look forward to hugely.
Why the Swiss tourist board invited me to witness the recent pilgrimage is a mystery not even Holmes could explain – unless, of course, it was in the hopes I'd write something about their scenic country in the process of describing the slow, sometimes hilarious, always grand and totally colourful progress of 75 society members dressed as characters from the Conan Doyle books.
Even at Heathrow I knew it was going to be a very different sort of trip – while on pilgrimage, the Sherlockians go everywhere in costume and in character. For all I know they might even go to bed in their roles. They certainly turned a few heads on the Swiss Air jet to Zurich and brought the international airport to a standstill.
Then it was first class train to Interlaken, where the entire town had turned out to greet us by putting on a massive parade from the station to the five-star Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel and Spa, where an official welcome was made by the mayor. There were vintage cars, horses and carts, men clanging unbelievably huge cow-bells, Swiss maids, William Tell look-alikes, the lot…
Queen Victoria made a gracious speech explaining to the mayor how the English had invented tourism and how Conan Doyle had even (and this is true) invented the concept of downhill skiing as a sport. So, as she put it, we would happily slurp down their copious liquid hospitality because the Swiss had a lot to thank us for…
And so it went on. We toasted and slurped our way around this amazing part of central Switzerland.
Our first full day saw us on a train to Meiringen and its infamous waterfall – and I was going to say it is just about as beautiful a train ride as you'll find anywhere, but the next day we beat it by going on what could easily be a candidate for best train ride in the entire world.
Meiringen loves its link with Sherlock Holmes even more than it loves its more authentic connection with meringues – which, in case you didn't know, were invented there. They sell all sorts of crystallised crisp egg-white concoctions, but we were too busy looking around the Sherlock Holmes Museum and admiring the statue of the detective which has pride of place in the main street to find out more about sweet delicacies.
And then, just like Holmes and Watson did that fateful day, we went up the Reichenbach. Only, unlike them, we took the excellent funicular that climbs and climbs all the way to a mid-point where you can admire those terrible falls. A path zig-zags right to the top where you can stand on a scary footbridge looking right down into that roaring abyss – and it's worth the walk because the panoramic views of the vast Meiringen valley are sensational. So much so, that you forget the plight of poor old Watson who was tricked into returning back to their hotel in town so that Moriarty could have his final reckoning with Holmes.
In the afternoon we sailed back to Interlaken down the length of Lake Brienz. It's a proper ferry which services the isolated communities around the lake's idyllic shores – and if all the other tourists aboard were utterly amazed to be joined by 75 people wearing Victorian garb, they were even more surprised to witness the "ceremonial burial at sea of His Eminence Cardinal Tosca, conducted with the usual obsequies by the Reverend Dr Shlessinger". I did not know then what this ceremony was about – nor am I any better informed now, despite the fact that I know about the Sherlock Holmes canon, having studied it closely in order to make a film about the detective's life and times. But then, not everything the Sherlock Holmes Society of London does on pilgrimage is strictly linked to the actual stories. For instance, Holmes and Watson never did go up the Jungfrau – but that is exactly where we all went the next day.
Which brings me to what is arguably the best railway journey in the world. We took three trains to reach the summit – and here's my boast for 2012… Having been allowed to "drive" the funicular down from the Reichenbach, I was given the honour of taking the controls (just for a second) of the second train which took us up the lower flanks of Europe's second-highest mountain.
At awesomely scenic Kleine Scheidegg, we stopped to switch to the ultimate mountain-climbing train after being given an official welcome by some big cheese from the Jungfrau Railway, who then invited Queen Victoria to unveil a plaque commemorating the centenary anniversary of his remarkable, near vertical, line.
Then we were off upwards, at an alarming gradient, into the 45-degree tunnel that takes you far, far aloft. So far up that the train stops a couple of times and you can walk down side tunnels to windows set in unimaginably high cliffs – which is the only proof you get that you really are a very long way up the insides of a blooming great big mountain.
At the very top we were whisked – with much ceremony – through more tunnels up to one of a whole bunch of restaurants and other attractions that have been built in to the bowels of the peak at the head of Europe's longest glacier.
There were more speeches, prayers in Latin – and a great deal more sloshing of wine and eating of food. Which, actually, is not a good idea at the top of the Jungfrau. When you eat a big meal your digestion system demands a great deal of your body's oxygenated blood supply – which at nearly 12,000 feet can be a bit of a problem if you attempt taking the many steps out to the glacier two at a time. One of my journalist colleagues did something I've never seen a living human do before – he turned a livid blue.
Once again, the thousands of tourists were agog – and, indeed, it was startling to see 75 Victorians pacing about on a glacier. I have never witnessed so many photographs taken by so many people as I did during the four days I was in Switzerland with the well-dressed Sherlockians.
And there I shall leave them, on the roof of Europe. I could have told you about more toasts and speeches and more amazing adventures and meals consumed in stunning places like the one we had way up the funicular on the Harder Mountain almost vertically above Interlaken.
But I'm going to take a hint from Arthur Conan Doyle and leave the world's first and greatest consulting detective somewhere up there in all that awesome scenery. In authentic fashion, I shall meet him again when he reappears on Dartmoor.