The Tiger of Beachy Head

Quite a bit of “The Marriage of Mary Russell”—

—takes place on the South Downs, particularly that portion of it to which Sherlock Holmes retired after the death of Queen Victoria, a few miles from where Mary Russell stumbles across him in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.map_scan_eastborne

Holmes’ earlier biographer, Arthur Conan Doyle, had little interest in precision when it came to the details of his characters’ lives. In “His Last Bow” (published in 1917), Holmes presents a German spy with what looks to be a code-book but turns out to be a treatise on beekeeping. Watson says to him:

“But you have retired, Holmes. We heard of you as living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs.”

“Exactly, Watson. Here is the fruit of my leisured ease, the magnum opus of my latter years!” He picked up the volume from the table and read out the whole title, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. “Alone I did it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London.”

Later, in “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” (published in 1926, concerning events of 1907) Doyle has Holmes musing:

It occurred after my withdrawal to my little Sussex home, when I had given myself up entirely to that soothing life of Nature for which I had so often yearned during the long years spent amid the gloom of London. At this period of my life the good Watson had passed almost beyond my ken. An occasional week-end visit was the most that I ever saw of him. Thus I must act as my own chronicler. Ah! Had he but been with me, how much he might have made of so wonderful a happening and of my eventual triumph against every difficulty! As it is, however, I must needs tell my tale in my own plain way, showing by my words each step upon the difficult road which lay before me as I searched for the mystery of the Lion’s Mane.

My villa is situated upon the southern slope of the downs, commanding a great view of the Channel. At this point the coast-line is entirely of chalk cliffs, which can only be descended by a single, long, tortuous path, which is steep and slippery. At the bottom of the path lie a hundred yards of pebbles and shingle, even when the tide is at full.

Here and there, however, there are curves and hollows which make splendid swimming pools filled afresh with each flow. This admirable beach extends for some miles in each direction, save only at one point where the little cove and village of Fulworth break the line.

My house is lonely. I, my old housekeeper, and my bees have the estate all to ourselves.

Elsewhere (The Mary Russell Companion) I look at precisely those details spurned by Sir Arthur—Where exactly is that “villa”? How are its rooms laid out?—but in “The Marriage of Mary Russell,” Russell gets no further than the kitchen. Instead, she spends her time wandering the Downs, at one point being given a tour by the owners of the old Belle Tout lighthouse, which has a fascinating history.

Sir James & Lady Purvis Stewart, 1938 (Wikipedia)

Sir James & Lady Purvis Stewart, 1938 (Wikipedia)

(Turns out it’s not a great idea to stick your lighthouse on top of a cliff when there’s fog coming out of the sea. And it also turns out that you can move a lighthouse, if you’re determined, and willing to spend a whole lot of money.) It’s a B&B, too!

They also spend some time in the Tiger Inn in the tiny village of East Dean.

Naturally, having decided not to seek after Holmes, the Tiger was where I found him, stockinged heels propped up before the crackling logs, beer in one hand and pipe in the other.

This is a marvelous pub with a vast lawn of green at the front,DSC00570

perfect for reclining on with a pint on a summer’s day, feet up before the fire,IMG_1018

after a long walk over the Downs.DSC00593

The Tiger also lets rooms, as well as self-catering apartments, which I highly recommend.

Whether or not you come across Russell and Holmes in the snug depends on your luck—the locals are adept at letting their famous neighbours slip out the back, when tourists descend.

**

The e-story “The Marriage of Mary Russell” comes out March 15. You can pre-order it for Kindle or Nook.

Comments

  1. Merrily Taylor says:

    Already contemplating the “self-catering apartments” – the South Downs is such a lovely place, what fun to spend an extended time there!

  2. Diane Hendricksen says:

    Sounds like a spot for a splendid vacation. I thank Mary Russell for her descriptions of Holmes bee retreat.

  3. My ex-husband and I kept bees in our back yard (in middle of large city), teaching our kids about bees, how to ‘help’ those who didn’t quite make it back because they were so loaded down, about the need to protect the hive, how bees are so different physically from wasps, etc. I loved the whole process of bee-keeping. We situated the hives in such a way that the bees faced east but with a high brush fence behind them on the west – they headed out and straight up, never bothering our neighbours!
    I have always loved reading about Holmes’ penchant for bee-keeping. Nicely done. And now I’m waiting for Mary’s book about her marriage… already ordered of course.
    Cheers.

  4. Oh good! Another excuse to go walking on the South Downs. If one of your folks would care to send me an e-mail address for sharing photos with you, I’d be willing to send you some of mine. I spent a week walking there in early October, sleuthing and taking photos. Using maps, all your Mary Russell stories on my iPad, and previous knowledge of the area, I tried to walk as much of the Russell-Holmes landscape as I could, without backtracking too much to sites I had seen previously.

  5. That pub looks just right for an after-walk beer. We’re looking forward to meeting you at Anderson’s in Naperville next month and to reading the new book, of course. 🙂

    janet

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