Conan Doyle’s “Dry Plates on a Wet Moor”

by Len Stephens
Published December 2012

Since my last article on Conan Doyle’s connection with Plymouth I have obtained his Photographic essay on Dartmoor which appeared in the British Journal of Photography in November 1882. After much persistence over a period of six months I received, from a request through Plymouth Central Library, a copy of The Unknown Conan Doyle’s Essays on Photography from Edinburgh University Library. John Michael Gibson and Richard L. Green compiled the book in 1982 at the same time that they produced Doyle’s Unknown Stories that contained The Winning Shot. It is reported that Doyle wrote the two tales (the essay is a tale) at the same time, which is why there are similarities in the descriptive passages and references to Roborough.

I hoped that this would provide me with the evidence I needed the Dartmoor connection with The Hound of the Baskervilles, but I find that Dry Plates on a Wet Moor has little to do with the moor that we call Dartmoor it covers a walk from Plymouth to Tavistock and the moor is Roborough Down and Harrowbeer. Still, it is a most interesting story so I will first explain the plot.

It starts at Doyle’s apartment in mid-August 1882 when he introduces us to his two friends called the Commodore and Genius and they decide to embark on a three-day holiday on Dartmoor with their photographic equipment. They catch the evening train (from Portsmouth) to Plymouth arriving in the first grey light of morning and go to the Royal Hotel where they turn in for a few hours sleep and, after a hearty breakfast, proceeded to the hoe where they were rewarded with a lovely scene “The deep blue of the harbour, the wooden slopes of Mount Edgcumbe, the rough outline of Drake’s island and away beyond the Breakwater, the great stretch of ocean, reaching to the horizon where two dark pinnacles indicated the position of the Eddystone light”. Unfortunately, he says, “The retina is a poor and fleeting receiver of impressions” – “But another and more expected photographic treat was in store for me”. Sauntering down towards the direction of the Dockyard they witnessed the arrival of a Troopship, radiant in white and blue and gold, with the “red coats” on board being cheered up the Hamoaze by spectators on shore and the crews of the “Cambridge” and other old fashioned line-of-battle ships moored off the south yard. Again, unsuccessful in taking photographs due to an officious policeman who obscured a good view.

After a quick trip to the Barbican and a luncheon at the hotel the three set off on their journey to Tavistock with a stopover at Roborough. Starting at a killing pace for the first mile and a half, they first stopped upon the slope of one of the outlying forts (probably Crownhill) where looking back they had a glorious seascape “beyond the gorse and heather in the foreground was the coastline from the Eddystone to the Start” which was photographed. Pressing on northwards in the direction of the Moor, the scenery began to change and Doyle describes the rugged tors and tangled mass of half withered vegetation and says the only living creatures they encountered before trudging along the winding path to Roborough were a few half starved Devonshire sheep. They stayed for the night at the old English inn that he calls the Admiral Vernon (but we know it at The Lopes Arms). The stay there is interesting for the tale about a white haired eccentric villager who lived in ivy clad little red brick cottage close to the inn, and who dabbled in photography eking out his income “by executing villainous prints of rustic beauties and their beaux”. The following morning, after stocking up with plenty of milk and bread for their lunch, they left Roborough pushing northwards for Tavistock. He states that for 10 miles neither house nor inhabitant met their eyes – nothing but a long, undulating plain, covered with scanty vegetation intersected by brooks which meandered down to help to form the Plymouth leat. He compares the scene with that which confronted Amyas Leigh in Kingsley’s Westward Ho when he led his shipmates along the winding tracks from Plymouth to Bideford. He romances about the spot where Salvation Yeo slew the king of Gubbins, which he states must have lain a very little to the northward from where they were – which in my opinion was on a hill above Burtor, overlooking where the rivers Walkham and Tavy meet. From the top of this hill it is possible to see Brentor with its church St. Michael and it was in this wild area 5 miles north of Tavistock that the robber tribe Gubbins lived. My assumption is confirmed when Doyle goes on the describe “as magnificent view of the country we passed through stretching away down to the sea” (more than likely Doublewaters) – “while on the left the silver Tamar curled along between its thickly wooded banks”. The weather was perfect for taking photographs but due to problems in the developing process, they were not very good. The rest of the day was cut short for taking any more photographs due to torrential rain and the travellers left a wet moor to arrive at Tavistock soaking wet. After a night’s stay they decided to call it a day in the morning and caught the midday train home. Doyle ended the story by saying there was nothing remarkable in a photographic sense in this little tour and that he was disappointed with the plates due to mishaps.

So what are we to make of this story? In the editors’ notes it is stated that this article is of special interest, as it describes Dartmoor, used twenty years later as the setting for “The Hound of The Baskervilles”. Also, it states that the journey from Plymouth to Tavistock with a stop-over at Roborough may not have taken place in August 1882, but in late June or July following six (?) extraordinary months spent with Dr. George Budd in Plymouth. Both these assumptions are incorrect – I have already proved that the moor described in the story was not Dartmoor but Roborough Down. Also, Doyle left Plymouth for Southsea at the end of June after visiting Tavistock by rail to see whether he could set up practice there after his break up with Dr. Budd. It took him several months to establish a practice in Southsea and he lived on a meagre income having no time or money to return to the westcountry for a 3 day walking holiday from Plymouth to Tavistock, which I don’t think took place. I reckon that Doyle visited Roborough and the Down during his two months stay in Plymouth working for Dr Budd, and built up a story later about his photographic studies on their trips. However, there is no mention of his photographic interest and the Moors in the “Stark Munro Letters” which covered Doyle’s early life in Plymouth.

Whilst disappointed in my findings that the Moor in this story was not actually South Dartmoor but Roborough Down, I think that my investigations were worthwhile; at least for the cameo portrayal of Roborough even though he called its inn the Admiral Vernon! Whether he ever stayed at the Lopes Arms we shall never know, especially as he said some uncomplimentary things about the old fashioned inn. Although The Hound of the Baskervilles was not conceived until much later – this August was the centenary of its publication in the Strand magazine – I feel that Conan Doyle’s fascination with Dartmoor might have started with his visits to Roborough and Tavistock in 1882. His attraction to the places is perhaps expressed by Sherlock Holmes at the beginning of the story of Silver Blaze (Dec 1892), when he says to Dr. Watson “I shall have to go … Go, where to – …To Dartmoor”.

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