The Enchanted Forest at Groombridge Place draws thousands of visitors every year yet Arthur Conan Doyle was far more intrigued by its ‘Drunken Garden’. Surrounded on all sides by dense hedges and high walls the Drunken Garden feels slightly removed from the rest of the estates formal gardens.
Even on a sunny day, the shadows of the bent and twisted topiary lend it a mysterious air and on a cold, foggy day it can feel downright eerie. A stone seat hidden behind arching greenery in one corner is a brilliant hiding spot or in the case of Arthur Conan Doyle, the perfect place to plan a murder.
A Spiritual Connection
Arthur Conan Doyle was a frequent visitor to Groombridge Place in the early 20th century due to his friendship with Louisa and Eliza Saint, the two sisters who owned the estate at that time. They shared an interest in spiritualism and their frequent séances drew the author from his home in Crowborough.
The creator of Sherlock Holmes was also one of the first people to encounter, and apparently converse with, the ghost of Dave Fletcher. Mr Fletcher was an ostler who drowned in the moat in 1808.
When relaying an account of the ghostly meeting in his book of essays, The Edge of the Unknown, Conan Doyle says the medium Mrs Wickland described him as being ‘a strange old man. His face is sunk forward. His back is hunched. He is earth-bound.’ When asked how the ghost was dressed, Mrs Wickland replies, ‘He has knee-breeches, a striped vest, and quite a short coat.’
Experiences such as this must have fuelled the authors imagination and Conan Doyle subsequently renamed the house ‘Birlstone Manor’ and placed it at the heart of his fourth, and final, Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear.
Published in 1915, the story revolves around the murder of Mr John Douglas, the owner of the fictional Birlstone Manor, and reveals just how familiar the author was with the original location. The drunken garden provides the setting for a pivotal scene.
Dr Watson: I took a stroll in the curious old-world garden which flanked the house. Rows of very ancient yew trees cut into strange designs girded it round. Inside was a beautiful stretch of lawn with an old sundial in the middle, the whole effect so soothing and restful that it was welcome to my somewhat jangled nerves.
In that deeply peaceful atmosphere one could forget, or remember only as some fantastic nightmare, that darkened study with the sprawling, bloodstained figure on the floor. And yet, as I strolled round it and tried to steep my soul in its gentle balm, a strange incident occurred, which brought me back to the tragedy and left a sinister impression in my mind.
I have said that a decoration of yew trees circled the garden. At the end, farthest from the house they thickened into a continuous hedge. On the other side of this hedge, concealed from the eyes of anyone approaching from the direction of the house, there was a stone seat…
The Arthur Conan Doyle Museum
It’s not surprising that a memorial to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can be found in the gardens and at one time it was also the setting for the Arthur Conan Doyle Museum. The room is still there, staged as a study and decorated with the red drapes and William Morris inspired blue and pink wallpaper I remember from previous visits. But all the pictures and personal objects are gone.
Sadly, the museum was only at Groombridge Place for four years and was the result of a collaboration between Mr Andrew de Candole, who owned Groombridge Place at that time, and The Conan Doyle (Crowborough) Establishment.
It was officially opened on 1 July 1995 by Mrs Georgina Doyle, the Establishment’s Patron, in the presence of Sir Arthur’s daughter Dame Jean Conan Doyle. Andrew de Candole took responsibility for decorating and furnishing the old dairy in a style that would have been familiar to Sir Arthur. He also provided the desk that remains on display although sadly, despite current belief, it wasn’t the desk used to write ‘The Valley of Fear’ and it unfortunately has no direct connection with the author at all.
The display of Sir Arthur’s personal belongings, photographs, sketches, maps, memorabilia and archive material all belonged to The Conan Doyle (Crowborough) Establishment. The Establishment was formed in 1953 by Mr Malcolm Payne, a retired teacher, local historian and educational psychologist linked. He was linked to Sir Arthur through several relations who worked at Windlesham, the authors home in Crowborough.
Sir Arthur gave many items to his staff members and they in turn passed some of them on to Malcolm Payne. The collection was initially housed within ‘The Conan Doyle Room’ at The Crowborough Cross public house thanks to the support of Tony and Marian Yates, its licensees. Plans for the pub’s refurbishment in 1995, however, meant the collection needed a new home and it subsequently made its way to Groombridge Place.
Upon hearing where the collection would be re-homed, Dame Jean Conan Doyle wrote to Malcolm Payne, ‘it’s good news that the collection would be moving to Groombridge Place. My father went over there whenever we had guests staying at Windlesham who hadn’t stayed before. He was fascinated by the old house and felt that by showing it off to visitors from overseas he was introducing them to the very essence of England. Yes – if your collection cannot be in Crowborough, then Groombridge is quite the most suitable place for it… a splendid achievement… (as is) the happy news that there will be a memorial to my father in the grounds of Groombridge Place.’
The collection stayed at Groombridge Place until 1999 when the opportunity arose for it to return to Crowborough, as desired by Malcolm Payne. Malcolm sadly died in May 1997 but in honour of his wishes the collection was moved to the Beacon Community College. Unfortunately, the collection had to move on from there too and is now safely stored in a location known only to a few.
That is not the end of the story for the room at Groombridge Place, however, as puppet shows are now performed in the room inspired by the author of some of the greatest adventures ever written.
The study feel also still lingers and a display case in the right-hand corner displays some pipes, tobacco tins and a chess set that will be familiar props to fans of the show. It doesn’t take much to imagine that the author has just stepped away from the desk for a moment, to take a puff on his pipe or sit on the stone seat in the Drunken Garden.
Many thanks to Clare Singer and Sam Donaldson at Groombridge Place and Brian Pugh, Curator of The Conan Doyle (Crowborough) Establishment for all their help and the permission to publish the above images.