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In Search of a Shrine

By: Lynda Blankenship

As a child, I loved to watch those wonderful old, black and white, Sherlock Holmes movies on television. I thought I was pretty much up on who Sherlock and Watson were, never dreaming that it might be appropriate to read an actually Arthur Conan Doyle story about the originals. It was with the mistaken feeling that I had a passing knowledge of the detective, that I joined my husband at a meeting of the Inverness Capers of Akron, Ohio, a scion society of the Baker Street Irregulars.

It was a humbling experience indeed to realize that every time I opened my mouth I showed my stupidity in some new way. Or even worse, spoke some blasphemy to these true believers. It became painfully apparent to me that if I was going to ever show my face among these people again, I had better go home and begin reading the stories.

As it happened, fate offered me the perfect opportunity to study the stories with a group of true Holmes Scholars when the Giant Rats of Massillon began their meetings. We began reading a story a month and then discussing the story in depth. We often found alternate explanations, and the occasional mistake in Conan Doyle's logic, but we loved every story. Every villain and heroine was a cause for debate. I loved it; the give and take of interesting minds is always exhilarating. It was during the early days of this group that I discovered there was actually a place where Holmes and Watson had met each other. A Study In Scarlet takes us to the real place, not a place Doyle imagined, but more than likely a place Dr. Conan Doyle had been. That place was a room somewhere in St. Bartholomew's Hospital in the city of London.

During one of our visits to England, my husband and I found ourselves at the Old Bailey, watching a murder trial. This is an experience no mystery lover should miss. When we left the courthouse, we realized that St. Bartholomew's was just down the street, maybe a five-minute walk at best, so we decided to photograph the shrine.

You can imagine our dismay when we arrived at the front entrance and found a collection of buildings that had been expanding since 1500 AD or thereabouts. No particular plan seemed to have been used, just a building here, a building there, wherever empty space presented itself something grew up. There was something incredibly English about the surroundings, particularly the two ducks living in a very small water fountain. We managed to locate a directory of sorts with signs pointing in all directions. Had we been looking for Radiology or Oncology or Maternity, or even The Medical Oddities Museum, we would have had no difficulty at all. However, nowhere was the slightest mention of the location we were seeking: a room with a plaque that read “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

Since I am a woman, the sensible approach seemed best. “Let's ask someone,” I said. We walked into the nearest building and found a small hospitality shop, where patients and visitors could purchase candy, toothpaste or a newspaper. You know the sort of place.

It was staffed by those wonderful, sophisticated, elderly ladies who perform a similar service in American hospitals. I approached the woman nearest the cash register and said, “Excuse me, but could you direct us to the room where Sherlock Holmes met Dr. John Watson?” The woman gave me one of those looks which the English language doesn't have words to describe. She said, “Oh my, you must be at the wrong place, I'm sure we don't have anything like that.” I insisted they did and in an effort to be polite, she retired to the back room. We heard her ask the question of someone else, who said in what she thought was a whisper, “why, don't they know they weren't real people?” To which I replied, “Of course they were real, and we have come 4,000 miles to see this room.”

After a few more people became involved in our quest, someone suggested with what I have since come to know as British logic, that since we were looking for literary characters perhaps the librarian in the medical library might be able to help us. They pointed us in the right direction and off we plodded to make fools of ourselves once again.

We entered the library and found a young woman sitting right inside the door. I said, “Excuse me. We are looking for the room that Sherlock…” she stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “Follow those steps to the top floor. The room is at the end of the steps.” We said thank you and proceeded to climb a winding staircase that went up at least five floors.

We passed through the Medical Oddities Museum and as we mounted the final steps we saw the shrine. The thrill of it all!!! We readied our camera for the big event and as we entered the room we could not believe the sight that met our eyes. Sure enough there on the wall above the fireplace hung the famous plaque, The Holy Grail for all Sherlockians, but it was surrounded by someone's office junk; papers, books, a lab coat slung over the back of a chair behind an old desk. Was this any way to treat a national treasure? We were shocked, but we took our photographs leaving out as much of the debris as possible. We were very grateful for one thing; whoever occupied the office was out to lunch. It really would have been embarrassing to have walked in unannounced in the middle of someone's job interview and asked if we could photograph the fireplace wall.

So much for the sanctity of the pilgrimage. We returned to the little shop and informed the ladies of the whereabouts of the room, they were thrilled to hear of it, but still a little disbelieving that it had been there all these years without them knowing a thing about it. You would think that the English who have done so much for places like Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London could put a little more effort into maintaining one of the most significant rooms in Great Britain.

Well, that may be overstating the importance of the place. It is, however, the room in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson agreed to become roommates. If that event had not occurred there would have been no one to record the cases of Holmes and there would have been no Hound of the Baskerville's.

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