In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes pub  photo the australianON a chilly Friday morning I stand in the looming shadow of London's multi-columned, 17th-century St Paul's Cathedral. This is where the city's most famous detective - who not everyone regards as fictional - will run amok this December when the movie Sherlock Holmes returns the fiddle-playing super sleuth to the spotlight.

Created by Arthur Conan Doyle more than 120 years ago, Holmes remains the world's favourite private investigator. And despite his questionable claims to existence, legions of fans flock to London to soak up his back story. On a recent visit, I wield my virtual magnifying glass and set off in search of the great man.

In what looks to be an action-packed movie, starring Robert Downey Jr (as Holmes) and Jude Law (as Dr Watson), the exterior of St Paul's will appear decked in late-Victorian street finery, with shiny carriages trundling past. The landmark's preserved interior was not used, however; the filmmakers substituted a nearby church, St Bartholomew the Great, which has had a long career as a movie stand-in for less-accessible sites.

Tucked along a hidden Smithfield passageway (the perfect place for a fog-bound encounter), this church is even older than St Paul's and has appeared in movies as diverse as The Other Boleyn Girl and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

In Sherlock Holmes it serves as the crypt of St Paul's, and during a quiet moment on my visit I chat with twinkle-eyed verger Phil Stewart about the recent shoot.

"There were 30 or 40 crew members here for three days and they had to clear away all the pews," Stewart tells me.

"Law and Downey had their own trailers and Law was always on his phone in the courtyard between takes. [The director] Guy Ritchie was very nice and he was often practising on his guitar when they weren't shooting."

A Holmes pilgrimage spot

Sherlock Holmes was also filmed on location in other parts of Britain, including Manchester Town Hall, Liverpool Docks and Chatham Historic Dockyard in Kent.

I hop on the Underground to Baker Street Station. A Holmes pilgrimage spot - even the station's wall tiles are patterned with pipe-wielding silhouettes - I join the throng outside photographing a towering statue of the detective in contemplative pose.

Unveiled by the Sherlock Holmes Society of London in 1999, it's a not-too-subtle clue that this is the heart of Sherlockville.

Luckily, there's no mad-eyed Hound of the Baskervilles galloping around, but there is a street address where, according to the books, Holmes lived.

I push through the heavy door of 221b Baker Street to find the charming Sherlock Holmes Museum. Like all London's house museums, this one celebrates its namesake with recreated period rooms and antique reminders of a life well-lived. But you don't need an encyclopedic knowledge of the stories to immerse yourself.

Ascending the narrow, creaky staircase, I enter a cosy-looking Victorian parlour where I meet the man himself, standing at his fireplace in a faded smoking jacket and eyeing me with a beady gaze.

Also known as actor Stewart Quentin Holmes, the elderly gent turns out to be a warm, talkative fellow with a deep appreciation for Sherlockian mythology.

"I get asked fairly frequently if he really existed and some people are very disappointed when they hear the news," says Quentin Holmes, a particular fan of Conan Doyle's A Scandal in Bohemia and the "utterly believable" Basil Rathbone movies.

"I'm a little worried about the new film but I think the original stories are more than strong enough to endure."

The detective's persistent drug problem

After nosing through rooms of oddball artefacts - including voodoo dolls and a revolver in a hollowed book - I reach the top floor and its menagerie of waxwork characters, including a cold-eyed Professor Moriarty.

Tempted to pitch the arch baddie through the window, I instead hit the ground floor gift shop with its Sherlock teapots, deerstalker hats and pens shaped like syringes (a sly reminder of the detective's persistent drug problem).

Back on the Underground, I head to Embankment Station for a two-hour In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes walk. Led by jocular guide Richard Burnip, it takes in public gardens and back alleys and passes many of the sites featured in the books. Our 20-strong group learns that while Holmes "lived" on Baker Street, most of the stories were actually set here in the West End.

Much of the walk involves real buildings featured in the tales. We peer at a handsome edifice that was once Charing Cross Hospital, check out the grand facade of Simpsons-in-the-Strand restaurant and linger over the evocative Covent Garden cobbles, a key setting in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.

We also duck down an alleyway called Goodwin's Court. Lined with working gas lamps, it was like stepping into one of the books.

Born 150 years ago this year, Conan Doyle hailed from Edinburgh and had little knowledge of London when he first arrived. His original names for the detective included Sherrinford Holmes and Ormond Sacker and he was offered just pound stg. 25 for the first story, A Study in Scarlet, which was serialised in Beeton's Christmas Annual.

As the guided amble draws to a close, I ask Burnip about the Holmes fans that sometimes take his tours. "I have a problem with people thinking he's real," confides Burnip.

"I did have one earnest fellow who came up to me at the end of a walk with all sorts of information on him that isn't in the books. But he was harmless so it was quite touching really."

Victorian-era drinking hole

As the sunlight wanes and a murderous chill descends on the area, we walkers weave towards a happy, storybook ending on Northumberland Street, just off The Strand. A few steps from Charing Cross Station, the Sherlock Holmes Pub revels in its dual role as a tourist haunt and Victorian-era drinking hole.

I peruse the themed memorabilia lining the pub's walls -- including some photos of great celluloid Sherlocks -- then head upstairs where the restaurant has its own diorama-style depiction of Holmes's sitting room, featuring a cadaverously thin sleuth surrounded by the tools of his trade.

Back downstairs, I sip a Sherlock Holmes Ale and discuss the upcoming movie with chatty landlady Katie Beck.

"So long as it's not as bad as some of those Rathbone ones with their cars and Nazi chases, I'll be happy," says Beck, who sees no problem with Sherlock nuts regularly rolling in for a beer.

"If you still believe in Santa, why not believe in Holmes, too?"

Fast Facts

In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes is offered by London Walks and departs from Embankment Underground Station.

Visit Britain and Warner Bros Pictures have collaborated on an online movie map to celebrate the release of Sherlock Holmes on December 14 (in Australia, December 26) and the 150th anniversary of Arthur Conan Doyle's birth.

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