A gas lamp flickers in the gloom with cramped Victorian tenements on either side of the narrow alley and footsteps splash through puddles. Passers-by shrink down into their turned-up collars as a wind blows and the first snowflakes of a chilling British winter drift down. This is not a scene from the 19th century, but from modern-day London. For while the UK's capital boasts cosmopolitan delights and a multicultural population, echoes of the Victorian society that form the backdrop to the blockbuster release Sherlock Holmes can still be found among its many attractions. The film's director, Guy Ritchie, has long professed a love of London and it shows. His homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's cantankerous, dogmatic detective features moodily-lit shots of St Paul's Cathedral, and the church of St Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield, set against thunderous grey skies, while also faithfully recreating the hustle, bustle and filth of Victorian-era street life.
While Doyle wrote his tales of skulduggery and sleuthing between 1887 and 1927, they were set several years earlier in an evocative world of foggy streets, rattling hansom cabs and a criminal underbelly contrasting sharply with polite society. It is a fitting tribute to Doyle, whose hero is so firmly rooted in London - the Holmes stories use real place names and landmarks - that many fans then, and now, thought the detective was real. Some parts of London have changed so little since Doyle's day that stepping back in time is not difficult. Indeed, Visit Britain, the UK's tourism board, has been quick to market many of the locations used in the film and is expecting an influx of tourists eager to trace the detective's footsteps. Catherine Cooke, curator of the Sherlock Holmes collection in the city's Marylebone Library, an assortment of limited edition materials that can be viewed by appointment only, explains their enduring appeal. "There is a lot about London and life at the time [in the stories] which has been used as source material by historians," she says. "The books are based on a very real London. Because of the verisimilitude, people think the characters are real."
Doyle lived in a time of economic upheaval and political reform with immigrants flocking to the seat of the British Empire. Overcrowding and poverty among London's population caused ghettos to spring up and eventually inspired an overhaul of its infrastructure, with the introduction of a network of sewers; while new housing in the suburbs tried to cope with the growing population. Events in the 1850s - Doyle was born in 1859 - illustrate the fact that London was a city of great contrasts: while the achievements of the British Empire were lauded in the Great Exhibition of 1851, the year 1858 brought a cholera epidemic known as the Great Stink, in which disease ran rife thanks to poor sanitation. Parliament even considered moving quarters because its members were unable to bear the terrible smell. Cue our author, who was born and trained as a doctor in Edinburgh but moved to London in 1891, declaring it "the great cesspool into which the loungers and the idlers of the empire are irresistibly drained". Doyle set up practice as an ophthalmologist but was so unsuccessful that he had time to write his short stories while waiting for patients to arrive. In total, Doyle wrote 60 novels and short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes; the character first appeared in A Study in Scarlet in 1887.
Any attempt to retrace the characters' steps has to begin in Baker Street, where Holmes and Watson shared a study at 221b, one of the world's most well-known addresses. The house number did not exist but has more recently been assigned to the Sherlock Holmes Museum (which actually stands at number 239), ending a flood of fan letters to a nearby bank. The bank was so inundated with mail that it appointed a permanent secretary to politely inform the writers that the detective had retired to the countryside. The museum has meticulously recreated the three rooms rented by Holmes from his long-suffering landlady Mrs Hudson, complete with a Persian slipper stuffed with the detective's tobacco, numerous bottles for his dubious chemical experiments, and an array of pipes. Visitors from as far afield as Korea, Kazakhstan and Bangladesh are greeted by authentically-dressed incarnations of Holmes and Watson, played by the appropriately-named Stewart Quentin Holmes, 80, an ex-journalist, and the former English teacher John Barrett, 73. "Everyone thinks they can be Sherlock Holmes and solve crimes from an armchair," says his namesake. "He is such a great character and Conan Doyle's imagination was amazing. Visitors are disappointed to find out he is not real." In tribute to those who refuse to accept Holmes was fictional, the museum bears a blue heritage plaque - usually reserved for real-life notables - citing his residency while outside Baker Street underground station is an almost 3m-tall bronze of him musing over his pipe. The station's platforms are lined with colourful murals depicting fictional scenes. Further down the road, 21 Baker Street is thought to have been the actual address that inspired Doyle and number 32 opposite featured in The Adventure of the Empty House, from where Colonel Sebastian Moran fired a gun at Holmes in his lodgings. These days number 32 has retained many of its original features, despite being converted to offices, but number 21 is a concrete-and-glass monstrosity with a juice bar on the ground floor - the only shots in evidence today are the wheatgrass variety. Much of Holmes' London is best explored on foot as most sites fall within a central swathe of the city. Adam Scott from London Walks, a lifelong Holmes enthusiast, leads a weekly expedition, pointing out features from the author's heyday and places related to the detective; from the scene of a fight on the Strand to the obscure "third pillar from the left" meeting place at the Lyceum Theatre in The Sign of Four. The two-hour tour ends at the Sherlock Holmes pub in Northumberland Avenue, formerly the Northumberland Hotel in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which features a recreation of his cluttered study first exhibited in the 1951 Festival of Britain. These days the pub kitchen, Mrs Hudson's Pantry, is just as likely to serve up chicken tikka masala as English fare but there is an impressive collection of original sketches and depictions of Holmes framed on the walls. As Scott, who peppers the tour with anecdotes, says: "It is not always easy to find the nooks and crannies relating to Holmes' London but it is rewarding when you do." The maze of streets just off the main thoroughfare of Baker Street are lined with fine examples of Victorian architecture, including Doyle's former practice at 2 Upper Wimpole Street, now the heart of the private medical profession. The address boasts a heavy wrought iron door and brass knocker together with a green plaque solemnly declaring that Doyle "worked and wrote here in 1891". A doctor still occupies the Doyle consulting rooms and one of the building's current occupants, Dr Michael Szasz, a dentist, says: "We often see people on the pavement outside taking pictures." The author's first home in London was at Montague Place around the corner from his regular research haunt, the British Museum, and across the street from the 18th-century Museum Tavern that featured in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle and still bears many of the original wooden fittings and stained glass. It cannot be a coincidence that Holmes' first rooms were on nearby Montague Street, a quiet stretch of whitewashed Georgian terraces. Back in the very real, very busy world of Oxford Street and Regent Street, despite the many shops, department stores and eateries, there are still Holmes connections to be found. At the Cafe Royal, for example, a refined 1865 French restaurant just off Piccadilly Circus, the detective was attacked in The Adventure of the Illustrious Client. It was at the Criterion bar a little further on, that Watson first heard of the eccentric Holmes. Their inaugural meeting took place in St Bartholomew's Hospital in East London, founded in 1123, that now incorporates a pathology museum, no doubt of fascination to the trained physician turned literary success story. One of Doyle's favourite hangouts was the Langham hotel just off Regent Street, where he would often dine in either the Landau - named after the Victorian horse-drawn carriage - or Palm Court, which still serves an indulgent afternoon tea with scones. With his penchant for blending fiction with reality, he featured the hotel in A Study in Scarlet, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax and The Sign of Four. In fact, Doyle was commissioned to write the latter at a famous dinner at the hotel in August 1889 when he dined with Oscar Wilde,and during which Wilde also came up with the idea for The Picture of Dorian Gray. Despite a recent US$28.5 million (Dh105m) refit, the Langham's marbled lobby, airy, light-filled hallways and elegant gilded decor still retain the decadence that marked it out when it opened in 1865 as Europe's first grand hotel. The Landau's menu may have evolved since the author's time but, with his appreciation for fine dining, he would likely approve of today's menu of peppered fallow deer carpaccio, seared Orkney scallops with caramelised cauliflower and spiced breast of Barbary duck.
Doyle - and his creations - were also regulars at Simpson's in the Strand, which appears in The Illustrious Client and The Dying Detective, and has served up classic English roast dinners on silver-domed platters for nearly 200 years. Ritchie's film includes a cheeky reference to his very own London gastropub, the Punchbowl, a cosy wood-panelled den dating back to the 1750s where you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Robert de Niro or Sting. Back on the Strand, Scott points out the 19th-century Charing Cross train station and hotel, where Holmes lost his left canine tooth in a fight, the 1831 Lowther arcade where he bought his prized Stradivarius violin, Lumley Court with its original gas lamp and the spot where the one-legged vendor announced to the world that Holmes had been assaulted. Doyle eventually grew to dislike Holmes so much that he killed him off in 1893, sending him plunging to his death at Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem. The Strand Magazine, which published the story lost 20,000 readers overnight, and there was such a public outcry that grown men took to the streets wearing mourning armbands. When Queen Victoria expressed her own disappointment, Doyle was forced to bring Holmes back from the dead. More than a century on, having left an indelible imprint on the city to which he is so inextricably linked, it is clear that Holmes is still very much alive and well. firstname.lastname@example.org