It’s locomotory, My Dear Watson

I can remember watching an edition of Mastermind in which a contestant chose Sherlock Holmes as his specialist subject: “To which regiment was Watson attached at the outbreak of the second Afghan war?” or “What was notable about Professor Moriarty’s treatise on the binomial theorem?” and so on. At that time, the questions had that offshore island quality – small, bounded and cut off from the mainland of life – that defines the first half of the quiz.

But I have to tell you that I could no longer regard ‘Sherlock Holmes’ as an appropriate specialist subject: to me, the range of questions would now seem so wide as to be another general knowledge round. No, to be really specialised, one needs to focus a magnifying glass on a single aspect of Sherlockian studies.

“I did wonder whether there would be enough material to keep going – because it has to be said that there are only two occasions when Sherlock Holmes displayed an in-depth knowledge of the workings of railways.” said Dr Antony Richards, when we met recently at King’s Cross Station. “But about 60 per cent of the Sherlock Holmes cases mention railways.” He remarked that Holmes took a train from King’s Cross to Cambridge in The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter.

Dr Richards, a 33-year-old product manager for a computer software firm, is the chairman of the Irregular Special Railway Company: a society of 60 people, who, as it were, like the smoke rings from the sleuth’s pipe to form a chain to the clouds at the steam-train’s funnel.

Founded three years ago, this is the only society in the world devoted to the railway aspects of Sherlock Holmes. “At lease, it’s the only society, as far as I know,” said Dr Richards. And he began telling me about the adventure Silver Blaze, when Holmes calculated the speed of a moving train from the time it took to pass between successive telegraph poles: one of those two occasions in the canon when the detective showed off his railway knowledge.

After a short walk to the café on St Pancras Station – where we had a cup of tea in honour of the wedding breakfast, held in the old Pancras Hotel, in A Case of Identity – Dr Richards passed me a copy of the society’s annual publication, The Sherlock Holmes Railway Journal. Here, in its pages, the deerstalker truly meets the station-master’s cap.

For instance, I noticed an article which attempted to answer the question: why does Holmes use the Underground on only one occasion in the entire canon? To shed light on this, the journal has reprinted a contemporary account of Tube travel in the 1890s, when the smoke in the tunnels could leave the travellers ‘coughing and spluttering like a boy with his first cigar’.

“No wonder Holmes preferred to use a Hansom cab,” said Dr Richards.

A particular interest of the society is to recreate the rail journeys of Holmes and Watson. So Dr Richards took me to the various Sherlockian stations of London and explained their significance. At Charing Cross, I learned that in the old first-class waiting-room (now the Rendezvous Lounge) Holmes had his left canine tooth knocked out, as recorded in The Adventure of the Empty House: while at Waterloo, in The Crooked Man, Holmes had his only meal on a station – which led Dr Richards to remark that one day the society would probably have a dinner in Waterloo’s restaurant; and at Paddington, I became aware of the importance of the mighty Bradshaw. . .

“In The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” said Dr Richards, “Holmes sends Watson a telegram, saying, ‘Meet me at Paddington – we’ll catch the 11.15 train.’ But I’ve checked Bradshaw‘s railway timetable for 1889 and there wasn’t a train at 11.15.”

One can only hope, I thought, that Dr Watson wrote his patients prescriptions with greater accuracy than his chronicles of Holmes’s adventures.

“You also get some people,” continued Dr Richards, “who think that this adventure took place on a Sunday, because Watson had a late breakfast that day and he probably wouldn’t have done so if he’d had his normal weekday surgery. But Sunday is impossible.” He explained: first according to Bradshaw, there was no train on Sunday till 2.30pm; and second, the tale mentions two other rail journeys made by Holmes on the same day – and only one set of trains is a close match for the times. “So it has to be a weekday or a Saturday.”

Then we took to the Circle Line to re-enact The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans. This story, which features the second demonstration of Holmes’s railway knowledge is home to another discrepancy: “Now, you tell me,” said Dr Richards, as our train left the tunnel near Gloucester Road, went overground and passed a row of houses, “would it really have been possible to lean out of one of those windows and place a dead body on the roof of this train? The distance is just too great.”

He moved on to the question of whether the train, in its role as hearse, might have gone clockwise or anticlockwise on its journey round the Circle Line: clockwise, via King’s Cross, there are sharp bends in the track which would surely have thrown the body off; that would imply anticlockwise, via Victoria, yet why then was the body not seen?

“The fog?” I suggested. And I suddenly realised that I was getting caught up in all this.

“There’s a little bit of Holmes in all of us,” said Dr Richards.