Secret love and the cottage where Sherlock was “born”

Masongill cottage

Masongill cottage

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This beautiful house, near Ingleton, was once the home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mother and is said to have inspired his most famous characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Sheena Hastings reports.

IT’S very easy to see why Heather and David Jemson fell for Masongill Cottage when they first set eyes on it 16 years ago.

The kitchen with matching Aga

The kitchen with matching Aga

At that point they knew nothing of the house’s literary connections. What they saw was a beautifully proportioned late Georgian home in lush gardens, part of a charming hamlet a couple of miles west of Ingleton in North Yorkshire.

On a clear day, Morecambe Bay can be glimpsed between distant hills. Nearer to home, the fell behind the house rises up towards Ingleborough. Dry stone walls, a handful of other cottages and the grander Masongill Hall make up this small community.

“We’d been living in Wiltshire, but had got sick of all the trendy types moving down from London,” says Heather Jemson. “My late husband David and I both had strong family ties to the north, so we were on the look-out after he took early retirement from his veterinary practice.

“We were up here for a break when we saw details of the cottage in the estate agent’s window. We asked to see it straight away, and I immediately imagined a Jane Austen heroine sitting in the pretty garden with her book or embroidery.”

The house has immense charm

The house has immense charm

There is a lot to love about Masongill Cottage, whose spacious living room, parlour and dining kitchen belie the term ‘cottage’. David - a keen carpenter and restorer of antiques - was most excited by the large workshop attached to the house. Their offer had been accepted before they’d pointed the car southwards.

It was while they were waiting to complete the purchase that they heard how their new home had been frequented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. A fact skirted around by many of the accounts of Doyle’s life and erased by the writer in his 1925 autobiography, Masongill Cottage was, for around 35 years from the mid-1880s, the home of his mother Mary Doyle.

Various amateur sleuths have pieced together the story. It certainly seems that the writer knew the area well, and there is good reason to believe that the character traits and names of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were influenced by time spent visiting Mary Doyle in this beautiful spot.

She had apparently arrived as a ‘widow’ with her two youngest daughters in tow, and took up residence in the cottage at an annual rent of £8 at the behest of Bryan Wooller, squire of the Masongill Estate.

The sitting room

The sitting room

He had got to know the Doyle family whilst studying medicine and lodging with them in Edinburgh. A relationship sprang up between he and Mary Doyle - whose artist husband Charles was was an alcoholic who suffered from epilepsy. Charles Doyle was committed to a mental asylum near Dumfries around the time that she came to Yorkshire, where Waller had inherited his father’s land.

By this time, the would-be novelist was practising as a doctor in Hampshire. He wrote frequently to his mother, visited regularly, and even married his first wife Louisa Hawkins at St Oswald’s Church close by.

After arrival at Ingleton station he would have taken a pony-drawn dog cart to his mother’s home, passing an area beside the viaduct called The Holmes.

Other evidence of the Ingleton connection to Doyle’s literary creation is the fact that an early short story called Uncle Jeremy’s Household featured the characters Hugh Lawrence, a young doctor from Baker Street, London, and his friend John Thurston, a chemist with an acid-stained finger. Many of their traits were later shared by Holmes and Watson.

The house retains many of its period features

The house retains many of its period features

It’s entirely possible also that the name Sherlock was foreshadowed by the Sherlock Window in Ingleton’s St Mary’s Church - so-called in memory of the vicar’s father Randal Hopley Sherlock, who had been killed by lightning.

Tales of Mrs Doyle’s relationship with the squire abound, including alleged sightings of her leaving Waller’s home at Masongill Hall in the early morning mist. It could be that Arthur was too embarrassed to acknowledge it during his lifetime. His mother eventually left Masongill and went to live with Arthur in 1917.

“There’s a great lack of solid facts so there’s naturally speculation,” says Heather Jemson, who is selling to downsize. “It’ll be hard, because this has been such a warm, happy house full of great memories.”

The Jemsons have certainly left their mark, having replaced the kitchen, the shower room, bathroom and many of the doors. They also revamped the decor to make it more in keeping with the period of the house, and Heather has worked tirelessly on the large and lush cottage garden.

“Coming here was one of the best things we ever did. We simply fell in love with a beautiful house in the perfect place within a wonderful community.

“The Conan Doyle connection came as a complete surprise, but it’s interesting and we didn’t mind a couple of Sherlock Holmes pilgrims turning up occasionally. After all, we both read and enjoyed the stories very much.”

One of the bedrooms

One of the bedrooms

** Masongill Cottage is in a beautiful and secluded location in the hamlet of Masongill close to Ingleton, North Yorkshire. It is retains many original features and downstairs comprises a large dining kitchen, sitting room, parlour, study and cloakroom/utility. A large workshop has running water and a wood burning stove, and could be converted to further living space. The master bedroom has an en suite shower room/dressing room and there are two/three further bedrooms, a house bathroom, a double garage and car port. The cottage is for sale with Dacre, Son and Hartley for £575,000, www.dacres.co.uk, tel: 01729 823921.