Homage to Sherlock Holmes on a Swiss Railway Journey

Written by Linda Tyler
(A highly commended entry in the Travel & Water Writing Competition.)

The author with Sherlock Holmes
The author with Sherlock Holmes in Meiringen

My worn copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, with train ticket marking The Final Problem, was tucked in my rucksack. The train wound its way past soaring mountains and towering pines; villages, nestling in valleys, came and went as I looked out the window. The ticket inspector appeared. ‘Fahrkarten, bitte.’ The next station was mine.

I was in Switzerland on a steam railway holiday with my husband. Each day brought its own thrilling journey. We had travelled in luxury on a Pullman coach – refurbished in its original 1930s fabric, with Art Deco marquetry, winged armchairs and bay windows – through the streets of Chur, before climbing steeply and crossing the stunning Langwieser Viaduct.

We had followed the original route of the Glacier Express, on a cogwheel railway, squashed into tiny timber coaches with deep upholstery, white smoke and red sparks providing a dramatic backdrop as we chugged through tunnels. And we had taken the rack railway to the Gornergrad, standing on top of the world as the snow fell – on us, the Matterhorn and all the other mighty peaks I longed to reach out and touch.

Now it was our last day and my husband was keen to visit the Rothorn Railway, while I wanted to retrace the last steps of Sherlock Holmes – stopping short of hurtling over the Reichenbach Falls, of course. Conan Doyle created arguably the most famous detective in the world – and killed him off at the Reichenbach Falls over a century ago.

We’d caught a morning train from Interlaken. My husband waved goodbye at Brienz station and, some thirty minutes after leaving Interlaken, I alighted at Meiringen. The place is busy in the summer, but this was September and town, train and, as it turned out, torrent were deserted.

Approaching the Falls
Approaching the Falls

I found the signpost for the funicular (‘20 min walk’ – surely that depends on how fast one walks?) My path took me through the small town, past the hotel from which Holmes and Watson set out on that fateful day.

The open-sided train was waiting for passengers. The driver appeared, smiled, took my money and stood at the back of the vehicle, her hand on the controls. Our start was so slow that for a brief moment I wondered if the little wooden funicular would make it up the sixty one
per cent gradient. But this was Switzerland, a country famous for its attention to detail. As the speed increased and we rose high over the town and the trees, I heard above me the thundering waters.

When we slid to a halt, the roar of the water was louder, more fierce, than I had imagined. The falls plummet 250 metres down into the valley, creating great cavities in the rock.

I saw a large white star across the ravine: the marker to show the ledge where Holmes and Moriarty fought and fell to their death. I intended to stand on that spot.

The steps at the side of the falls zig-zag their way up; it’s the only way, as the cliff is steep. At the top, spanning the gorge, sits a metal bridge. I drew a deep breath, trying not to look at the waters seething below, and crossed. From here the path leads downwards.

A large white star marks the spot
A large white star marks the spot

At last I was on the famous ledge. It’s further from the waterfall, because of erosion, than in Conan Doyle’s day, and there’s now a hand-rail, thank goodness, but I could still feel the incessant spray.

A plaque reads, ‘At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty, on 4 May 1891.’ I imagined Conan Doyle standing in the thunder of the falls, planning the final combat of the detective and his arch-enemy; the two men hurtling together into the foaming abyss. I could almost see Holmes’s stick leaning against the rock, his silver cigarette-case and under it the farewell letter written to Dr Watson.

It’s a breath-taking setting, with the sheer cliff on one side and sheer drop on the other. Henry Lunn, the founder of travel agents of that name, took Conan Doyle to see the Reichenbach Falls – and the author created a great moment in detective fiction.

When I arrived back in Meiringen, my train was already at the station and there was no time to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Its faithful reconstruction of the living room in 221B Baker Street based on clues found in the stories will have to wait until my next visit.

POSTED 8th JANUARY 2017 by STE Web Editor STEVE HANSON on behalf of LINDA TYLER. The photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.