McMurdo’s Camp

Follow the Bees

Follow the Bees
By M.Vernet

By Rudyard Kipling

God gave all men all earth to love,
But, since our hearts are small
Ordained for each one a spot should prove
Beloved over all;
That, as He watched Creation’s birth,
So we, in godlike mood,
May of our love create our earth
And see that it is good.

So one shall Baltic pines content.
As one some Surrey glade,
Or on the palm-grove’s droned lament
Before Levuka’s Trade.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground – in a fair ground —
Yea, Sussex by the sea!

No tender-hearted garden crowns,
No bosonied wood adorn
Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,
But gnarled and writhen thorn —
Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim,
And through the gaps revealed,
Belt upon belt, the wooded, dim,
Blue goodness of the Weald.

Clean of officious fence or hedge,
Half-wild and wholly tame,
The wise turf cloaks the white cliff-edge
As when the Roman’s came.
What sign of those that fought and died
At shift of sword and sword?
The barrow and the camp abide,
The sunlight and the sward.

Here leaps ashore the full Sou’west
All heavy-winged with brine,
Here lies above the folded crest
The Channel’s leaden line.
And here the sea-fogs lap and cling,
And here, each warning each,
The sheep-bells and the ship-bells ring
Along the hidden beach.

We have no waters to delight
Our broad and brookless vales —
Only the dew pond on the height
Unfed, that never fails —
Whereby no tattered herbage tells
Which way the season flies —
Only our close-bit thyme that smells
Like dawn in Paradise.

Here through the strong and shadeless days
The tinkling silence thrills;
Or little, lost, Down churches praise
The Lord who made the hills;
But here the Old Gods guard their ground,
And, in her secret heart,
The heathen kingdom Wilfred found
Dreams, as she dwells, apart.

Though all the rest were all my share,
With equal soul I’d see
Her nine-and-thirty sisters fair,
Yet none more fair than she.
Choose ye your need from Thames to Tweed,
And I will choose instead
Such lands as lie ‘twixt Rake and Rye,
Black Down and Beachy Head.

I will go out against the sun
Where the rolled scarp retires
And the Long Man of Wilmington
Looks naked towards the shires;
And east till doubling Rother crawls
To find the fickle tide,
By dry and sea-forgotten walls,
Our ports of stranded pride.

I will go north about the shaws
And the deep ghylls that breed
Huge oaks and old, the which we hold
No more than Sussex weed;
Or south where windy Piddinghoe’s
Begilded dolphin veers,
And red beside wide-banked Ouse
Lie down our Sussex steers.

So to the land our hearts we give
Til the sure magic strike,
And Memory, Use and love make live
Us and our fields alike —
That deeper than our speech and thought,
Beyond our reason’s sway,
Clay of the pit whence we were wrought
Yearns to its fellow-clay.

God gives all men all earth to love,
But, since man’s heart is small,
Ordains for each one spot shall prove
Beloved over all.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground – in a fair ground —
Yea, Sussex by the sea!

And I rejoice that I have one thing in common with Sherlock Holmes. No, not his intellect, his observation skills, or even his classic good looks. I am an retired Entomologist who spends her time studying and writing about Sherlock Holmes. And Sherlock Holmes, in his retirement, spent his time studying and writing about Entomology, bees to be exact!

“But you have retired Holmes. We heard of you living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs.”

“Exactly, Watson. Here is the fruit of my leisured ease, the magnum opus of my latter years!” He picked up the volume from the table and read out the whole title, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen.” Alone I did it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London.” LAST

The golden age of Nature study began in the mid-19th century and continued throughout the Victorian age. It was a new form of entertainment for the Gentry. One with few drawbacks. It was encouraged as a healthy pursuit, a suitable endeavor for a rational thinker, a useful help for scientific discovery, a relief from boredom, and many theologians recommended it as a way to become closer to God.

The Reverend William Kirby and his collaborator William Spence wrote Introduction to Entomology which was reprinted for many years. It surely graced Holmes’ bookshelves. The work extolled the beauty of Nature, and yet was well founded in Science. Both men gave a lot of attention to beekeeping, producing better honey, making better beehives and other subjects of use to everyday farmers. Kirby and Spence only disagreed on the subject of instinct, Spence seeing it as the preciseness of Science and Kirby seeing it as a proof of God’s influence on us all. Some of Spence’s ideas were later cited by Darwin in his Origin of the Species. Surprisingly the great naturalist, (who had a hobby of collecting beetles) actually brought an end to the naturalist craze, because Darwin’s work was responsible for changing the amateur study of Nature into the Sciences of Biology, Botany and Entomology that we know today.

In STUD, Holmes muses on Darwin:

“Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.”

“That’s rather a broad idea,” I remarked.

“One’s ideas must be broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature,” he answered …

Was Holmes then, an amateur naturalist himself?

In WIST, he does show the inclination and has the tools:

“I’m sure Watson, a week in the country will be invaluable to you,” he remarked. “It is very pleasant to see the first green shoots upon the hedges and the catkins on the hazels once again. With a spud, a tin box, and an elementary book on Botany, there are instructive days to be spent.” He prowled about with this equipment himself, but it was a poor show of plants which he would bring back of an evening.

Perhaps Holmes was more interested in the insects he found on the plants. Watson on the other hand, showed no inclination to join in the enthusiasm of the naturalist. I think it safe to say, a toasty fire and a good book were more his cup of tea.

But Holmes shows all the signs. He had the curiosity, loved to uncover mysteries, and he had a spud. A spud is a short spade-like tool, used for digging weeds or plant specimens out of the ground with the whole root intact. It has a small flat rectangular or triangular blade which made a straight cut deep into the soil. A farmer may have a simple one piece metal one, but a Gentleman like Holmes would have an ornate one with a handle made of exotic wood and shaped into a ball made to fit the hand. And in a pinch, a spud could be sharpened and used to defend oneself while prowling the moors, Holmes would like that.

As far as the philosophical side of the naturalist movement, Holmes captures, quite beautifully, his own ideas on God and Nature, somehow combining both Kirby and Spence’s views, in this monologue from NAVA:

“What a lovely thing a rose is! There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

So, it’s not surprising that when retirement came to Sherlock Holmes he decided to retire to a spot in England with great natural beauty, The South Downs.

The South Downs is located on the south shore of England. If you leave London and travel south till you hit the Channel, with luck you will be in Brighton, in about the middle of The Downs. Travel east along the coast and you will see The Seven Sisters, chalk cliffs that rival Dover in their beauty and fame. As you pass Wilmington look to the hills and you will see The Long Man who “Looks naked to the shires” as Kipling says. An ancient chalk carving of a very tall warrior. When you reach Eastbourne, you have come to the end of The Downs and have gone a bit (about five miles) too far if you wish to visit Sherlock Holmes and his bees.

In the preface to “His Last Bow,” We are told:

“The friends of Sherlock Holmes will be glad to learn that he is still alive and well, though somewhat crippled by occasional attacks of rheumatism. He has for many years, lived in a small farm upon The Downs five miles from Eastbourne, where his time is divided between philosophy and agriculture…”

And Holmes himself tells us in “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”:

“My villa is situated upon the southern slope of The Downs, commanding a great view of the Channel. At this point the coast-line is entirely chalk cliffs, which can only be descended by a single, long, tortuous path, which is steep and slippery. At the bottom of the path lie a hundred yards of pebbles and shingle, even when the tide is full. Here and there, however, there are curves and hollows, which make splendid swimming-pools filled afresh with each flow. This admirable beach extends for some miles in each direction, save only at one point where the little cove and village of Fulworth breaks the line.”

Seems like easy directions. Five miles east of Eastbourne. Near a path that goes down to the Channel. Swimming pools.View of the Channel, but on the southern slope of The Downs, small farm, or “villa”. Bees. If you hit Fulworth you’ve gone too far. You make the tea. I’ll bring the biscuits, easy peasy.

Of course nothing involving Sherlock Holmes is ever easy. First of all, the nearest villages to the designated spot are Friston and East Dean, and both of these are three miles from Eastbourne not five. Second, to have a view of the Channel you must be near the Channel. Third, you can’t raise bees on a clifftop, so that puts us near the cliffs, but out of the wind. Fourth, Fulworth does not exist, and although there are villages in this area that have disappeared for instance Tide Mills, but Fulworth is not one of them.

Kevin Gordon a Sussex policeman and Sherlockian is quite sure that Fulworth is actually the town of Seaford. Holmes description of the town fits well, there were fishing boats, a cove, a police station (the next one being in East Dean) and shops that sold “Ship’s Tobacco”. The change of name could have been due to the fact that the area was quite important to England’s defense in both World Wars, and confusion about where exactly Holmes’ villa was located would have been encouraged.

Many a famous Sherlockian has tramped on The Downs, compass in hand, searching for Holmes’ retirement villa. (A villa, by the way, is a term used in seaside communities of the time. If a family of Londoners rented a home for July and August it was called a cottage, a year round rental such as would be used by a retired Gentleman was called a villa.) Even Christopher Morley, who claimed to have found the cottage in the 1950’s had to admit that his choice had no view of the Channel, but was a good spot for the bees. In 1967 the Chairman of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, Mr. Charles O. Merriman, placed his bet on Birling Gap Manor Farm and the matter might have been closed, since it met all criteria but one, it is large with many buildings. So large that it is now a wedding and reception hall with plenty of room for all the relatives on both sides. Just too large for a rheumatic retired Consulting Detective. And poor Martha Hudson could never have kept up with all the housekeeping!

There is today a lovely be-flowered cottage in East Dean, right on the village green that bears a blue ceramic plaque stating “Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and Beekeeper retired here 1903 -1917”

I’m sure the owners meant well, keeping the Master’s legend alive and all that. But, they are just wrong. And many of those wonderful olde Sherlockians have made a very good argument that we don’t know when Holmes died because he discovered an elixir of long life made from the royal jelly of a certain bee in India, and may still be alive today. That makes more sense than raising bees on the village green in East Dean!

Laurie R. King has a series of books about Sherlock Homes in retirement, still having adventures with her young heroine Mary Russell. Her books put Holmes’ cottage at Holmes’ Hill near Chiddingly. Quite a bit inland, but Holmes certainly could have moved here after his original villa was torn down or more likely burned down by one of Holmes’ experiments, or something a bit more sinister?

With so many Sherlockians looking for the villa for so many years, it seems impossible that it was never found.”It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”( BERY). The reason must certainly be that the villa is no longer there, and hasn’t been there for many years. But take heart, this doesn’t mean we can’t find the location. England has a program currently called “Panoptigons” where outdoor sculptures are placed in scenic locations joining nature with art. I could see nominating Sherlock Holmes’ bit of The Downs as such a spot an erecting a suitable sculpture there. A beehive might be nice.

Let us re-examine the evidence.

Five miles west of Eastborurne, in view of the Channel is Birling Gap. It is not actually a village, just a few sheep farms and Birling Gap Manor. The other farms are not close enough to the Channel. There are 19th century coast guard houses built right on the cliff. But they are built like apartment houses and provide no land for bees, definitely not a small farm. Birling Gap itself, an indent in the cliff face, provides a natural place to climb the chalk cliff. Stairs have been built into the chalk here for years, but have often fallen onto the beach because of erosion. The cliff face is taken away by the sea at the rate of three feet every year. One of the lovely coast guard cottages has already fallen into the sea, and the rest of the row will soon follow. The erosion can be stopped by building a wall of boulders at the base of the cliffs, and the government is looking into doing this, but since it effects such a small population, it is not high on their list of priorities. But even though the evidence of Holmes’ beach is long gone, many clues still remain. Here we find the stairs, although metal now for safety, the rock pools are here and the shingle and pebble beach. With the added attraction of the caves and grottoes Holmes mentions in LION, which were used by smugglers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is also mentioned in LION, that “The Gables” Mr. Stackhurst’s school is a half mile from Holmes’ villa, and Holmes’ villa is closer to the stair path than “The Gables”. Birling Gap Manor is three quarters of a mile from the Gap and happens to have an interesting roof configuration that gives it three gables (the triangular part of the outside wall formed by a sharply pitched roof). It also has a huge dining hall suitable to a school. That Birling Gap Manor was at one time “The Gables” is a distinct possibility.

And if you walk from Birling Gap Manor, half a mile heading towards the tortuous path to the sea and stop a quarter mile from the sea, you have found the site of the little bee farm on The Downs.

Need more data before you can make a conclusion? Well, we can follow the bees.

In 2011 the area of The South Downs we have been discussing was made a National Park. The area has the finest and most bio-diverse land in South-East England. As a consequence of this it falls within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (The South Downs AONB) and an Environmentally Sensitive Area (The South Downs ESA). This means that the area Holmes’ loved is now protected from building and growth and is being nurtured back to health. The chalk grassland of this area is unique and endangered as are many of the insects that depend on it for life. But making it a National Park has already brought a reward. A solitary bee, Halictus eurygnathus that was thought to be extinct in England was seen again in Birling Gap. The Master would be glad.

BWARS, (Bee, Wasp, and Ant Recording Society) has published a survey, written by Stephen Falk called “A Survey of the bees and wasps of fifteen chalk grasslands and chalk heath sites within the East Sussex South Downs.”

Each of the fifteen sites were picked by a group (a swarm?) of Entomologists. The sites were picked along 70 miles of The Downs from Winchester to Eastbourne. And the specific site of sampling was chosen for its bee and wasp friendly habitat.One of these sites was at Birling Gap, and the sample area was specifically TV554959. British Grid System or latitude 50.741920, longitude 0.2011641.

At the Birling Gap site, 94 species of bees and wasps were found in all, 67 in one day. 22 rare species of chalk-loving and sand-loving insects were found. Birling Gap was found to have a fully developed chalk heath habitat very valuable for bees and wasps.

The only tools needed for this survey were a butterfly net and a notebook. Equipment that was readily available to the Victorian Naturalist. You know Holmes’ methods.He surely picked an area for his beehives that included a healthy environment for the bees and the Birling gap Downs are clearly a good choice.

One last thought about the “southern slope”. Each of The Seven Sisters has a name, and each of the valleys between the Sisters has a name. At Birling gap the cliff’s name is Went Hill Brow, the valley is called Michel Dean and Michel Dean is famous for its outstanding views of the Channel.

So here are your final directions. Get yourself to Sussex, England. Go to Eastbourne and pick up The South Downs Way Road, follow it to Birling Gap.(TV554959). There is a National Trust Cafe’ there. Park and get some Tea. Walk to the stairs, look around, it has breathtaking views. You are standing on Went Hill Brow. Walk North, look both ways when crossing The South Downs Way Road. Walk one quarter mile, head down Michel Dean till you reach a part of the southern slope that is full of wildflowers, heath, wild thyme and the buzz of contented bees. Here is the site of Sherlock Holmes retirement villa. Just follow the bees.

It is too bad we can never know what happened to it. Or can we? I have a theory!

Remember the disappearing town of Tide Mills I mentioned earlier? No? Well let me tell you about it.

Tide Mills was located between the towns of Newhaven and Seaford, near the shore about 2.5 miles west of Seaford and 6 miles west of Birling Gap.

In 1730 it was decided that it would be much better if the river Ouse which flowed into the Channel at Seaford, should be straightened so that it flowed into the Channel at Newhaven. Everyone agreed that a straight river was much better than a meandering one, and soon the deed was done leaving a small part of the river cut off and still flowing into the Channel at Seaford. The tides still came in and out on this small waterway, making it a perfect place for a tide mill. Tide mills are run by water wheel power and every time the tide comes in the water is guided into the mill making the water wheels turn the grinding stones of the mill.

In 1770 such a mill was built to mill flour. It was a huge success and a little hamlet grew up around it called, logically. Tide Mills. The actual mill was active till 1883 when a fierce storm caused it to be destroyed. But some families remained and Tide Mills still existed. And still played a part in history.

And the history of the area between Tide Mills and Belle Tout Lighthouse, just east of Birling Gap is anything but boring. Because you could enter into England here, many enemies tried. First The Romans, leaving camps and artifacts you can still find today. Then in 1795 the French made an unsuccessful attempt. In the lyrical words of Sir Nicolas Pelham, local poet:

What time the French sought to have sacked Sea-foord
This Pelham did repel-em back aboord.

There was also the enemy within. So says a disgruntled resident named Congreve:

Sussex men who dwell upon the shore
Look out when storms arise and billows roar
Devoutly praying with uplifted hands
That some well laden ship may strike the sands
To whose rich cargo they may make pretense.

And here be Smugglers!

If you wake at midnight
And hear a horse’s feet
Don’t go drawing back the blind
Or looking in the street
Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie
Watch the wall my darling while Gentlemen go by.

Five and twenty ponies trotting through the dark
Brandy for the Parson,
Baccy for the clerk,
Laces for a lady,
Letters for a spy,
And watch the wall my darling while Gentlemen go by.
— Rudyard Kipling —

Holmes mentions in LION the caves and grottoes along the shore. These were used by Smugglers to hide their loot till they could bring it inland at night. The Buckle Inn in Tide Mills and The Tiger Inn (still in business) in East Dean were favorite Smuggler hang outs.

They were rough customers. A custom man, Justice John, put chalk lumps along the cliffs to guide him in his nightly patrol. The Smugglers removed the chalk and Justice John fell to his death. He is said to haunt the area still trying to get home.

The 20th century brought another enemy to these beautiful shores. The Germans and World War I.

But when war came to England and to Sussex, Holmes was not alone. Rudyard Kipling lived a few miles North in Burwash, and his old friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived a bit further North in Crowborough. Sir Arthur wanted to enlist but was turned down, so he started a volunteer Home
Guard Unit. As Sir Arthur said when he tried to enlist, “I am 55 but I am strong and hardy, and can make my voice audible at great distance, which is useful at drill.” I’m sure he had no problem convincing his great friends Holmes and Watson to volunteer when ever they could.

Holmes’ villa was a perfect spot for bees, but it was also a perfect spot for observing movement in the air and at sea. And it just so happens that during WWI the little hamlet of Tide Mills was home to a secret seaplane base. It’s possible that Holmes volunteered at his base or at least kept one watchful eye on the old Smugglers caves and the other eye on the sky. It’s not out of the question that he piloted a seaplane himself.

At #9 Mill Drove, Tide Mills, lived the family of Edward Davis, fish dealer. (That happens to be my Father’s name too, small world!) His daughter Hilda was witness to two seaplane crashes. In the first the plane hit the breakwater and burst into flame. In the second crash a plane hit a lonely cottage, this plane was carrying a bomb.

It is my belief that the lonely cottage destroyed in the night, and Holmes’ villa are one and the same. We know Holmes did not perish on that night. He and Mrs. Hudson were probably away from home. But news of what happened would have been hushed up. It would have been a matter of National Security.

Only the bees know for sure and they are not talking.

Abandoned Communities, Steven Fisk

Lost villages of East Sussex, Peter Longstaff Tyrrell

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, William S. Baring-Gould

World’s Greatest Detective Retires to Sussex, Kevin Gordon

A Survey of the bees and wasps of fifteen chalk grassland and chalk heath sites within The East Sussex South Downs, Steven Falk

Seaward Sussex, Edric Holmes

“No. 256”,


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