Last Thursday was an important day in the calendar for fans of Sherlock Holmes. After its winter closure, the funicular to the Reichenbach Falls re-opened. Yes, the place where, in 1893, in one of the most cold and calculated acts of detecticide in literature, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sent his Sherlock Holmes tumbling into the abyss, locked in fatal combat with Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, is easily accessible again. The location of the death plunge really does exist, although it often comes as a surprise to some people that Holmes isn’t real, yet the Reichenbach Falls are.
Given that, until recently, I lived in a road in North London famous for its once-resident serial killer, I am not much given to Murder Tourism. Yet there we were, standing next to the site of one of the most notorious homicides of the late 19th century.
In truth, it is a rather lovely spot to send someone to their doom. Sitting above the town of Meiringen in the Swiss Bernese Oberland, reached by its seasonal funicular railway or a steep, winding path, the Reichenbach Falls cascade in a series of cataracts before spinning through the air for their final free descent, twisting through a hole in the rock halfway down, like liquid cotton threading through the eye of needle, and then plunging into an ice-blue pool at the base.
With a total drop of 250 metres, the falls are dramatic, certainly, but don’t come expecting the Niagara-like flow as seen in the Robert Downey Jr Holmes movie, or even the tumult as described by Conan Doyle, which, before they went through that fissure in the rock, passed through the rapids of a writer’s imagination. It is not “a dreadful cauldron of swirling water and seething foam” from whence no bodies could ever be recovered. And although there is a ledge claiming to mark the exact spot of the momentous struggle between the good and evil geniuses, in actuality the site Conan Doyle had in mind was much closer to the rushing water than the current photo-opportunity. However, the path has become dangerous over the years and, understandably, the local tourist board don’t want too many literal re-enactments of the death plunge.
Yet, all that aside, standing on the bridge at the top, looking down the narrow gorge of “coal-black rocks”, there is something haunting about the falls, the feeling that this beautiful and apparently benign chute is capable of a fatal capriciousness. The waters can, as Watson says, “turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour ”. It isn’t difficult to see why Doyle took Sir Henry Lunn’s advice and chose it as the ideal spot to unburden himself of his over-popular detective, although public pressure meant a resurrection a decade later. And he shows no sign of dying again any time soon.
Even if you are not one of the pilgrims convinced that Holmes was real, there is much to recommend this part of Switzerland, not least the spectacular mountains that ACD loved so much. Having visited with his first wife (as part of her TB cure), the author became a vocal ambassador for the country – arguably his tale of skiing from Davos to Arosa in The Strand magazine in 1894 kick started the whole British Alpine skiing movement.
If you have a Swiss Travel Pass (swisstravelsystem.co.uk; three days from £170), which covers the majority of train and boat services you can easily get to Meiringen and the falls from anywhere in the Bernese Oberland. You could reach Meiringen by using train only, but it would be a shame to miss out on the alternate ferry crossing over the startlingly green Lake Brienz, the hue caused by the cryophilic algae that thrive in the glacial waters. What will impress during the hour-long voyage is the sheer number of lesser-known waterfalls that punch out of the sides of the flanking mountains, as if the whole range is weeping silvery flumes. Many are strikingly lovely, but, thanks to a Scottish writer with a sick wife, none will ever have the resonance of the “tremendous abyss from which the spray rolls up like smoke from a burning house” that is the Reichenbach Falls.
Further information: Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30, MySwitzerland.com). Thomson Lakes & Mountain (020 8939 0740, thomsonlakes.co.uk) has various packages to the Bernese Oberland.