What is the exact location of 221B, Baker Street, the rooms that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson moved into in A Study in Scarlet? This has been a popular trick quiz question for decades in India, the answer being that there is no such address. Time has played tricks with the trick, though, and the persistence of the question, and the answer which is no longer valid, is a symptom of India’s extraordinarily long quizzing tradition, in which trivia is passed down unaltered across generations.
The address 221B was as fictitious as its occupant in Arthur Conan Doyle’s time, but it has existed since 1990, when 239 was renumbered 221B and the blue plaque which marks English heritage properties where important people have slept (or done livelier things) was put up above the front door. It houses the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which vies for the attention of tourists with its better-known peer around the corner, Madame Tussaud’s. But it enjoys an unfair advantage — it has a real British bobby to welcome visitors.
But there was not even a 221 — never mind the B — until the 1930s, when Baker Street was extended and renumbered, and the offices of the building society which was the parent of the Abbey National Bank was allocated a block of odd numbers from 215 to 299. The moment 221 was created, Holmes was elevated to the level of Santa Claus, another fictional character to whom Royal Mail delivers. The society was good enough to assign a permanent secretary to deal with the deluge of correspondence, but later, it found itself embroiled in a dispute with the museum and the municipality over its right to answer the mail of the Great Detective. Presumably disheartened, Abbey National withdrew from the feud. It contented itself with putting up a so-there statue of Conan Doyle’s creation outside the Baker Street Tube station, and itself became as fictitious as Holmes after 2003, when it was absorbed and rebranded by the Spanish bank Santander.
Like 221B, Baker Street, many of the addresses of fictional London are slightly trumped-up. It is easier to find locations frequented by literary figures than it is to map their creations. For instance, the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub on Fleet Street, which was frequented by Charles Dickens when he was a hack writing under the pen name of Boz, is completely real and remains in business. But the second most memorable structure in the Dickens universe — top billing must go to the converted boat on the Yarmouth beach which housed the Peggottys in David Copperfield — is Fagin’s shack from Oliver Twist. Being temporary structures, shacks vanish rather rapidly, and fictional shacks are particularly ephemeral. But you can visit Field Lane in the Saffron Hill area where it stood, near the One Tun pub which served as the model for the Three Cripples pub in the book. The One Tun, which did exist in Dickens’ time, presumably in the midst of the revolting squalor to which Oliver was taken by the Artful Dodger, is now a posh sort of establishment with Thai-inspired pub grub. The Three Cripples lodging, which lent its name to the fictional pub, has been erased by the gentrification of the area.
Jules Verne provides another almost-real location in London. The house from which Phileas Fogg embarked on his travels, to which he returned in ignominy after rounding the world in 81 days, and from where he sprang out in a state of disarray to claim victory upon realising that he had done it in 80, on account of having crossed the International Date Line travelling eastwards, stood at 7, Savile Row. Verne reports it as the house where Sheridan lived and died, but London’s historians are uncooperative. They insist that the playwright was located at house number 14 and was only a neighbour. At other times, William Pitt the Younger and the Beatles also had addresses on this Mayfair street. Let It Be was recorded in the basement of 3, Savile Row, and the last Beatles concert was held on the roof, jangling the nerves of the bespoke tailors that the street is famed for. They called the police.
The latest entrant to the London lists is, of course, Platform Nine and Three-Quarters of King’s Cross Station, from which the Hogwarts Express departs. The spot is marked by a baggage trolley disappearing magically into a brick wall. Given the location, it is likely to survive the ravages of time far better than its literary predecessors, and there can be no future debate about the accuracy of a location. Nine and three-quarters is so exact a figure, and the station so enduring a location, that there can be no doubt in the matter.