What Is That Mark?

by Paul Thomas Miller

Firstly, birds. The largest bird in Derbyshire at the time would have been the grey heron, which is about a meter tall. However, all the heron species leave a footprint of four distinct lines - three facing forwards and one backwards. A large bird might produce a track measuring 17cm between its furthest points. This track is neither huge nor ill-defined.

Perhaps it was the print of a reptile, then. The largest UK reptile is the sand lizard. However, weighing a mere 15g, it is unlikely that such a creature could leave a footprint which Hardcastle would consider “deep.”

Amphibians have even less to offer. The largest in the UK is the great crested newt, which reaches a total length of 15cm at best.

Britain’s fish fare much better in size. The largest fish ever caught in UK water was a 480kg bluntnose six-gill shark. Sadly though, UK fish do not have feet with which to leave footprints. Nor do they have easy access to the landlocked county of Derbyshire.

This would seem to just leave mammals then. A bear would seem to be an obvious choice, but in Britain, they were hunted to extinction back in the 11th century. Deer, sheep and cows may be discounted as their hooves are cloven and produce a distinct mark rather than an irregular blob. The print of a horse may appear somewhat irregular and can reach up to 25cm in some of the larger breeds. The long stride which Hardcastle imagined could have been made by a galloping horse. But horses have poor night vision and, consequently, are unlikely to be galloping through pitch black caves. Any other UK mammals are far too small to be worth considering.

Perhaps, then, we should look to non-native feet. Is there some circumstance that may lead to a foreignese animal leaving its footprint in a British cave? Certainly we may disregard the notion of a large animal escaping from some local zoo or circus. Hardcastle would have been aware of this and would have mentioned it. Nevertheless, I believe I have hit upon a solution. A common feature of many English households at this time was an elephant foot umbrella stand.

Now, Hardcastle dismisses the possibility of the footprint being that of an elephant on the basis that it is too huge and too shapeless. But I believe there are reasons he may have been fooled. Anyone venturing down into the Gap with an elephant foot umbrella stand may have found it quite cumbersome to carry. As they leapt from rock to rock to avoid this patch of mud, they would inevitably lose their grip on their cargo. The umbrella stand then hit the mud, end on, but rather messily, before being recovered by this unknown explorer and taken away. Due to the messy landing, the resulting print would appear larger and more irregular than the foot which made it.

I have no doubt that if Hardcastle had conducted a survey of the manors around Blue John Gap, he would have found in one of them a slightly muddied elephant foot umbrella stand and an owner with their own stories to tell of a subterranean adventure.


Paul Thomas Miller is a long-time Sherlock Holmes devotee and contributor to The Baker Street Journal, The Sherlock Holmes Journal and other Holmesian publications. He is the author of Watson Does Not Lie, Finding Sherlock Holmes, Was Sherlock Holmes an Elephant? and a handful of other Sherlockian books. Paul is the sole member of The Shingle of Southsea—an official scion of the BSI based in Portsmouth, the spiritual birthplace of Sherlock Holmes. He conducts most of Holmesian business in The Sherloft — a room at the top of his home stuffed with Holmesiana, where his obsession is allowed to play out without testing the patience of his wife and two boys.