Fact and fantasy on Tolkien trail
Steve McKenna finds glimpses of Middle-earth in the Midlands.
J.R.R. Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892 and his popular fantasy stories, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, have become synonymous with New Zealand, thanks to director Peter Jackson, who filmed his movies across the Land of the Long White Cloud.
But Tolkien regarded himself as a Birmingham man. His parents were Brummies and at the age of three, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien moved to the English Midlands, where he spent the rest of his childhood, leaving only to take up a place at Oxford University in 1911. When Birmingham’s central library was unveiled last year, The Hobbit was the first book placed on its shelves.
“People are amazed to discover that Tolkien lived in Birmingham — even Brummies,” says Mary Moore, a local Blue Badge guide, who is leading me around part of the Tolkien Trail — an easy-to- follow route that takes in Birmingham homes and haunts of the writer.
As Mary and I stroll around Edgbaston, a few kilometres west of the city centre, she fills me in on Tolkien’s topsy-turvy youth. His father died in 1896, his mother in 1904, and after a spell living with their aunt, he and brother Hilary became wards of their mother’s friend — Catholic priest Francis Morgan. One of Tolkien’s old abodes is now a nursery with a blue plaque boasting that “J.R.R. Tolkien lived here”.
When Birmingham's new central library opened, The Hobbit was the first book to be placed on its shelves.
Another Edwardian terrace — Tolkien’s aunt’s house — is across from the former home of Dr Sampson Gamgee, a Birmingham surgeon who invented “Gamgee tissue” (the local name for cotton wool). In The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee was the loyal friend of the protagonist Frodo Baggins, and at the end of the story, Sam marries Rose Cotton.
Mary says this is just one example of how Birmingham influenced Tolkien’s work. We duck inside the nearby Oratory, where Tolkien was once an altar boy, close to two other distinctive sights: Edgbaston Waterworks, a late-Victorian chimney tower, and Perrott’s Folly, built in 1758, originally part of a hunting lodge. The towers were the possible inspiration for Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith — the Two Towers of Gondor from Middle-earth.
Tolkien might not recognise much of his old neighbourhood now but the Plough and Harrow Hotel where he spent his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Edith Bratt in 1916 still stands. The Tolkien Trail also includes Moseley and the former hamlet of Sarehole, now part of the city.
I love exploring Moseley Bog, an eerily atmospheric woodland where a spider web of trails — both boardwalked and soily — weave through clusters of elders, birches, sycamores and oaks.
There’s even a pond coated in luminous lime-shaded algae which some locals refer to as the “Gollum pond”. Tolkien would come here to draw trees, climb them, and, apparently, even talk to them and some believe it’s the prototype for Fangorn Forest, home of the Ents, the walking, talking trees of The Lord of the Rings.
Sarehole Mill. Picture: Birmingham Museums
Others believe the bog inspired the Old Forest (where lurked Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow). The bog is within walking distance of Sarehole Mill on the River Cole. The mill’s curator manager, Irene DeBoo, tells me: “Tolkien lived in many places around the city but he was at his happiest around Sarehole.” He would play —well, trespass —in the mill grounds with Hilary and they were often chased off by the mill owner’s son. In The Hobbit (1937), Tolkien writes of Bilbo Baggins “pushing his keys in Gandalf’s hands and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water and then on for a mile or more”.
Tolkien mentioned Sarehole Mill in a foreword to The Lord of the Rings, and helped fund the restoration of this 200-year- old building, which had become derelict by the 1960s.
Flaunting a major recent refurbishment, including the de-silting of its tranquil millpond, Sarehole is one of two surviving working watermills in Birmingham. Volunteers grind wheat twice a week and visitors can learn more about its mechanics, along with the area’s connections to Tolkien. Archive slides show black-and- white pictures of the author as a boy, while a short film, featuring contributions from Tolkien experts, reflects how Sarehole shaped his stories.
One Sunday a month, the mill’s in-house Tolkienite, Wayne Dixon, leads pilgrims on “Middle-earth tours” through the mill, Moseley Bog and the Shire Country Park. It was renamed in 2005 in tribute to Tolkien, who fondly pondered that Sarehole was a “kind of lost paradise”. Most summers, the Shire hosts a Middle-earth Weekend — when Tolkien buffs dress up as Gandalf, Frodo Baggins and other iconic characters and partake in readings and revelry.
Year round, you can snack in the mill’s cafe — or at Hungry Hobbit, a sandwich bar in the village [|.]
Mordor’s link to industrial Midlands
Tolkien was never explicit about his inspiration but said “an author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience”. Two factors that dominated his youth were war and industrialisation.
Birmingham was jammed with factories, railways and belching towers and known as The Workshop of the World and The City of a Thousand Trades. The city’s businesses exported their wares across the British Empire but mined many of their raw materials in The Black Country. This previously pastoral region west of Birmingham became famed for its hellishly polluted air and charred landscapes — the basis, perhaps, for Mordor, the ominous dominion of Middle-earth controlled by the Dark Lord Sauron. In Sindarin, the language of Tolkien’s alternate universe, Mordor translates to “black lands”.
“What Tolkien was absolutely clear about was his loathing of industrialisation; his abhorrence at the way it wrecked the countryside and how it left people dehumanised, and stripped away all the things he held dear: the kind of idyllic things you’d find in the Shire," says Carol Thompson, the curator of the Making of Mordor, an intriguing exhibition that explores the links between Tolkien’s tales and his Midlands upbringing.
The exhibition is Hobbit-sized but packed with gems, such as a first- edition Rings book, a pipe that Tolkien gave Hilary, and maps and illustrations of Middle-earth by Ted Nasmith, who’s renowned for his work in another fantasy phenomenon, Game of Thrones.
Excerpts on the walls draw parallels between the early 20th century Black Country and Mordor. Oil paintings of the blast-furnace-riddled Midlands look strikingly Mordor-esque. Sketches of zombie-like workers bear a gloomy resemblance to the Orcs and Trolls of Mordor — quite a contrast to the joyous craftspeople of bucolic Hobbiton.
[|Steve McKenna was a guest of Visit Britain, Marketing Birmingham and Hotel La Tour. ]
For more on Sarehole Mill and the Tolkien Trail, see bmag.org.uk/sarehole-mill.
Mary Moore offers guided tours throughout the English Midlands, including Birmingham’s Tolkien-related sites: birminghamtouristguide.com. Hobbit-inspired bus tours are held occasionally, covering many of the spots on the Tolkien Trail, usually around Middle-earth Weekend; see birmingham-tours.co.uk/birmingham-bus-tours/tolkien- hobbit-bus-tour.
Hotel La Tour is a stylish four-star choice in central Birmingham, with 174 rooms and a good in-house bistro that serves British classics with modern twist (such as steak and Brummie ale pie). Advance room rates from £75 ($145); hotel-latour.co.uk. For more see, visitbirmingham.com, visitbritain.com.