Those who have rediscovered The Lord of the Rings through the wonderful (if not always accurate) Peter Jackson movies probably have an image of wild New Zealand locations whenever they think of Middle Earth.
Yet J.R.R. Tolkien’s inspiration for many of his literary locations came not from the exotic wilderness of a foreign land, however beautiful, but from the gentle English countryside, and the rather more sinister smoking heart of the Industrial Revolution in and near his childhood homes in Birmingham, England.
This is a whistlestop walking tour of some inspirational places which may still be visited by the adventurous tourist following in the footsteps of The Fellowship of the Ring. Read this in conjunction with my biography of Tolkien in the first article to get the most from it.
Ronald Tolkien had many childhood haunts in the Birmingham area that were later to become the stuff of legend, and which are now as familiar to me as the back of my own hand. Here, gentle reader, I will lead you on a quest to places in The Shire from ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, and to ‘The Two Towers’ themselves (and one other!)…
In my next and final article in this present series, however, I will take a more speculative look at The Black Country, said to have inspired Tolkien’s ideas of the dark land of Mordor, home of the evil Lord Sauron – ‘The Lord of the Rings’ himself!
J.R.R. Tolkien was also influenced by other places in later life, and the horrors and joys that were to come as he matured to manhood, experienced war, and settled into happy married and academic life. These may feature in a future article, but first, gentle reader, we travel now to Birmingham, in the heart of England…
Bag End, Hobbiton, and The Old Forest
‘In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit
– or, the Tolkien family’s first home in Birmingham
The tiny village of Sarehole, young Ronald Tolkien’s first home in England, was the model for Hobbiton and The Shire in ‘The Hobbit and ‘The Lord of the Rings.
Formerly a secluded rural hamlet, surrounded by traditional English farms, Sarehole is now a largely built-up residential suburb on the border of the Moseley and Hall Green areas of Birmingham and is easily reached by trains from Moor Street Station in Birmingham City Centre, alighting at Hall Green Station and then walking for about 15 minutes down Cole Bank Road to Sarehole Mill.
All the places shown here are within easy walking distance of each other, but stout footwear and sensible clothing is recommended for any brave traveller who chooses to explore Moseley Bog – ‘The Old Forest’! May I suggest then, gentle reader, that you begin your quest by walking on past Sarehole Mill and starting, like Frodo, from Bag End, just around the corner in Wake Green Road?
No. 264, Wake Green Road, formerly 5, Gracewell Cottages, was the home of the Tolkien family from 1896 until 1900. At the rear of the house is Moseley Bog – ‘The Old Forest’ – and at the front, just across what was then a country lane (now the busy Wake Green Road), is Sarehole Mill – ‘The Old Mill at Hobbiton’.
Together with three matching pairs of semi-detached houses, No. 264 appears to have been built in the early 1890s for the servants of A.H. Foster, who lived in a larger house a short distance away.
Now a retirement home, and not open to the public (so please do not disturb the residents), No. 264 is a fine, attractive semi-detached house of individual style. Is this the inspiration for Bag End? It is by no means a hole in a hillside but is certainly a very cosy, comfortable home, ideal for a Hobbit.
Our next stop is Sarehole Mill, now a fine museum, which we will explore for a while before entering the mysterious and beautiful Moseley Bog. On the opposite side of Wake, Green Road from No. 264 is another boggy area of woodland surrounding the pond of Sarehole Mill. Step lively, but cautiously, young Hobbit, across the road, and when you arrive here, you are at the heart of Hobbiton, and surrounded by fellow Hobbits, at least in spirit.
The Old Mill at Hobbiton
– or, Sarehole Mill
You can reach the Mill safely and in Hobbit-style (avoiding the dangers of the road!) by entering what is now a playing field through a gate in Wake Green Road, and then walking alongside the Mill Pond on your right, which can be glimpsed through fencing and trees. The pond receives its water from nearby Coldbath Brook, which travels beneath the road from Moseley Bog until it enters the pond.
We know that Tolkien played in and around the Mill as a child. It is said that whenever the miller’s son (who came to be known by young Ronald Tolkien as ‘the White Ogre’, from his floury appearance!) caught him and his brother, he would chase them away, to teach them not to trespass in what was really quite a dangerous area for children. There was also a local farmer, who beat the boys when he found them playing in his crops, whom they called ‘the Black Ogre’ – perhaps he inspired Farmer Maggot?
Walking along and staying on the right, you will cross a small bridge over the Coldbath brook as it exits from the Mill. Here you may walk across the small car park (accessible by cars from Cole Bank Road), and enter Sarehole Mill via the visitor centre, where you will find displays, maps and leaflets of great interest to curious Hobbits. Admission to the Mill is free, but donations are welcome.
Once watermills were a very common sight along Birmingham’s rivers. It is estimated that in the 18th century there were over fifty in the area. However, of all Birmingham’s watermills, only Sarehole Mill and Newhall Mill (in Sutton Coldfield) survive as standing buildings with working water-driven machinery.
There has been a mill at Sarehole for over 450 years. The first known records date from 1542 when a man named John Bedell was allowed to build a corn mill on this site. Corn was ground at Sarehole Mill until 1919, and this is still done occasionally for demonstrations and special events.
However, watermills were not only used for agricultural work; waterpower was used in Birmingham’s industrial workshops until the late 1800s, and Matthew Boulton, a leading light of the Lunar Society, is reputed to have used the mill at Sarehole for rolling metal in the 18th century before building his Manufactory at Soho in Handsworth.
The main building on site is L-shaped with a separate bakehouse and stable block situated to the east. The buildings have been taken down and rebuilt several times. The current buildings date from the early 19th century.
Sarehole Mill was restored and opened as a museum by Birmingham City Council in the 1960s, and J.R.R. Tolkien contributed to its restoration. Visitors to Sarehole Mill today will see an attractive group of buildings, including a bakehouse, a metal workshop, a granary and the mill itself, all arranged around a cobbled courtyard. The ground floor contains displays, an education room and waterwheels and associated gearing. Due to the Mill’s construction, access to the upper floors is by steep stairs only.
Annually, The Tolkien Society jointly organises, with Birmingham City Council, a grand Tolkien Weekend at the Mill, which is great fun. See: www.tolkiensociety.org
In any event, you will want to tarry a while in Sarehole Mill, for there is much to see, which takes around an hour. Be careful you do not disturb the White Ogre, though!
The power to turn the mill’s wheel comes from the pond. Dropping down from the mill pond through an inlet, the water drives the wheel around, thereby turning the cogs within via a shaft, and grinding whatever the mill needs to process, normally corn.
The gearing from the North Wheel transfers the power of the water upstairs to grind the flour. There is also a smaller south wheel, not normally used these days.
Much of the rest of the operating machinery is upstairs, and it is worth noting that there is no wheelchair access to the upper floors, and stairs are fairly steep, but the climb is worthwhile as there is much to see.
Corn pours from grain bins in the attic, into the hopper, then into the centre of the upper grindstone and is gradually transferred between upper and lower stones, ground into flour, and is carried out by the motion of the wheels and collected.
The attic of the mill contains the grain bins, flour bins and numerous items of lifting gear for bringing sacks of grain and flour up to the attic.
On the way down again to exit the building, is a room specially dedicated to a display on Tolkien and old maps of the area
Another room contains a display of numerous farming implements, too numerous to show here.
There is far too much to see in and around Sarehole Mill to do it justice here, gentle reader, and so I encourage to you to walk in the floury footsteps of the White Ogre and visit the Old Mill at Hobbiton for yourself, to soak up the atmosphere and dream a little boy’s dreams of Hobbits…
The Old Forest
– or, Moseley Bog
‘Looking ahead they could see only tree-trunks of innumerable sizes and shapes: straight or bent, twisted, leaning, squat or slender, smooth or gnarled and branched; and all the stems were green or grey with moss and slimy, shaggy growths.
Leaving the Old Mill, turn left through the car park and across the stream, returning through the field to where you began in Wake Green Road. Find a safe place to cross the busy road here, young Hobbit, and enter Thirlmere Drive, to the left of No. 264. From here, walk until you reach Pensby Close and turn right into this 1960’s community housing development., then bear left.
At the end of Pensby Close is a grassy area, cross this, and just by a set of galvanised handrails, you will see where Coldbath Brook leaves Moseley Bog and travels underground to the Mill Pond. It is here that we enter The Old Forest, so beware, for you may not be alone…
Moseley Bog, now a wonderful nature reserve, is in fact the drained former secondary storage pool for Sarehole Mill. Some 150 years ago, the water was drained away, but the area never really dried out, and so by the late 1890s this had become a wooded dell, full of flowers. Today it preserves a little of that lost rural Sarehole which has survived to the present day.
Entering the Bog and climbing over the bank, which was formerly a dam, turn right along the top of the dam. Now you have truly entered the Old Forest. As you wander further into the woods, you can see the remains of some of the brickwork for the sluicegate that controlled the water flowing down to the Mill. With the ivy-shrouded trees closing in around you, the world of the 21st century begins to fade away, and the secretive rustling of leaves is interrupted only by birdsong and the occasional furtive noise of some small animal in the undergrowth.
Follow the high ridge along the bank of the old dam, and then a walkway made from old railway sleepers will lead you ever on and on through mature trees, until clearing beckons.
Quietly, you may enter. But beware, today this is the last refuge of Smaug the Dragon – exercise caution, here! I find a gift of gold always quiets his nerves, and who knows, he may let you rest awhile upon his back while you eat a packed lunch. Careful, though, or you may be on the menu instead! I often rest here a while, to read, and to dream…
Here also is a mysterious green pond, much beloved of TV producers making programmes about Tolkien. Did the Tolkien boys play around this pool? We cannot know for sure…
Having eaten your fill of food or of the clear air of Middle earth – or having been chased away by Smaug (!) – continue on into the Old Forest. Follow the path, sometimes the sleeper walkway will be your guide, sometimes not. Work your way cautiously around to the right, and then bear left through sylvan glades and wooded dells, filled with seasonal bluebells, buttercups and glorious greenery. The Old Forest is a strange and beautiful place, but it can be a little unnerving if you enter it alone, gentle reader…
After a while, following the path as it curves to the left, you will see a flight of steps that will take you out of the Bog and into Joy’s Wood, but let us leave that for another day, and continue on our quest.
You may now return whence you came, young Hobbit, walking in the dappled shade along the tinkling brook, the gently flowing water sounding like Elvish bells or quiet voices floating on the breeze, as they make their way through the Forest to the Grey Havens. Hark now, do you hear their sad lament for days long past?
The path will bring you back along the walkway, over the bridge and to the dam, where you may if you wish return to the noisy 21st century, treading back down Pensby Close and Thirlmere Drive to Wake Green Road.
But perhaps, gentle reader, you will tarry a while in the land of Middle Earth and glimpse a little of the Fellowship of the Ring, before we seek out The Two Towers? Come, just a little further along the road…
Strange Sights of Middle Earth
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”
Step warily, friend, we know not what lies around the corner.
Quick, hide behind that tree, and pull your cloak tight around you, for we must not be seen.
I feel a great sense of foreboding.
Save us! Black Riders!
Beware, their dark swords spell doom!
No! I would we could stay and help, but we cannot interfere with the story. Frodo must make his own way, it is his destiny, and that of the Fellowship, written in a greater book than ours. But hold – we may glimpse a little more of their adventures…
Having left the Old Forest, to visit The Two Towers, young Hobbit, you must travel back into the centre of Birmingham, and continue your quest from there. It is simplest to then take a bus from near St. Philip’s Cathedral in Colmore Row. Any bus travelling past Five Ways and along Hagley Road will suit. Get off the bus in Hagley Road at the second stop after Five Ways traffic island (first stop after the Edgbaston Shopping Centre), and you will see a little way ahead and across the road an ancient public house called ‘The Plough and Harrow’, on the corner of Plough and Harrow Road. Walk along Hagley Road and cross safely at the traffic lights.
Enter Plough and Harrow Road and walk steadily until you reach Waterworks Road. Here you enter the vicinity of Ladywood and will see The Two Towers looming ahead. It was here, on Stirling Road in fact, that Tolkien lived during his later childhood and teenage years.
I have always found the natives friendly here, but it pays to be cautious, young Hobbit, as this is now a run-down area attempting to regenerate itself, and as with many such areas, crime has been a problem. Walk with fellow travellers, if you can, and be cautious – you never know when an Orc might appear…
Literally, just around the corner from Tolkien’s childhood home in Sterling Road, and on Waterworks Road itself, you will find Perrott’s Folly, a magnificent 18th-century tower of brick and stone.
It is believed that Perrott’s Folly inspired the City of Minas Anor in Gondor, later named Minas Tirith. Though the fictional Minas Tirith is far more elaborate, it is understandable how inspiring the young Tolkien must have found this remarkable building – I have always found it so!
This fabulous tower was built in 1758 by John Perrott and stands some 96 feet (30m) high. A Hobbit-sized door some 3ft (0.9m) high allows access to the roof.
Perrott’s Folly may have been built as a hunting lodge – when it was constructed, the tower was well out into the countryside and commanded dramatic views of the surrounding landscape, a great place for Perrott to entertain his friends.
Between 1885 – 1979, the roof and topmost room of the Perrott’s Folly were used as a meteorological observatory, first by the Birmingham & Midland Institute and later by Birmingham University. It specialised mainly in wind and sunshine observations following the establishment of a further weather station at the nearby Edgbaston Reservoir in 1886 for the measurement of temperature and rainfall.
Today, the weather observatory resides at Birmingham University, and the tower, which is not normally open to the public except for occasional open days, is cared for by a charitable trust, The Perrott’s Folly Company.
The trust runs a group, the ‘Friends of Perrott’s Folly’, with an annual membership of £10 and life membership of £100, and administers an appeal for the restoration and maintenance of the tower (all payments in Sterling, cheques drawn on a UK bank and payable to Perrott’s Folly Company). For further details, contact: Ian Cox, 52 Harborne Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 3HE, United Kingdom.
Walk on, young Hobbit, and you will discover the second tower that Tolkien would have seen – and heard – near his home in Sterling Road: the glorious Victorian Italianate tower of Edgbaston Waterworks, now under the authority of Severn Trent Water Ltd.
Strictly speaking, this is a highly decorated chimney, not a tower – but what a chimney! This tower is thought to have inspired the fictional creation of Minas Ithil, later to be named Minas Morgul when it became the home of the Witch-King and the evil Ringwraiths or Black Riders.
Built-in 1862 and designed by architect J.H. Chamberlain, this altogether more sinister-looking tower is in fact the Grade II listed chimney for the boiler house feeding a group of three steam engines which for many years pumped water for Birmingham and Aston, extracting it from underground boreholes.