diamond geezer

 Thursday, May 10, 2018

JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord Of The Rings, is undoubtedly literature's most famous Ronald. He was also a Brummie, and the city is very proud, so much so that there's an official Tolkien Trail to follow [pdf]. With the manuscript's help I've been on an epic quest round the suburbs of Birmingham, and tracked down diverse treasures.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892, and by rights should have stayed there, and we'd never have heard of him. But at the age of three his father died while the rest of the family were on a visit to Birmingham, to see the grandparents, so his mother Mabel decided to stay and try to make a living. They moved around a bit, so much so that Birmingham Council could erect nine blue plaques if they so wished, but once JRR got a place at Oxford he moved on, and spent the rest of his life there instead.

Between 1896 and 1900 the Tolkiens lived in Sarehole, a tiny hamlet with a watermill, for which the multi-billion pound fantasy industry should be truly grateful. At the time there were only half a dozen cottages, so Ronald and his brother Hilary had the run of the surrounding fields, and the place clearly left an impression because it became the inspiration for Hobbiton and The Shire.
"It was a kind of lost paradise. There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill."
These days Sarehole has vanished into the suburbs of Birmingham, between Moseley and Hall Green, and 5 Gracewell Cottages has become 246 Wake Green Road. Alas the current residents don't have a plaque, so they can't be impressed, or else they don't want cosplay hobbits walking up their garden path.

Thankfully Sarehole Mill survives, mainly because of its Tolkien connections, and is operated as part of the Birmingham Museums portfolio. Don't come outside British Summer Time, or on a Monday, unless it's a bank holiday. You may also not want to turn up while a school party are eating their packed lunches in the courtyard. But I did at least pick a lovely day for it, and it was a pleasure to take a look around.

The interior retains all the usual watermill bits and pieces, including a big wheel, several hatchways and an atticky storeroom on the top level. Small children can be kept entertained by hunting for the LOTR character plaques amongst the industrial archaeology - nothing whatsoever to do with the mill, but Gandalf, Bilbo and Smaug each have their secret place. Only when you reach the second half of the building do the proper Tolkien information boards appear, including a focus on the local area, and how the miller's irritable son ended up in the books as the White Ogre.

One of the outbuildings contains a tearoom, which could easily double the length of time you spend here. But the best part of the circuit is probably the millpond out the back, the same one JRR would have been able to see from his garden gate, but now hidden by a thick screen of trees. From the terrace I counted as many as three herons standing in the rushes, which is a personal record. Don't forget to walk through the willows to the far end, where your micro-quest is to spot the tree trunk carved into an angry dragon.

Another local survivor, this time round the back of the Tolkiens' cottage, is Moseley Bog. Originally an additional millpond, it was left to silt up and became a patch of marshy woodland. Young JRR knew it well, and it inspired the Old Forest where Tom Bombadil lived. Today it's an atmospheric space with boardwalks threaded a few inches above the mud, ripe for exploration, though you're more likely to find dog-walkers and pond-dippers than an army of orcs.

As for the local river, a strip of land down the Cole Valley has been protected from development and renamed Shire Country Park. Nice touch. Green Road still has a ford where the mill race enters the stream, much as Tolkien would have remembered it, only he never saw local residents in Range Rovers sluicing through the water as some kind of justification that their vehicle purchase was worthwhile.

The Tolkiens moved on from Sarehole to Moseley, then to Ladywood, where Mabel died because diabetics in those days rarely outlived their thirties. The two orphaned brothers were taken in by the local Catholic priest in Edgbaston, then by an aunt in Stirling Road, where JRR lived between the ages of 12 and 16. This marvellous protuberance is what he'd have seen at the end of the street every time he set off to school, and it proved inspirational.

This is Edgbaston Waterworks Tower, erected in 1870 as part of a complex of buildings alongside a covered reservoir. It's now owned by Severn Trent Water, so you won't get inside the compound without a white van and security clearance, but this thin brick tower with a nozzle-like turret on top still looms menacingly above Gothic rooftops.

In a "what are the chances?" coincidence, a second tower of approximately similar height exists barely 200 metres down the road. This is Perrott's Folly, a much older crenelated construction knocked up as part of an 18th century hunting lodge, and later repurposed as one of the country's first weather recording stations. It's now owned by an arts collective who are trying to restore it as a community space, indeed a kinetic sculpture exhibition opens tonight if you're lucky enough to be in the area.

Tolkien's last Birmingham address was a short distance away in Highfield Road, the other side of the Oratory, where he was lodging when he learned he'd got a place at Oxford. This particular building does have a plaque, but is also now a nursery, so don't expect to get up close. And blimey, the view from the end of the road is unmistakeably of two towers, and it's believed (but not proven) that they may have been the inspiration for The Two Towers in the middle volume of the The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

If so, nobody's certain which is Minas Morgul and which is Minas Tirith, but both towers are surely architecturally atmospheric enough to justify a place in canon. If you can't be bothered to trek all the way out to Edgbaston to see them, Sarehole Mill has plonked a couple of metal models in a garden outside the toilet block. But how amazing to think that Middle Earth was based, at least in part, on a couple of Birmingham suburbs.

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