One would think, judging by the hyperbole and publicity surrounding native-Kiwi director Peter Jackson’s hugely successful film adaptations of Tolkien’s masterpieces Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, that the author’s only possible inspiration for The Shire, and Middle Earth in general must be the majestic mountains, forests and plains of New Zealand. Not so.
In fact, the real life locations that inspired the author’s imagination to create exotic realms such as Mordor and Rohan and Gondor can be found in and around Tolkien’s childhood home in the UK city of Birmingham. Although born in South Africa in 1895, at the age of three John Tolkien, his brother Hilary and their mother moved to Kings Heath, Birmingham. The boys’ father was due to join them later but tragically died of typhoid shortly after their departure for Britain.
Despite the loss of their father, the childhood years of John and Hilary Tolkien, spent exploring the environs of their new home city, were happy and fun and – according to the author himself – the places in which they played and let their boyish imaginations run riot around Birmingham would at least partially influence many of the locations, people and events that would later form the mythical world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s best-selling stories.
Sarehole and the Shire
Upon arriving in Britain, the Tolkien family initially set up home in the semi-rural hamlet of Sarehole, on the edge of Moseley, Birmingham. John Tolkien was at his happiest here, exploring the open farmland, nearby mill and water meadow close to his home. These impromptu playing fields were later to form the basis of Tolkien’s Shire; the green and pleasant land in which Bilbo Baggins lived in The Hobbit. Sarehole Mill itself is referenced in the book – it becomes Hobbiton’s ‘Great Mill’. Nowadays, Sarehole Mill has been restored and converted into a museum and visitor attraction, part funded by J.R.R. Tolkien, and the site has become almost shrine-like for devotees of the author’s work.
The Old Forest and Moseley Bog
Now a nature reserve accessible from Yardley Wood Road, the unromantically named Moseley Bog holds evidence of human settlement dating back to the Bronze Age, but in J.R.R. Tolkien’s childhood it was the site of a heavily-wooded mill pond that fed the nearby Sarehole Mill. An exciting environment for an imaginative boy to play in and explore, the features and setting of Moseley Bog would later be drawn upon to describe the Old Forest, home of the hobbit Tom Bombadil.
Edgbaston and the Two Towers
John and Hilary Tolkien’s mother, a diabetic, died in 1904 and the boys moved to Edgbaston, a short distance from Birmingham’s city centre. Today, many impressive towering structures such as the British Telecom Tower, the luxury Hyatt Regency Hotel, and the Five Ways Tower offices dominate the skyline visible from Edgbaston, but when J.R.R. Tolkien was a boy there were fewer and thus two imposing towers close to his home clearly made a lasting impression on the author which resurfaced when he wrote The Two Towers; the second volume of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Built in 1758 by wealthy landowner John Perrot, the magnificent Perrott’s Folly remains an imposing feature of the Edgbaston landscape today and is one of Birmingham’s most historic landmarks. Now a Grade II listed building the folly is almost one hundred feet high and stands in close proximity to the ornate, gothic tower (actually a concealed chimney) that overlooks Edgbaston Waterworks, which was built around 1870.
These examples are probably the most notable illustrations of the way in which J.R.R. Tolkien’s early life and experiences in and around Birmingham had a profound influence on his later writing. There are more Middle Earth connections to be discovered in Britain’s second city, but if you want to see them for yourself you’ll have to make your own journey “there and back again”.