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In the footsteps of… JRR Tolkien

How Birmingham — not New Zealand — inspired the author

In the footsteps of… JRR Tolkien
Severn Trent Water Works tower and Perrett's Folly. Images: Corbis and Alamy

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This October marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Return of the King — the third and final novel in the The Lord of the Rings saga. Thanks to its Hollywood makeover, the trilogy is now strongly associated with New Zealand — where much of the action was filmed — although author JRR Tolkien may well have found inspiration in a far less exotic place he once called home: Birmingham.

Tolkien moved to the UK’s second city in 1895 aged three, and remained until he left for Oxford University. He spent his first four years in a hamlet called Sarehole, today part of Hall Green. This suburb was distinctly rural during the Edwardian era, and is thought to be the model for hobbit homeland, the Shire.

Today, little pockets of Tolkien’s Birmingham remain, such as Mosely Bog, an ancient woodland and inspiration for the Old Forest, where the character Tom Bombadil lived; and the Shire Country Park — a ribbon of wetland and heath, renamed in 2005 to reflect its Tolkien links. The park is also home to Sarehole Mill, an 18th-century water mill Tolkien was so fond of during his childhood that in the 1960s he helped raise funds to convert it into the museum it remains today.

Tolkien also lived in Edgbaston, and many fans make a pilgrimage here to see the lofty chimney of the Victorian Edgbaston Waterworks, and the neighbouring 100ft-tall Perrott’s Folley; viewed together, these buildings resemble the titular Two Towers. All these sites, and more, are included on the city’s Tolkien Trail.

Mordor
The rapid industrialisation of the West Midlands wouldn’t have escaped the young Tolkien’s attention, and many believe Mordor was inspired by the steelworks and blast furnaces that had transformed the Black Country into a vision of fiery hell. Meanwhile, others have noted that at night, the illuminated clock tower of the University of Birmingham bears more than a passing resemblance to the Eye of Sauron. birmingham.gov.uk/tolkien


Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)