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On the Tolkien Trail, Part One
by Shaun Spain

Birmingham and the Early Years

Many times I have read of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ adventures. As I set out on my own journey I thought of the road and the little song Bilbo would sing: "The road goes ever on . . ." though on this Island in the North Atlantic, which we call Britain, they eventually come to their end.

I was eagerly in search of pictures: I wanted to see the things with which Tolkien himself had grown. I wanted to see what inspired him to create the world in which our most favourite Hobbit-heroes lived. I went, therefore, to Birmingham, England.

The Old Forest

Tolkien described it as: ". . . 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." I knew the place he was describing, only in the real world it is called Moseley Bog.

I wondered whether the real "Old Forest" would be so sinister. Yet as I drew close to it, and seeing it huddled behind a crop of early-Twentieth Century white and grey houses, I couldn’t suppress the strangest feeling: like I was going on an adventure! Foolish me! I felt like a child.

Moseley Bog
(Moseley Bog, 1999. Four trees guard an expanse of tall grass in the background.)

I finally managed to find my way in, and passing a fallen tree, I climbed a six-foot high bank and peered eagerly into the shade beneath the wooded-canopy. There! Moseley Bog was before me. I paused for a moment, on the edge of the copse and at the top of the bank. I took a deep breath and listened to the sounds . . .

"Now stronger than ever they felt again the ill will of the wood pressing on them. So silent was it that the fall of their ponies’ hoofs, rustling on dead leaves and occasionally stumbling on hidden roots, seemed to thud in their ears."

I am not exaggerating when I say that Moseley Bog is deathly silent. All around the hum of human life could be heard, loud and blatant: cars buzzed and horns blared. But when I stepped beneath the roof of leaves and branches, the sounds died and the woods closed in. I had no ponies with me, though I did have friends. Our footfalls were incredibly loud. Three of the "Big People" were stumbling through a wood that clearly belonged to itself. Up in the trees I heard the lulling coo of a dove, and the occasional scream of a magpie. Nothing else stirred: not a breeze to shift the trees in their silent vigil; not one leaf rustling in its sleep. Silent: deathly silent.

\(Moseley Bog 1999. The winding path beside the brook.\)
(Moseley Bog 1999. The winding path beside the brook.)

\(Moseley Bog 1999. The old crooked tree.\)
(Moseley Bog 1999. The old crooked tree.)
I followed a course through the woods, chosen at random. Many paths lead the way, but I chose left and then left again. This direction took me along a brook, over which I crossed and eventually came to a gnarled tree. Its branches were slung in every direction, seeming to twist in some agony of deformation. Although the tree was not a willow, I could not help but think of that most devious of trees: Old Man Willow himself.

I knew that Tolkien used to play here as a child. As I left the crooked tree behind I was left wondering just how old that particular tree was. Did Tolkien himself see it? If he was alive today, would he recognise the tree from the photograph I had taken? It was tempting and almost dream-like to believe that yes: he knew the tree, and yes: he would still know it. But I will never know for certain.

"Suddenly they came out of the trees and found themselves in a wide circular space. […] No tree grew there, only rough grass and many tall plants. . ."

I stepped through a row of trees and hey-presto! The woods were gone and I was surrounded by straw-yellow grasses and tall wild-plants. Around me the woods still loomed, but I was for the time clear of the Bog. The sound of urbanized traffic was loud again and I knew that I was nearing the edge of that magical place.

\(Moseley Bog 1999. The view to my right as I entered the clearing in the Bog.\)
(Moseley Bog 1999. The view to my right as I entered the clearing in the Bog.)

No other place on the Tolkien Trail held quite so much enchantment for me (except, perhaps, for Exeter College). None of the other sites I visited and photographed were quite so raw and untamed. I could almost believe for a few minutes (over thirty of which I spent wandering and gazing in awe) that I had left Birmingham altogether and had gone to some other place; perhaps even to Middle-Earth itself.

The Old Mill

Quite simply "over the road" from Moseley Bog is another of Tolkien’s childhood haunts. It is known as Sarehole Mill. Like the enchanting wood, the mill also managed to find its way into the professor’s creative writing. It is, of course, the Old Mill of Hobbiton.

\(Sarehole Mill 1999. The view as you enter from the main road.\)
(Sarehole Mill 1999. The view as you enter from the main road.)

Behind the mill (on the same level as the building’s first floor — the first above the ground floor, that is) is the Mill’s Pool. I had a mild shock when I climbed a flight of stairs (squeezing through the narrow gap) only to find a pool whose water level was at the height of my feet!

\(Sarehole Mill 1999. The Mill Pool as viewed from the Mill itself.\)
(Sarehole Mill 1999. The Mill Pool as viewed from the Mill itself.)
It is known that Tolkien played here too. It wouldn’t have been hard for J. R. R. T. as a child to have crossed onto the miller’s land from Moseley Bog. It is said that whenever the miller caught Tolkien he would beat him, trying to teach him not to trespass. I wonder if he inspired Farmer Maggot?

The power to turn the mill’s wheel comes from the pool (of course). Dropping down through an inlet, the water drives the wheel around, thereby turning the cogs within and grinding whatever the mill needs to process.

\(Sarehole Mill 1999. The Water Wheel: the force-gatherer for the mill’s engine.\)
(Sarehole Mill 1999. The Water Wheel: the force-gatherer for the mill’s engine.)

Winding my way through the narrow doorways and even narrower stairwells, I managed to find myself in the Mill’s Attic. Despite the fact that I was continuously getting trapped (the bag on my shoulder had a habit of grabbing hold of the nearest beam or doorframe), it was a real pleasure to wander through this old building.

\(Sarehole Mill 1999. The low-strung beams of the Mill’s Attic promised concussion.\)
(Sarehole Mill 1999. The low-strung beams of the Mill’s Attic promised concussion.)

Finally I made it through and felt a little sad that I didn’t have enough time to spend longer at the mill. On my way out I spotted a display of old farming implements and I couldn’t resist a picture.

\(Sarehole Mill 1999. Farming tools display.\)
(Sarehole Mill 1999. Farming tools display.)

The scythe on the wall grabbed my attention immediately. Knowing that Peter Jackson was filming "The Lord of the Rings" must have kept his movie "The Frighteners" in my mind. The scythe reminded me of the Reaper-phantom he used as the villain. That in turn led me directly to the Nazgul. I am optimistic that Jackson will use every inch of his talent for frightening audiences to empower his on-screen Nazgul with the presence they deserve.

And so my tour of the mill concluded.

The Two Towers

After Sarehole Mill I had to catch a bus to a district of Birmingham known as Ladywood. It was here, on Stirling Road in fact, that Tolkien lived during his later childhood and teenage years.

Nowadays Ladywood is a somewhat dubious place. Furtive and suspicious eyes stared at me as I walked (concealing my camera as best I could) along the streets. Unkind faces seemed to surround me — perhaps I was a little too aware of Ladywood’s reputation as an undesirable location: only weeks following my visit, a member of the public was shot or stabbed (I can’t remember which). Looking back, I am dumbfounded that I had the nerve to pull the camera out in the first place.

\(Ladywood 1999. Stirling Road —Tolkien lived here after his mother’s death in 1904.\)
(Ladywood 1999. Stirling Road —Tolkien lived here after his mother’s death in 1904.)

Minas Anor (Minas Tirith)

\(Ladywood 1999. The tower known as Perrott’s Folly.\)
(Ladywood 1999. The tower known as Perrott’s Folly.)

Stirling Road emerges onto another parallel street, and at equal distances either side there stand two towers. This one is Perrott’s Folly and stands at 96 feet.

Built in the Eighteenth Century (1756), this is possibly one of Birmingham’s most bizarre constructions. No longer does it dominate the skyline: grey-faced and dull buildings surround it, and they sully the view. But it is still visible, poking above the thoughtless heads of the more mundane, Twentieth Century architecture.

It is believed that Perrott’s Folly inspired the City of Minas Anor in Gondor, later named Minas Tirith. Though the fictional buildings of Minas Tirith are far more elaborate and grandiose, it is possible to see why Tolkien found this building (and the other tower) quite inspiring.

Minas Ithil (Minas Morgul)

\(Ladywood 1999. The Waterworks Tower.\)
(Ladywood 1999. The Waterworks Tower.)

The other tower Tolkien would have seen on a daily basis is this: the Waterworks Tower of Ladywood.

It is believed that this tower inspired the creation of Minas Ithil, later to be named Minas Morgul when the Witch King takes residence there. As you can see, this tower is not so "humorous" as the Folly, and has a more sinister appearance.

The tower seems to lean in this picture. While I was there, however, I was unaware of the tower leaning in this way and can only assume that it is an archive of perspective.

Judging by the amount of vehicles and people milling around here, I would say that this waterworks facility is still operational, even though the building itself seemed abandoned.

The Two Towers

\(Ladywood 1999. The two towers together.\)
(Ladywood 1999. The two towers together.)

At last we see both towers together. The Waterworks tower is only just visible in the bottom left of the photograph.

In the fictional world of Middle-Earth, the city of Osgiliath straddling the Anduin lay between Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul. In reality, a small portion of Ladywood and a man-made reservoir separate the Folly and the water tower. A road also runs between them.

This was one of the last photographs I took while I was on the hunt for Tolkien’s inspiration. It brought a sombre conclusion to the day’s journey. After this I went with my friends and enjoyed one of Birmingham’s other delights: the taste of a wonderful Balti.

Thus ends Part One.

Part Two: Oxford and Birmingham and the Later Years.

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