There’s a corner of my bookcase where I keep some books that have traveled with me since I was a small explorer. Their corners turn up, their spines have cracks and the page edges are foxed. But inside lie tales of journeys rendered, adventures lived and scars of the road. One set was gifted to me by my stepfather more than forty years ago, and I have read those books time and again. Now I have followed in at least some of the footsteps of their author, J.R.R. Tolkien. Welcome to Middle Earth, and its real life inspiration. Come with me to explore The Shire, and the places that inspired Tolkien’s tales of small folk with big hearts. I can’t promise you hobbits, but I’m sure there’s an adventure waiting to be had.
“This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien in Birmingham
The young JRR moved from South Africa to take up residence in Sarehole, at the time a village in Worcestershire, close to Birmingham. While Birmingham itself has changed more than a little since Tolkien’s childhood, you’d be surprised to find how much of his inspiration remains. Although Birmingham, England’s second city and a vibrant cultural hub, has grown to accommodate more than a million people, it has preserved many of the places that young Tolkien enjoyed. Come with me and find inspiration in Tolkien’s favourite places, now part of Birmingham’s Tolkien Trail.
Sarehole Mill, Birmingham
I live not far from the places that sparked the imagination of young Tolkien. And to be frank, it’s not difficult to see how they could have kindled the fires of magical tales. For anyone not familiar with The Hobbit, and the trilogy that makes up Lord of the Rings, Tolkien created a world peopled, or perhaps I should say hobbited, with small beings, who inhabit an area called The Shire. Tolkien’s earliest inspiration came from a place close to his home: Sarehole Mill.
“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
Today this is still a working mill, situated not far from the centre of Birmingham, where its wheel works on the River Cole. It is run by the Birmingham Museums Trust, and was once used by Matthew Boulton, one the great thinkers of Birmingham. Boulton, a member of the Lunar Society, used the mill for scientific experiments in metal working. Now restored, the mill can be visited and you can try its traditionally ground flour. There’s a bread oven outside which uses the flour ground on the site. Millers work on Wednesday and Sunday if there is sufficient water in the River Cole to drive the wheel.
Tolkien lived just three hundred yards away from the mill at the turn of the century. He stated that he used it as his inspiration for the Mill at Hobbiton.
“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.” Tolkien interviewed in 1966 by John Ezard of The Guardian
You can visit Sarehole Mill from Wednesday to Sunday all summer, and it is also open on public holidays. The Mill hosts all kinds of activities from food fairs to wildlife trails and art. There is also a deli and cafe on site.
Bilbo Baggins ran “as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water and then on for a mile or more.”
This doesn’t sound wildly attractive, but I can assure you that it’s serenely beautiful. Make your way through any of the Bog’s entrances, and you’re immediately in a new world, way beyond the urbanisation of central Birmingham. Now a nature reserve, Moseley Bog includes Bronze Age burnt mounds, which are scheduled ancient monuments. It’s been carefully crossed by wooden steps and paths, making the delights of its interior very accessible.
The Coldbath Brook which runs through the site used to feed a reservoir to supply the millpond at Sarehole Mill. Now drained, the whole area is a vibrant woodland, full of birdsong and rustling leaves.
Tolkien acknowledged the influence of the bog in his creation of the ancient forests in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Listen carefully, and you might hear a mighty Ent on the move. This is Tolkien’s Old Forest, a wild wood, and the home of Tom Bombadil.
Moseley Bog is open daily and you can find out how to access the site here. It is a short walk from Sarehole Mill.
“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.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
The Shire Country Park
You’ll find the Shire Country Park very close to Edgbaston Cricket Ground and opposite Sarehole Mill. It runs alongside the River Cole for four miles from Small Heath to Yardley Wood. Stand with Sarehole Mill to your back, cross the road, and you’ll be facing the sign for The Shire.
The sign is deceptive, as you’d never guess just how much there is to explore within. If, like me, you can never resist turning just one more corner, then you’ll find it difficult to quit once on the path. It runs alongside the small and gently flowing River Cole, meandering and turning. Sometimes you are on the river bank. At other times, there are trees between you and the river, and you can hear the teasing sound of its passage some distance to the side.
You can find some evidence of human presence: very lucky houses backing onto the river, a meadow with homes beyond, and a few structures of woven branches. The woodland is full of willows, alders and oaks. But mostly it’s you, the butterflies, the birds and the trees. The million inhabitants of Birmingham around you might as well be on another planet.
“I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
The Shire Country Park consists of wetlands, grasslands, woodland and heath. It’s not uncommon to see mallards, moorhens and even herons. Get very, very lucky and you might even see a flash of turquoise as a kingfisher passes. I’ve not yet managed that, but I’m ever hopeful. You’ll also find foxes and bats.
The pretty ford at Green Lane is one of the few fords on the River Cole, and would have been known to Tolkien. If you visit in season, don’t forget a bag for blackberrying.
The Shire Country Park is open daily. You can find out more about it here.
“If most of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold it would be a merrier world.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
More Of The Shire
Tolkein’s inspiration for The Shire didn’t stop in Birmingham. It is said that the whole expanse of Worcestershire across to the Malverns also provided the context for the land of happy small wanderers.
“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
At the time Tolkien lived in Birmingham, Sarehole was a Worcestershire village, although now subsumed into the area of Hall Green within the city. So it is not surprising that Tolkien drew inspiration from Worcestershire itself, from the rolling hills at Clent and Lickey, and from the majestic Malverns further to the south. You can even visit the real Bag End, the farm that made its way into fiction.
The Two Towers
Tolkien lived for a while with his aunt at Stirling Road in Edgbaston, just outside the city centre. Here he found inspiration in two towers, situated very close to his aunt’s house.
The first is Perrott’s Folly, built in 1758 by John Perrott. It was originally part of a hunting lodge, and remains as a crenelated gothic tower, some 30 metres tall. In the nineteenth century it was one of the first weather recording stations in the country. Now it nestles within the inner city development of Birmingham.
We’ve explored many more follies across the UK, and you can read about them here.
The second is the ornate later Victorian tower of Edgbaston Waterworks, built to a design by Chamberlain around 1870. The two towers are said to have inspired Minas Morghul and Minas Tirith, the Two Towers of Gondor, responsible for the second volume of Lord of the Rings.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
More of Tolkien in Birmingham
There are plenty more places in Birmingham to explore if you want to complete the Tolkien Trail. The Oratory, situated near Five Ways at the city end of Hagley Road, was regularly attended by the Tolkien family.
Tolkien was educated at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, where he was librarian and secretary of the debating and literary societies. The original Pugin-designed New Street building was demolished in 1936, but a corridor was saved to form the new school chapel. You can take a guided tour of the chapel on Friday afternoons during term time, but should check in advance to see that a tour is available.
Near The Oratory you’ll find Highfield Road, where Tolkien’s guardian secured him lodgings in an attempt to break up his growing relationship with Edith Bratt. The success of this measure can be seen by the later visit of the now married couple to the Plough and Harrow Hotel in 1916.
“Edith and Ronald took to frequenting Birmingham teashops, especially one which had a balcony overlooking the pavement. There they would sit and throw sugar lumps into the hats of passers-by, moving to the next table when the sugar bowl was empty. … ” From Tolkien’s biography
The University of Birmingham was requisitioned as a military hospital during the First World War, with many buildings such as The Great Hall becoming wards. Tolkien was brought to the hospital with trench fever in November 1916, and remained there for six weeks, recovering slowly after discharge. The brightly lit clock face of the Chamberlain Tower, the most familiar landmark of the university, may also have inspired him. It is thought to be the roots of the idea for the scary Eye of Sauron. You can visit the University Great Hall during office hours.
“I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay, small acts of kindness and love.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien at the New Library of Birmingham
The beautiful and distinctive new Library of Birmingham hosts a variety of materials relating to Tolkien. Once you’ve explored the roof terrace, the hidden garden and the talkative lifts, head to the Level 4 Archives and Heritage section to discover more.
The Library links directly to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, where you’ll find an interesting blue plaque. It commemorates one Dr J Sampson Gamgee, local surgeon and creator of the Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund. Gamgee’s widow lived opposite Tolkien’s aunt. You may recognise Sam Gamgee as Frodo’s companion in Lord of the Rings.
“Little by little, one travels far.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
Explore More in Birmingham
If we’ve given you a taste for the unexpected in Birmingham, then check out our local’s guide to England’s second city. It really is a place full of unexpected treasures alongside the odd hobbit, ent and elf. For more on the Tolkien Trail, you can download this useful guide.
“Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
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“Home is behind, the world ahead.” –J.R.R. Tolkien