Tolkiens Birmingham, West MidlandsBecause of his lengthy association with Oxford, where he studied at Merton College and became professor of Anglo-Saxon and then English Language and Literature, Tolkien’s Birmingham roots are sometimes overlooked. But his childhood and early education were in England’s second city, and exploring those links is doubly worthwhile: first to throw light on elements of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings; and secondly to demonstrate facets of Birmingham unknown to many.
There is far more to Birmingham than its industrial past: the remodelled city centre is a revelation; the jewellery quarter a fascinating place to shop and explore; and the Balti triangle arguably the best place for a curry in Britain. When JRR Tolkien arrived in the city in 1895 aged just three, originally for a visit with his mother and younger brother to his grandparents in King’s Heath (Ashfield Road), the city was far smaller than today, with a rural feel to its prosperous suburbs. After his father’s sudden death from typhoid the family settled in Hall Green, now firmly embraced by the city, but back then a part of rural Worcestershire . They lived at what is now 264 Wake Green Road (a private residence), but when they arrived in 1896 it was 5, Gracewell Cottages, the name suggesting the countryside setting borne out by Tolkien’s recollections. Opposite the cottage was Sarehole Mill , supposedly the model for Hobbiton’s ‘great mill’. The site, these days a museum complete with cafe, is now a place of pilgrimage for Tolkien fans, included on various tours, and hosting an annual event in May dedicated to the author.
Hall Green then was a small village, a place of greenery and wonder for the young Tolkien with its millpond and willow-lined river, a stark contrast to the veldt he had fleetingly known in South Africa. Rightly proud of its famous son Birmingham has created the Shire Country Park in the area, preserving and providing access to wetland and woodland that stayed in the future author’s mind, thought to be the inspiration for The Old Forest. He and his brother Hilary played in the disused clay quarry and climbed the giant trees here.
Changing circumstances – his mother had little money, and less after relatives cut her off following her conversion to Roman Catholicism – meant that the family regularly moved house as he was schooled at King Edward’s School, then St Philip’s attached to Birmingham Oratory, and back to King Edward’s when a scholarship allowed. King Edward’s moved from its New Street site in 1936, but the chapel Tolkien knew was painstakingly transferred to the new site on Edgbaston Park Road.
Edgbaston is also home to two fascinating buildings that may have inspired The Two Towers: the 96 feet high early Georgian Perrott’s Folly, and the elaborate Victorian waterworks chimney, forming the background to his life when the family moved there in 1902 for easy travel to the Oratory. After his mother died of diabetes in 1904 the Tolkien brothers briefly lived with an uncle in Kings Norton, then spent several years with an aunt in Stirling Road Edgbaston before moving to lodge with a family at 37 Duchess Road Edgbaston, where at just 13 the Hobbit’s creator fell for his future bride, Edith. Disapproval of this relationship led his priestly guardian to move the brothers to a new home in Highfield Road, but they eventually married in 1916, staying briefly at the Plough and Harrow Hotel in Edgbaston during a spell of leave from his service in WWI .
Tolkien retained a love for Birmingham long after his departure for Oxford in 1911: he contributed to the fund which rescued Sarehole Mill from oblivion; and he returned with his own family often. Because of rather than in spite of the changes which have sent the city sprawling outwards since Tolkien’s youth a visit today to Birmingham is of value to Tolkien scholars and fans: it was perhaps in reaction to such changes that the idyllic world of Bilbo Baggins was first conceived; and the city has kept enough of its green spaces to provide a glimpse of what Tolkien sought to convey.
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