Tuesday August 5, 2003
It is a Saturday morning and 10 intrepid students of JRR Tolkien’s works are edging their way along a brambly path in deepest rural Birmingham. “All texts have a context,” says Marjorie Willetts, a teacher from Kinver, in Worcestershire. “What you don’t get from the guidebooks is the taste and smell of a place. Just sniff that Himalayan balsam,” she adds, gesturing towards some pink flowers, the pendulous stems of which are craning over the verdant banks of the River Cole.
There are those who would regard the conjunction of “rural” with “Birmingham” as a contradiction in terms, but Willetts is not one of them. For her, there is an element of nostalgia about today’s jaunt – part of a three-day summer school on the “life and literature of the 20th century’s most popular author”, organised by the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Birmingham University. She was a student at the university in the 1960s, when her medieval studies course included Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf.
She knew about the Cole Valley, a green artery that meanders for 12 miles or so from the edge of the city through to its heart and beyond. And she knew about Moseley Bog, 22 acres of dense woodland three miles or so from the Rotunda. Riverside and Bog were childhood playgrounds of young Ronald Tolkien, who would grow up to become a tweedy Oxford don and a world-famous writer.
That much is not in dispute. What is open to endless discussion is just how much of the surroundings that Tolkien grew up with found their way into his books. “We are academics presenting history in an objective but, hopefully, entertaining way,” says the centre’s lecturer in Birmingham studies, Peter Leather. “How they choose to interpret the facts about these places is up to them.”
Summer schools are a new departure for Birmingham. Among the other courses on offer this year have been 18th-century houses and their interiors, and how to write a play in a week. Still to come is Shakespeare in Stratford.
The idea for Tolkien in Birmingham came from Leather himself. He is an archaeologist with a passionate interest in buildings, ancient and modern, who prefers to leave discussions on the finer points of Tolkien’s prose to colleagues in literature and creative writing. Very sensible in the circumstances, as it transpires that he has read neither The Hobbit nor The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
He did, though, delve deeply into Humphrey Carpenter’s biography in the run-up to the writer’s centenary in 1992. “It led me to the archives to harden up the Tolkien reference points in Birmingham for a column I write for a local newspaper,” he recalls. “As a result, I was asked to be the guide on the Tolkien Society‘s centenary tour.”
Many photographs were taken on that tour of a coal cellar in a grim street in Ladywood – one of eight Birmingham properties where Tolkien lived between 1895 and 1911, when he departed for Oxford. “Somebody seemed to think it might have been the inspiration for the caves of somewhere-or-other,” says Leather.
We will see it for ourselves later this afternoon. For the time being, though, we are on the banks of the River Cole approaching a bridge that wouldn’t look out of place in AA Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood. Our guide for this stage, Peter Bennett, of the Cole Valley Conservation Group, has no qualms about linking local landmarks with the fruits of Tolkien’s imagination. Using an ordnance survey map from the mid-1880s, he highlights Tritteford millpond as the likely inspiration for the Long Lake of Escaroth. Nearby is Sarehole Mill, lovingly restored by Birmingham city council in 1969 and now something of a shrine to Tolkien.
Competing gamely with a road drill employed on the pavement outside, Bennett quotes from a rare interview given by the author in 1966, in which he reminisces about his early childhood in what was then a Worcestershire hamlet.
“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 [Tritteford]. I was brought up in considerable poverty, but I was happy running about in that country…”
The “lost paradise” has long since been encircled by the boundaries of Birmingham. But the house to which the recently widowed Mabel Tolkien moved with her two young sons in 1896 is still there, in Wake Green Road, just across the road from Sarehole Mill. It remains a sturdy, late-Victorian villa with a black and white frontage and lace curtains that twitch slightly as we gather on the opposite kerb. Peter Leather is evidently sceptical about the “considerable poverty” in Tolkien’s upbringing. “As you can see,” he says, “this is hardly a slum. And it was brand new in 1896.”
In the previous year, Mabel and her sons had been visiting her parents, the Suffields, when a telegram from South Africa curtly informed her that her husband had died with rheumatic fever. JRR would have been three during what proved to be an extended holiday at the home of his maternal grandparents in Ashfield Road, Kings Heath, one of the Victorian suburbs that were spreading rapidly through south Birmingham. “Joseph Chamberlain led the way,” Leather tells us from his seat at the front of our coach as we pass by the old city boss’s red-brick mansion. The Suffields’ semi is far less grand, but substantial enough and much changed over the past 108 years. A caravan stands in the front garden and a satellite dish hovers over a large, modern porch.
We are parked across the road, musing about the changes, when the young woman sitting in front of me suddenly reveals: “I used to clean that house when I was a teenager. I was living in Westfield Road at the time, and it turns out that the Tolkiens lived there for a short while as well.”
Indeed they did. Today the house has a bright magenta front door and a prominent burglar alarm. The young woman introduces herself as Georgia Nash, a day service officer with Shropshire county council. She had remained blissfully unaware of her previous proximity to two of her literary hero’s homes until the first day of the summer school. “I didn’t start reading Tolkien until five years ago, by which time we’d moved to Welshpool,” she says. “And I only picked up the books in the first place because I heard that, like me, he’d come from Birmingham.”
After lunch, we tour the Tolkien sites on the borders of Edgbaston and Ladywood. Mabel moved her boys nearer to the city centre in 1902 so Ronald would be closer to his new school, King Edward’s, and she would be closer to her church. Much to the chagrin of her Baptist parents, she had converted to Catholicism, and Cardinal Newman’s Oratory was a source of inspiration in her final years. A century on, the Oratory remains an extraordinarily imposing piece of Rome dropped into the middle of Brum.
A stark contrast, for sure, with the mean streets of Ladywood, where we head to observe at close quarters two tall structures which some Tolkien enthusiasts believe to be the inspiration for the Two Towers of Gondor. One is an ornate Victorian water pumping station, the other a folly built in 1758 by an eccentric landowner called John Perrott. By the time we have climbed 139 steps to the folly’s summit and returned to ground level, the prospect of liquid refreshment at the elegant Plough and Harrow on the Edgbaston side of the border is more than welcome.
According to a blue plaque on the hotel’s ivy-clad frontage, Tolkien spent a night here in 1916 before embarking for the Western Front. He made it back to Blighty, but not to Birmingham. Apart from a short spell lecturing at Leeds University, the 20th century’s most popular author spent the rest of his life in Oxford.