Fans of Lord of the Rings might not automatically associate the rural landscape of The Shire with Britain’s buzzing second city, but the fact is that Tolkien grew up in Birmingham, and when he came to write his books he peppered them with local settings. In particular, The Shire was heavily based on the south-eastern suburb of Moseley, a green, leafy and prosperous area where the author spent much of his childhood, but the family moved several times and other settings have crept in too.
Some of these are better known than others. It’s fairly widely known, for instance, that Ted Sandyman’s mill in Hobbiton was based on Sarehole Mill, one of only two working watermills left in Birmingham.
The mill sits near the banks of the River Cole, with its own large mill pond, and is a picturesque building dating from around two hundred years ago, although there has been a mill on the site for nearly five hundred years.
The wild tangled area of woodland and wetland beyond the mill known as Moseley Bog also features in the book since it inspired the Old Forest, the dark and terrifying stretch of woodland where the trees think and move, and all paths lead to the forest’s evil heart.
Tolkien regularly played in Moseley Bog as a child, and the experience clearly stayed with him for life!
Less well known features include The Ivy Bush pub, where the hobbits used to drink. There’s been a pub called The Ivy Bush on the Hagley Road in Edgbaston for many years, only a few hundred yards up the road from where the Tolkien family lived. The pub, an interesting old corner building which used to have a lovely painting of an Ivy Bush on the outside wall, is such a well-known landmark that it’s given its name to both the road junction and the surrounding area.
The Two Towers of the book’s second volume were almost certainly based on Perrott’s Folly and the tower of the Edgbaston Waterworks, which stare out at each other across the city’s rooftops near the shores of Edgbaston Reservoir. Although built at different times, both would have already been in existence when the family moved to nearby Stirling Road.
Perrott’s Folly (in the foreground of the picture) is thought to have inspired Minas Tirith and the waterworks Minas Morgul! The third tower, Orthanc, may well have been inspired by Birmingham University’s Edwardian Italianate clock tower, which Tolkien would likely have seen being built.
And the Weathertop hills? Well, hold a mirror up to Tolkien’s description of them and you have the Malvern Hills, a range of low hills only about 30 miles south of Birmingham in the county of Worcestershire. The flat-topped Amon Sul, with its ring of ramparts, is almost certainly based on the Herefordshire Beacon, which sits at one end of the range and still bears visible traces of an Ancient British hillfort.
More widely, the story of the Scouring of The Shire is based on Tolkien’s own experiences of inter-war development. Moseley was developed in Victorian and Edwardian times and at that time was on the edge of the city, with only green fields and small villages beyond. In the 1920s, though, vast tracts of land were being built up to form the suburbs of Hall Green and Shirley and the destruction of this ancient landscape clearly left its mark on the author.
The link between Tolkien and Birmingham (and its surrounding area) isn’t as well publicised as it might be. There’s a Tolkien Trail in Moseley, which takes in the mill, the bog, and the former family home in Wake Green Road. One of Moseley’s many parks, which runs along the banks of the River Cole near the mill, has been renamed The Shire Country Park. And just lately there’s been a campaign to have a statue of an ent (designed by the author’s great-nephew Tim Tolkien) erected on Moseley village green. Even so, it’s one of Birmingham’s best kept secrets, and one which deserves to be more widely known. The city has an undeserved reputation as a sea of 1960s concrete but is actually still full of attractive hidden corners like these.