It isn’t immediately obvious how Birmingham could have been the inspiration for any aspect of Middle Earth, let alone the rural idyll of the Shire. So I was surprised to find that part of the inspiration for the hobbits and their beautiful home came from Tolkien’s Birmingham upbringing, and you can still visit some of the places that inspired him to this day. Our first stop on the Birmingham ‘Tolkien Trail’ yesterday was Sarehole Mill, a flour mill that was originally part of a rural hamlet inhabited by Tolkien as a child. Now sadly swallowed up by urban sprawl, it’s a surprising place to find amidst Birmingham’s residential suburbs.
It’s hard to imagine it when you see it now, but 250-year-old Sarehole Mill was derelict by the 1960s. Tolkien was among those who gave generous donations to ensure it was saved for future generations, and it’s now not only restored, but in full working order, producing flour that you can buy in the shop and tearoom.
The chap in charge, giving us a brief introduction to the mill before we wandered at our leisure, told us about more recent restoration work, including the £17,000 it cost to rebuild the waterwheel. It was originally made of elm, but thanks to Dutch elm disease, it had to be rebuilt in oak.
On the top floor of the mill we sat down to watch a short video about Tolkien’s associations with the mill. My eye was caught by the immortal first line of the Hobbit emblazoned on the wall – the words that one day simply popped into Tolkien’s head and went on to spark an entire mythology and a new genre of fiction.
In the upper reaches of the building you could see the roof tiles and some of the workings of the machinery. Not to mention several trapdoors, which I studiously avoided walking on – just in case!
This was the view from one of the windows. You could scarcely imagine that we were in Birmingham.
And this was the view from another window, over the millpond.
After exploring the mill itself, we had a walk around the millpond, which offered another perspective on the mill and its inspiration to Tolkien, who wrote that hobbits were creatures who appreciated simple machinery – none more complicated than the watermill, forge bellows and hand loom.
I couldn’t help thinking what a shame it is that the mill is now surrounded by urban development; this scene looks tranquil and rural, but the reality was that a busy main road runs around two edges of the pond, and buses and cars were continuously trundling past and spoiling the atmosphere.
Apparently in Tolkien’s day the pond wasn’t surrounded by trees; hence in older depictions of it you can see swans on the pond. Swans need a longer ‘runway’ from which to take off, hence preferring open water with fewer trees! Now there are just ducks.
The aforementioned noisy traffic was just the other side of the fence you can see in the photo of Lee below. It was still nice to walk through the trees, however; trees were incredibly important to Tolkien, as evidenced by their detailed presence in Lord of the Rings – the various forests (which seem alive), the Ents, the felling of trees at Isengard, and so on. The ‘Party Tree’ under which Bilbo gives his birthday speech was inspired by a willow tree that once stood at Sarehole Mill. At the very end of Lord of the Rings, Sam is distraught to find that the Party Tree has been felled by Saruman’s men during the Scouring of the Shire. This mirrored the real-life fate of Tolkien’s favourite tree at Sarehole Mill, which he was deeply upset to find had been felled for no reason.
After our walk around the mill, we sat out in the mill’s courtyard for some delicious, freshly-baked cake that I’m sure any hobbit would have approved of.
After gorging ourselves on cake, we decided to visit a couple more places on the Tolkien Trail, the first of which was the house in which he lived as a child. It’s just around the corner from Sarehole Mill, and an old photograph showed that it was once on a typical dusty village street. Now, of course, it too has been swallowed up by urban sprawl. Tolkien’s house is the one behind the blossom.
The one on the left! It’s a private house so I just took a quick photo on the way past.
From there, we negotiated Birmingham traffic to get to Edgbaston, where there are two towers that are said to have provided the inspiration for Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul, the two towers of the second book of Lord of the Rings. On the left is Perrott’s Folly, an 18th century former hunting lodge (that reminded us of Broadway Tower) now bizarrely marooned in the middle of the city. On the right is the 19th century tower from Edgbaston Waterworks.
I took the pan pic below to show you how close the two towers are to each other. Amazing to think that Tolkien once saw these and perhaps even wrote them into his astonishing mythology.
Find information about visiting Sarehole Mill here.