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Flickr: Andrew Kloiber

How Birmingham inspired J.R.R. Tolkien

Written by
Robin Valk

Considering the tidal wave of money generated by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings film franchises, it's surprising how little the city of Birmingham has done to cash in on J.R.R. Tolkien's legacy.

Birmingham and the wider West Midlands provided much inspiration for Tolkien, as you'll discover if you walk the Tolkien Trail or hop on the Tolkien / Hobbit Bus Tour during the Middle Earth Weekend on Sunday May 10. Here's a taste of what you'll discover…

Tolkien grew up here, living at 5 Gracewell (now 64 Wake Green Road) and then in King's Heath, and spent a lot of time in Hall Green, where Moseley Bog – believed to be Fangorn and the Old Forest in The Lord of the Rings – and Sarehole Mill captured his imagination.

Moseley BogRobin Valk

Both are now part of what has been named the Shire Country Park. Sarehole Mill, which was the inspiration for The Old Mill at Hobbiton, even has a blue plaque.

Sarehole MillRobin Valk

South of here, his aunt had a farm called Bag End, which any self-respecting Tolkien fan will be familiar with.

A couple of miles north on Waterworks Road, just beyond the Birmingham Oratory, where Father Francis Xavier Morgan was appointed Tolkien's guardian after his mother's death, you'll find Perrott's Folly and the chimney of Edgbaston Pumping Station. Speculation is rife that they inspired Tolkien's Two Towers of Gondor.

Perrott's FollyFlickr: Antonio Roberts

Edgbaston Pumping StationFlickr: Tony Hisgett

And what of Mordor? The Black Country is five miles away. In Tolkien's time it was a sulphurous maze of coal mines, ironworks, steel mills, canals and railways, running full blast around the clock. The skies only cleared on Sunday when they shut the furnaces down.

So polluted was it that the average life expectancy was said to be less than 17 years. Here's a 19th-century painting, Coalbrookdale By Night by Loutherburg, of a furnace in the Ironbridge gorge, 30 miles further west, which might give you an idea of the area's Mordor-like qualities.

Coalbrookdale by Night by Philipp Jakob Loutherbourg

Some of the city's most famous landmarks left an impression on Tolkien, too.

The University of Birmingham was used during World War I as a military hospital and a young Tolkien was treated there for trench fever. And next door to the Library of Birmingham – which holds original works relating to Tolkien – is a plaque commemorating local surgeon Dr J. Sampson Gamgee. And the name of Frodo's companion in The Lord of the Rings? That's right, Sam Gamgee.

Near Sarehole Mill there's also a relatively new Tolkien-related stop-off: the Hungry Hobbit.

In 2011, the café got a stroppy letter from the Saul Zaentz Company, which now owns worldwide rights to the movie franchise, including, of course, the word 'Hobbit'. The café was told to stop using the word.

Saul Zaentz has form in this area: 20 years earlier he tied up Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty in litigation for years, preventing Fogerty from singing his own songs. Fogerty wrote a savage song in protest: Zantz Can't Dance. Fogerty got his way in the end. And the Hungry Hobbit café is still in business, with no name change. Yay.

Robin Valk

Where have we missed?

Read about Birmingham's most desolate place on Time Out Birmingham.

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