The UK locations that inspired JRR Tolkien
The Academy Award-winning Lord of the Rings film trilogy celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, and, while it's common knowledge the epic franchise was shot in New Zealand, what’s less well known is that JRR Tolkien’s original books were inspired by Britain’s very own green and pleasant land. Here The Lord of the Rings authority Ian Nathan – in collaboration with other Tolkien experts – reveals the places in Britain that inspired the beloved author’s fantasy world to rule them all
Long before New Zealand became the ersatz Middle-earth, JRR Tolkien found inspiration for his famous novels, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, deep in the English countryside. As John Garth, author of The Worlds of JRR Tolkien, explains, this was less about locating a carbon copy, but rather a process of “adaptation”. The author stored things up. Mulled them over. Years passed before real places were reborn as Elven forests or hobbity inns.
Quantock Hills, Somerset
This stretch of hills, offering views all the way to Glastonbury Tor, was the location of a walking holiday Tolkien took with the Inklings (his Oxford club of likeminded intellectuals), including fellow author CS Lewis. This was just ahead of writing The Lord of the Rings in 1937, and the oak woodland and rolling parklands, featuring Bronze Age barrows, provided the landscape for the hobbits escaping The Shire. The sequence in which they take a short cut to evade the Black Riders, grumbling that this means missing out on a favourite pub, “was such a Tolkien-Lewis episode,” laughs Garth.
Lyme Regis, Dorset
Tolkien holidayed with his young family in the coastal town, and it is thought Umbrella Cottage, where they stayed, gave us Bag End and various local pubs brewed up The Green Dragon. Devon and Dartmoor, through which the author travelled, have provided inspiration for Alan Lee, the celebrated artist whose book covers have so defined our image of Tolkien’s world. “I feel that the Shire should look a little like Devon and Dorset,” he says. “It’s the way that the villages and farmhouses are tucked away in the folds of hills, almost looking like extrusions from the soil.” He continues, “A team of Devon thatchers went to New Zealand to create an authentic roof for the Green Dragon in Hobbiton.” For the mist-enclosed Barrow Downs of the book, Lee turned to the “granite megaliths and tombs” of Dartmoor. Down the coast from Lyme Regis into Cornwall, Lamorna Cove hosted a Tolkien family break in 1932, where he described stormy seas like “billowed cavalry”, which became the flash flood foaming with white horses at the Ford of Bruinen.
The bucolic Shire in Middle-earth was based on rural Devon and Dorset
Gandalf the Grey strides by the White Mountains, inspired by a walking tour of Switzerland
Frodo encounters the giant spider Shelob – memories of South African tarantulas?
The Elven town of Rivendell has similarities to the Vale of Evesham
The hobbits leave the Elven sanctuary of Rivendell, inspired by the Avon in Evesham
The Argonath, Pillars of the Kings, invoke the Colossus of Rhodes
Faringdon Folly roused visions of what became the impenetrable tower of Orthanc in Isengard
The Vale of Evesham, Worcestershire
Another source for The Shire and for the secret valley of Rivendell, this was where Tolkien regularly visited his brother Hilary. Bredon Hill, in particular, provided inspiration for The Hill at Hobbiton. On the way, Tolkien would have seen Broadway Tower in the Cotswolds, stirring ideas for his “seeing towers” of Orthanc, Weathertop and Cirith Ungol. He would also stop in the market town of Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire, where the yew-flanked church doors bear a striking resemblance to Durin’s gate to the mines of Moria.
Moseley Bog, Birmingham
Found on heritage walks, this nature reserve (part of the Shire Country Park) is as near as we come to Tolkien’s “lost paradise” of Sarehole, the village where he grew up and foundation stone for Hobbiton, long since consumed by greater Birmingham. Hobbiton “was more or less a Warwickshire village at the time of Diamond Jubilee in 1897,” says Garth. Significantly, Sarehole Mill, which stood only 300 yards from Tolkien’s front door and served as the original for the Old Mill at Hobbiton, has been restored. Dense local woodland became the Old Forest and the Mirkwood of The Hobbit.
The heartland where Tolkien spent most of his adult life found its way into the books almost by osmosis. Local river Cherwell is echoed in his watercolour of Bilbo Baggins and the barrels bobbing down Mirkwood’s Forest River in The Hobbit. The Vale of the White Horse provided a vivid landscape and sigil for the people of Rohan, while White Horse Hill near Uffington was the basis for Weathertop. Built in 1935, Faringdon Folly, with its spiked crown, roused visions of what became the tower of Orthanc. Tolkien, explains Garth, had originally imagined it as a tower to the West of the Shire where Gandalf is besieged by the Black Riders. “Then he changed his mind, and the wizard is imprisoned by Saruman at Isengard in what now looks like Orthanc. You see the progression of things, his process of adaptation.”
Ethelfleda’s Mound, Warwick Castle
Crowned with a distinctive cluster of trees and named after King Alfred’s daughter, this Saxon mound in the grounds of the mediaeval castle was inspiration for Caras Galadhon, home to the Elven Queen Galadriel in the forest of Lothlórien. “He identified as a West-Midlander,” says Lee, “and Warwick, in particular, exerted a strong pull.” The elm forests of the surrounding countryside provided a more general look for the fading Elven realm.
This is where Tolkien served on home duty from the Somme, having recovered from trench fever in 1917 (an experience paralleled by Frodo, stung by the great spider Shelob, falling into a death-like coma). And it was near Roos, in a forest glade, that Edith Tolkien danced for her husband amid the flowers, source for the ancient tale of forbidden love between Beren and Lúthien (as sung by Viggo Mortensen in the extended film edition of The Fellowship of the Ring) and, in turn, Aragorn and Arwen’s romance in The Lord of the Rings.
The Black Country, West Midlands
On a darker note, this heavily built-up region of the West Midlands came to represent the blight of 19th- century industrialisation to Tolkien, and was translated into the pits of Isengard, Mordor and the almost satirical chapter of The Lord of the Rings entitled ‘The Scouring of the Shire’. “The Black Country was a byword for an area that has been despoiled,” says Garth. “Living conditions were horrendous. Tolkien felt very strongly about factories. How they degraded people.”
Cheddar Gorge, Somerset
The famous limestone caves burrowing into the Mendip Hills, which Tolkien visited while on his honeymoon in 1916 before returning during World War II, were directly cited by the author in reference to the Glittering Caves at Helm’s Deep. In The Lord of the Rings, he describes “waterfalls of stone”, recalling the profusions of stalactites, stalagmites and calcified pillars at Cheddar.
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