From fantasy to real: touring Tolkien’s Birmingham

Unless you’ve spent the last few years living in a Smial, you will have noted that the works of J. R. R. Tolkien have been more apparent than ever thanks to Peter Jackson’s recent big screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the last few months, the release of the first part of The Hobbit trilogy saw Jackson return to Middle Earth, once again encouraging people all over the world to look more closely at Tolkien's books. 

© Ben Goodwin - The Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clocktower

Tolkien grew up in the Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath and later Sarehole (now Hall Green). He said that the years spent in Sarehole were the happiest of his youth. His time in Birmingham clearly influenced his famous fantasy novels and Tolkien fans today can explore key locations across the city that shaped the ideology and setting of his stories.

Many of the structures and locations across Birmingham are open during Heritage Open Days or host special events and exhibitions for the once-a-year initiative. So, why not theme your Heritage Open Days trip this year around the works and world of J. R. R. Tolkien and explore Middle Earth from the heart of the West Midlands? To help you plan, below are my Top Five Tolkien Sights to visit in Birmingham:

5. Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clocktower

Known affectionately as Old Joe, the world’s tallest freestanding clock-tower is situated right in the heart of the Edgbaston campus of the University of Birmingham. According to popular legend, Tolkien was influenced heavily by this 100-metre high clock-tower in his design of the stone tower Orthanc, the black tower of Isengrad from The Lord of the Rings.

4. Birmingham Oratory

Often referred to as the ‘Little Rome in Birmingham’ because of its Baroque design, the Birmingham Oratory was the place where Tolkien worshipped for about seven years. Following the death of Tolkien’s mother, Mabel, as a result of acute complications of diabetes, Father Francis Xavier Morgan from this Roman Catholic Church took custody of the 12-year old Tolkien and his brother Hilary.

3. Perrot’s Folly and Edgbaston Waterworks Tower

The Edgbaston landmarks of Perrot’s Folly and the Waterworks Tower are thought to have inspired Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith, the Two Towers of Gondor, after which the second volume of The Lord of the Rings is named.

2. Moseley Bog

Moseley Bog nature reserve was Tolkien’s childhood playground and he stated that the site inspired the Old Forest, where Frodo Baggins and company meet Tom Bombaldil in The Fellowship of the Ring.

1. Sarehole Mill

The 200-year-old Sarehole Mill, referred to as 'the great mill' in The Hobbit, stands on the River Cole, which rises near King's Norton and runs close-by. It is said that Tolkien based the bad-tempered miller in The Lord of the Rings on the miller there. In fact, Tolkien said that the village of Sarehole was the model for the Shire, home of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Sarehole Mill are strong advocates of Heritage Open Days and in 2012, their special activities included a 'behind the scenes' tour, a historic guided walk along the River Cole and, of course, a Tolkien-themed walk.

Check out what's on over Heritage Open Days later in July when the online programme for 2013 will go live. But if you can't wait till then, there's nothing stopping you from retracing the paths of Tolkien's childhood in Birmingham at any other time of the year. Go there and back again, I'd say.