Lost Moseley: Paradise of Sarehole

Tuesday, 27th October 2015

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Sarehole Mill
Sarehole Mill

In early September, Middle Earth Festival will take place at Sarehole Mill and feature events for Lord of the Rings aficionados such as archery and medieval combat displays.

In reality, the battle for the heart of Sarehole took place in the1960s with a campaign to save the mill from demolition, and was supported by former resident J.R.R Tolkien, who had already seen the invasion upon nature of the area he once described as “a kind of lost paradise”, and the real Hobbiton and Shire.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien moved to 5 Gracewell cottages, now 264 Wake Green Road, and then a country lane within the hamlet of Sarehole, in 1896 with his widowed mother and younger brother Hilary.

Sarehole was a rural pasture of a few houses with the River Cole snaking through it, and it was a vast change from dry and dusty Bloemfontein in South Africa where Tolkien was born and spent the first three years of his life.

The hamlet was not served by electricity, gas or public transport and Sarehole Hall, near the junction of Wake Green Road and Willersley Road, had existed from the Middle Ages. The medieval timber-framed farmhouse of Little Sarehole stood near Coleside Avenue and survived until the 1930s. The family lived at Gracewell until 1900 when they moved to 214 Alcester Road, but these few years of play and discovery at Sarehole were described by Tolkien as “the longest-seeming and most formative of my life”.

Tolkien recalled the details of the hamlet with obvious affection: ‘There was an old mill that really did grind corn, with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill. I always knew it would go – and it did.’

The lost mill that Tolkien laments is likely to have been Lady’s Mill and the sandpit was located next to Gracewell cottages. The dell was Moseley Bog that lay just behind the family home, and this was part of the old Forest of Arden, an area forever connected with the most famous of writers from the English Midlands.Tolkien was often reluctant to reveal the locations that had inspired his work but he admitted the debt he owed to Sarehole: ‘I was brought up in considerable poverty, but I was happy running about in that county. I took the idea of the hobbits from the village people and the children.’

The writer reflected on the changes to Sarehole in the foreword to the 1966 edition of Lord of the Rings trilogy: ‘The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten.’ Maps of 1900 show the mill to be surrounded by fields and farmland but by 1930 the rural nature had been blighted by development. The mill is also listed as “disused”, the millers having moved out in 1919.

Tolkien came back to visit Sarehole in 1933, halfway through the writing of The Hobbit (the book was started in 1930 and published in 1937) and was upset by the changes he found to his childhood home. ‘The old mill still stands…but the crossing beyond the now fenced-in pool, where bluebell lane ran down into the mill lane, is a now a dangerous crossing alive motors and red lights.’ He was also distressed at the condition of the mill and it would continue to decay until the 1960s when a public appeal was launched in 1965 to raise £20,000 for restoration. Tolkien donated to the cause and the mill, said to have inspired the mills of The Hobbit and of Lord of the Rings, reopened on 12th July, 1969.

Thanks to the various interviews, letters and diaries, we have a good record of the changes that took place in Sarehole, changes that clearly had deep allegorical and emotional consequences for the writer.

In the biography by Humphrey Carpenter, it is suggested that Tolkien had seen the family’s move from Sarehole, and its subsequent development, as a metaphor for a ‘fallen world’ that would take his mother, leaving him orphaned at the age of 12, and the landscape of his childhood. ‘I could draw you a map of every inch of it,’ reflected the man who labelled himself a ‘West-Midlander by blood’ and a ‘Birmingham man’, despite his troubled feelings towards industrialisation and the city paving its way over the heaven on earth that he loved ‘with an intensity of love’.

The West Country is the ground and ancient monuments of Thomas Hardy’s work, and the lost hamlet of Sarehole is Tolkien’s, but the characters of the former would often crash and burn at the mercy, or lack of it, of a changing yet still moral society, as did poor Jude and Tess. Thankfully, the brave hobbits of Tolkien’s dual worlds are usually winners of faith, as was the case with the victory in saving Sarehole Mill, the surviving heart of the Shire.

With thanks to Sarehole Mill, ‘JRR Tolkien: A Biography’ by Humphrey Carpenter, ‘A History of Birmingham Places’ – William Dargue and The Guardian archive.
Middle Earth Festival takes place on 5th & 6th September – check www.middleearthfestival.co.uk for full details.