Tolkien’s Birmingham: Lickey Hills, Minas Tirith, the Spired City — and Arwen
Every summer, Fr Francis took the Tolkien brothers on holiday to Lyme Regis in Devon. Here he had several friends and Ronald was fascinated by the striking landscape. It was on one such holiday that Fr Francis discovered the true feelings of the boys regarding their life at Stirling Road. Though he continued to give funds to Beatrice Suffield from time to time, even after the boys left, in the summer of 1908, Fr. Francis decided a change of lodging was in order for 16-year-old Ronald and 14-year-old Hilary.
A Mrs Faulkner, who lived at 37 Duchess Road (the dark pink colored area on the map that was last post’s featured picture) agreed to give them board and lodging. She was already well known to some of the Fathers from the musical evenings she held. The household included the family, a maid and another lodger, 19-year-old Edith Mary Bratt (see the featured illustration), who had the bedroom directly beneath that of the boys.
She’d been “born on the wrong side of the blanket”.
This was at a time when such things still mattered, and mattered greatly. She was a product of an affair between Frances Bratt, a governess, and a scion of a shoe manufacturing family by whom she’d been employed. Her family’s shame meant that Frances left her home in Wolverhampton. She eventually settled in Handsworth, somewhat north of Edgbaston (then still another suburb, but to the north of Birmingham’s woodsy area). There, she could raise her daughter with the help of a cousin, Jenny Grove. She belonged to the Grove family (as in Grove’s Dictionary of Music). In that environment, Edith had become a pianist in her own right. Sadly, Frances died while her daughter was still in her teens. The executor decided that lodging with Mrs Faulkner would be the best temporary solution for Edith.
That an orphans’ alliance between Edith and the newly arrived Tolkien brothers was hardly surprising. Especially as Mrs Faulkner appears to have been a rather strict and stern landlady. Much less expected was the degree of warm personal friendship attraction and affection that developed between the effervescent, playful, older Edith and the shy, bookish, younger Ronald.
Perhaps Mrs Faulkner didn’t notice, or maybe it didn’t concern her very much, but the friendship developed during afternoon outings around the town.
They must have visited the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which had just released a world-renowned collection of works for public viewing. Tolkien haunted the place, and was particularly fascinated by its collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. Though the museum itself played no part in creating Middle Earth’s geography, the paintings there certainly played a role in the creation of its characters. Ronald and Edith also visited tea shops; one with a balcony overlooking the pavement was a particular favorite. They would sit and throw sugar lumps into the hats of passers-by, moving to the next table when the sugar bowl was empty.
In the summer of 1909, Tolkien stayed in Fern Cottage in the Lickey Hills, studying for the Oxford scholarship exams he’d take in the autumn.
By now, he and Edith were a couple, if a rather clandestine one. The magical memories of Rednal and the Lickey Hills reasserted their charm. The young couple made visits there together. Unfortunately, the visits were observed by the wife of the caretaker at the Oratory’s country house. She told the Oratory cook at Edgbaston, who, in turn, told Fr Francis. Fr. Francis knew that the only way that Tolkien could go to university, was as a scholarship student. He was determined that Ronald would spend all, or nearly all, of his time at his studies. He was also determined to stop Ronald’s dalliances with Edith, which he regarded as a potentially catastrophic distraction.
He ordered an immediate cessation of their spending any further time together until Ronald reached the age of consent, then twenty-one. Fr Francis had become almost a substitute father to the boys. Though it may seem strange a century later, Ronald’s obedience to him, though grudging in this case, was unquestioning and to the letter. Fr Francis found alternative accommodation for the brothers with the McSherry family. They were Catholic parishioners who lived near the Oratory in Highfield Road (south of the places depicted on the map). In March 1910 Edith accepted an invitation to move to new lodgings in Cheltenham. This put her relationship in suspense – for a while. But Fr Francis didn’t insist on actual cessation of all communication between them. There were still occasional brief exchanges.
Tolkien was hardly idle after the separation.
He helped “line the route” for the coronation parade of King George V in 1910, being posted just outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. He formed a semi-secret society which they called “the “T.C.B.S.”. The initials standing for “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”. They alluded to their tendency to hold court in Barrow’s Sop near the school and for brewing tea illegally in the school library. As Secretary of the School Debating Society he was described in the school magazine as “ever-active” and “ingenious,” and accused of “highwaymanism.” He also enjoyed acting. Yet, Edith was never far from his heart or his thoughts, and he longed desperately to see her again.
The Tolkien brothers also reconciled with their extended family, often getting together with them at Christmas – including one year when Ronald wrote a Christmas play and had them all perform in it. He also enjoyed visiting an aunt’s farm, which she had named “Bag End.”
He continued to spend time in the Lickeys.
Beacon Hill was not far from his usual haunts. It was nearly 1000 feet above sea level, and a signal could be seen as far away Dudley and the Black Country, Bardon Hill in Leicestershire and westward as far as Wales. It had intermittently been used as a place to signal the surrounding areas, either with signal fires or with more sophisticated beacons, from 1588 through the 19th Century (and would be so again during World War II). In conjunction with places in the Lickey Hills carrying the signal further, one cannot visit Beacon Hill and not see it as the site that inspired Minas Tirith.
But where’s the tower?
There is a castle-like toposcope at the crest of Beacon Hill. It was a “castle” without any significant tower. (It was also built in 1923, well after Tolkien’s residence in Birmingham. The one standing there now was rebuilt in the 1980s). But the water tower at Hollymoor hospital is only a short ways down Beacon Hill. It can easily seen looking downhill from the crest. It was built in 1905. Hollymoor was also commandeered as an army hospital during the First World War.
Tolkien came down with trench fever on 27 October 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. He was shipped home to be treated (he never fully recovered). He may well have spent time at Hollymoor, during treatment or convalescence. Look up ward at it from the grounds near the tower, look down on it from the crest of Beacon Hill. Either way, it’s an impressive tower, easily transported in your mind to the crest of Beacon Hill
In the winter of 1909-10 Ronald attempted to gain a place at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, but failed to win the award.
A second attempt in December 1910 led to a Classical Exhibition at Exeter College. That was the start of what was to be an abiding relationship with Newman’s city of gleaming spires. It was a relationship that would also influence Tolkien’s writings.
And at the start of 1913, on the eve of his 21st birthday, Tolkien wrote to Edith from Barnt Green, pouring out his love for her asking her to marry him. She replied that she was already engaged to someone else. However she did agree to meet him at the train station in Cheltenham.
No matter how eloquent Tolkien was in his writings, or in the arguments he used for converting C.S. Lewis from atheism to Christianity, the day he met Edith in Cheltenham must have been the most eloquent day of his his life.
Under an aqueduct near the station, Tolkien talked Edith into breaking off her engagement and returning her ring. He then proposed to her a second time and won her consent. They were married in 1916, with the cheerful blessing of Fr. Francis. They had a son in 1917, whom they named John Francis. Ronald, Edith and their children would often spend some vacation time in Lyme Regis with Fr. Francis.
One day in 1917, Tolkien was still in the army. He was given home service and was stationed at Thirtle Bridge, East Yorkshire. He and Edith went walking in the woods at nearby Roos, and Edith began to dance for him in a thick grove of hemlock. This incident inspired the account of the meeting of Beren and Lúthien in the “Silmarillion”, and he often referred to Edith as his Lúthien. After Edith’s death in November 1971, Tolkien was to write to their son Christopher:
“In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, and I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.”
Whatever “the story” may have been (Tolkien only survived Edith by 21 months), Edith is now believed by many to have also been the inspiration for Arwen Undómiel in “Lord of the Rings”.
No doubt she was the love of his life; he wrote in a poem that they were like ‘two fair trees… utterly entwined…’
Birmingham was no more the inspiration for every part of Middle Earth than Edith was the inspiration for all the female characters. Both the Misty Mountains and Rivendell, for example, were based upon places he’d visited in Switzerland. And heaven only knows how Tolkien’s experiences in the trenches, particularly during the battle of the Somme, influenced subterranean portions of his stories. But there can be no doubt that both Birmingham and Edith were muses that spurred and inspired Tolkien ever onward. At the same time, they also kept him grounded in ways less easy to perceive, even today. As academic and biographer George Sayer put it:
“Without a liking for the homely and domestic, he could not have written The Hobbit, or created Frodo and Sam Gamgee, characters that sustain quite convincingly the story of The Lord of the Rings, and link the high romance to the everyday and the ordinary.”
And in the end, it was perhaps the more mundane aspects of both Edith and Birmingham that gave Tolkien’s stories the humanity and the humility they needed to succeed.
Check out photos of Tolkien in his teens, the Two Towers, the Lickey Hills, Beacon Hill (and its toposcope), downtown Birmingham in Tolkien’s youth and the Hollymoor water tower on my Facebook page. Look for my new novel The Bluebottle Boys, out this autumn. And look for a new — and more lighthearted — series here in July on The Iron Stone.
G. H. McCallum
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