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Travel

The locations that inspired J.R.R Tolkien's Middle-Earth

The world was first introduced to Middle-Earth in 1937 when J.R.R Tolkien published his first fantasy novel, The Hobbit. Though this first book was marketed for children, there was nothing juvenile about the world Tolkien had created. Taking inspiration from Nordic, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon mythologies and drawing on his work as a scholar of Old and Middle English, the author created an alternative realm so rich in detail that its existence seems entirely plausible.

This sense that Middle-Earth might exist somewhere just off the map is largely thanks to Tolkien’s use of setting. Just as the writer gave each race their own language and set of customs, he also rooted them in a specific geographical location, allowing him to form a map of warring factions and fragile alliances.

These locations tend to reflect the characteristics of the race that lives there. Take The Shire, for example, which Tolkien imagined as a pre-industrialised version of England populated by rosy-faced villagers, shopkeepers, and farmers. In contrast, the White Mountains are filled with mine-loving Dwarves and, unfortunately for the Fellowship, Goblins.

Tolkien’s Middle-Earth may be populated by strange and unusual creatures, but its various landscapes were nearly always inspired by somewhere the author visited in real life. That’s good news for Tolkien fans. Indeed, these five locations, each of which inspired Tolkien’s world, are open to the public and can be visited all year round.

Moseley Bog

Location: Yardley Wood Rd, Moseley, Birmingham B13 9JX

Tolkien was originally born in South Africa, later moving to Birmingham and then to the Worcestershire village of Sarehole, where he lived with his widowed mother. Memories of this lost childhood idyll would go on to inspire several locations in Middle-Earth.

One of the most notable landscapes from Tolkien’s childhood playground is Moseley Bog, a nature reserve comprised of woodland and wetland. He would later describe the area as a “kind of lost paradise”, where Bronze Age mounds sit beside old millponds and dense thickets of vegetation. Moseley Bog, as well as the nearby Sarehole Mill, which Tolkien was shocked to find on his return to the area many years later, likely inspired certain aspects of Hobbiton and The Shire, especially the harrowing of the Shire scenes in the final pages of The Return of The King.

Puzzlewood

Location: Perrygrove Rd, Coleford GL16 8QB

Forests are an essential feature of Middle-Earth and serve a critical narrative function in Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings books. The Old Forest, Mirkwood and Lothlorien each have a distinct aura, boasting all manner of races, from Ents to Nandorin Elves and more.

Located in the Forest Of Dean, Puzzlewood is characterised by its winding pathways, moss-thatched bridges and unruly rock formations. It doesn’t take much to see why Tolkien found so much inspiration here, least of all because the 14-acre site features one of the best-preserved Pre-Roman Celtic iron mines in the UK. If there was one thing Tolkien loved more than anything, it was Celts.

Malvern Hills

Location: Malvern, WR14 4DG

Nestled in the heart of the English countryside, the sloping Malvern Hills form a natural border between Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire. The perilous landscape they inspired, The White Mountains, serves a similar function in Middle-Earth, dividing the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor. It is in these snow-capped peaks that the Dead Men of Dunharrow, cursed for betraying King Isildur at the end of the second age, spend their days awaiting the return of the true King of Gondor.

Tolkien visited the Malvern Hills with CS Lewis in the 1930s. The pair took the morning train from Oxford, arriving just as the mist clinging to the landscape began to dissipate. Tolkien was especially moved by the area’s bleak beauty and was likely thinking of Malvern’s ridged peaks while he was writing his description of the Fellowship’s passage over the White Mountains.

The Somme Battlefield

Location: Upper reaches of the river Somme, Hauts-de-France, France

When the First World War broke out, Tolkien and his friends from Oxford wasted no time in signing up. After enlisting in Lancashire Fusiliers, the young scholar was sent to the Western Front, where, in 1916, he served as a single officer at the Battle of The Somme.

Shortly after, Tolkien was sent to the Western Front in 1916, where he served as a signal officer at the Battle of the Somme, during which 415,000 British and 650,000 German troops were killed. Tolkien himself lost all but one of his friends from Oxford. While trying to evoke the devastating impact of war on Middle-Earth, the author was reminded of the pockmarked quagmire of the Somme, using the landscape as the inspiration for The Dead Marshes, a sort of purgatory where the souls of the undead lie, preserved in marsh mud. “No sun pierced the clouded sky…a shadowy silent world,” Tolkien writes in The Two Towers, “an endless network of pools, and soft mires, and winding half-strangled water-courses. It was dreary and wearisome. Cold clammy winter still held sway in this forsaken country.”

White Horse Hill

Location: Oxfordshire, England, OS grid: SU301866

White Horse Hill, home to the Uffington White Horse, a 110-metre prehistoric hill figure formed from deep trenches filled with crushed chalk, was familiar to Tolkien and his family. The author went on a hiking tour to visit the Bronze Age figure in 1912, returning many times throughout his years in Oxford.

The neolithic burial mounds around the White Horse appear to have been the model for the Barrow Downs, where Frodo and the other Hobbits are confronted by a Barrow Wight, a sort of wraith that, sadly, doesn’t appear in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord Of The Rings. Opposite White Horse Hill, there’s also Dragon Hill, which Tolkien’s son Christopher believed to be the real Weathertop, the windswept ruin where Frodo is stabbed by a Ringwraith.