From tales of Middle Earth to a single storey in Dorset
You won’t see hobbits – or even a gnome – in J R R Tolkien’s bungalow. Ross Clark reports
Middle Earth and 19 Lakeside Road, Branksome Park, Poole, are about as far removed from each other as it is possible to imagine. The former is an exotic land of lofty peaks and stygian canyons inhabited by elves, trolls and wizards. The latter is a drab, 1960s, suburban bungalow with stone cladding and a double garage. The connection is JRRTolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, who bought the bungalow as a retirement home in 1968.
According to Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, Tolkien was reluctant to give up high table at Oxford to move to Poole, but did so to please his less academic and increasingly disabled wife, Edith. She loved the resort, having frequently come to stay at the nearby Miramar Hotel while he was away on business. While she settled enthusiastically into the social circle of wealthy retired folk and enjoyed walking to the beach from the back gate of the bungalow, Tolkien wrote to his son, Christopher, of his frustrations with his new life: “I fed quite well. And yet; and yet. I see no men of my own kind.”
Still, Tolkien made the most of life in Poole, spending much time in the spare bedroom working on The Silmarillion, a book he had begun in 1917 but which was not published until 1977, four years after his death. He turned the garage into a library and received friends and colleagues; though not, thankfully, WH Auden, who, in a public lecture, described Tolkien’s previous house in Oxford as ‘‘hideous’’, and may well have been even less polite about the Poole bungalow.
When Edith died in 1971, Tolkien lost little time in selling up and moving back to Oxford. The buyer was Woolf Frankel, a gearbox engineer for Vauxhall cars, and his wife, Rose. Their son, Stephen, recalls: “My father and I had been looking for a holiday home in Poole. He phoned to say he had found a bungalow which belonged to JRRTolkien. I said it doesn’t matter who it belongs to; if it’s nice, let’s buy it.”
The Frankels paid £23,000, plus an extra £1,000 for the Adamstyle fireplace and corner unit. Although Tolkien lived at Lakeside Road for only three years,
his time there has left its mark. “People are always driving by or knocking on the door,” says Stephen. “One day I was doing some refurbishment, works which involved knocking down a wall. Some American Tolkien fans turned up. They spent half a day with us, and took some bricks home with them. When they got home they sent us photographs of their cars, with hobbits on them. I’ve still got the carpets and curtains which were here in Tolkien’s day. I suppose I could cut them up and sell them on the internet, but I think that would be a bit greedy.”
Stephen says he has already received an offer of £1 million for the bungalow from his builder — which would almost certainly mean the property suffering the fate of most bungalows in this extremely wealthy part of Poole: being demolished and replaced with a mansion. “But it would be lovely if we could find a Tolkien fan to take on the property and treat it as I have done.”
Richard Farnes, of Goadsby estate agency, which is selling 19 Lakeside Road, for which offers over £1 million are invited, is feeling pretty bullish: “We are anticipating a high level of interest from Tolkien’s fans.” But the sale of the property does pose the question: does a historical connection of this kind really boost the value of a home, and just how firm does the connection have to be? It is hardly as if there is a shortage of homes inhabited by famous authors, or even a shortage of homes inhabited by Tolkien, who was a serial housemover.
Two years ago Tolkien’s main Oxford residence, 20 Northmoor Road, where he lived between 1930 and 1947, was put on the market for £1.5 million, and attracted interest from all over the world. The publicity drove the then owners to distraction: they likened the tourists who stuck their heads over the hedge to the Hobbits from Middle Earth.
The house sold for £1.6 million — £100,000 more than the asking price, but not as much the £1.77 million fetched by a similar house across the road six months earlier.
If you are a Tolkien fan and you missed out on 20 Northmoor Road, you could always wait for number 22 to come on the market: the Tolkiens also lived there briefly, before seeking more room for his growing family next door.
Other houses in Oxford inhabited by the Tolkiens are 50 St John’s Street, 1 Pusey Street and 11 Mark’s Terrace, where they moved early in their marriage. They also lived at 3 Manor Road after their children had left home, then 99 Holywell, where he moved next, followed by 76 Sandfield Road, the suburban property in Headington scorned by WHAuden. Finally, there is 21 Merton Street where Tolkien lived for the 18 months before his death in 1973.
The Tolkien property ladder would be enough to keep tourists occupied on an hour-long coach tour of Oxford; but his assortment of pleasant if plain suburban houses does nothing to explain his vivid imagination other than, perhaps, to suggest that if your mind is in Middle Earth, you don’t need a great architectural project to express your creative side.
Goadsby estate agency: 01202 701616; www.goadsby.com
Writer’s camp: JRR Tolkien (left) and, below, the sitting room of the author’s Poole home (above), containing many of his original fittings