Mapping Tolkien’s ‘Middle-earth’ (the West Midlands)
Anna White goes on the trail of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ author and finds one of the UK’s hottest property markets
JRR Tolkien considered himself a Mercian – a member of an AngloSaxon kingdom in the middle of England. The author was born in South Africa but at the age of three moved to what was then the rural outskirts of Birmingham and developed an affinity with the wider West Midlands. “If your first Christmas tree is a wilting eucalyptus and if you’re normally troubled by heat and sun then, just at the age when imagination is opening out, to suddenly find yourself in a quiet Warwickshire village engenders a particular love of central Midlands English countryside, based on good water, stones and elm trees and small quiet rivers, and, of course, the rustic people there,” he once wrote. Writer John Garth, whose latest book is called Tolkien’s Tol Mirror, sums it up: “Com “Compared to the parched and al almost treeless area where he first fi lived, the West Midlands must have seemed like a heightened h reality to that lit little boy with such a big imagination.” imagi Tolkien wand wandered the region which st stretches from Herefordshire to Staffordshire and across from Shropshi Shropshire to Warwickshire, wicks taking in W Worcestershire and the metropolitan poli county of Birmingham. Birm H He first lived in Kings King Heath to the south of the city centre. From there he played in the woody end of Moseley Bog and Sarehole Mill, a 250-year-old watermill; the area is framed by Perrott’s Folly and Edgbaston water tower, which sit 650yd apart. Tolkien went to King Edward’s School in Edgbaston, was posted to a training camp in Staffordshire’s Cannock Chase, and made regular trips to the Malvern Hills, Alcester, and the Clent and Lickey hills in Worcestershire.
The new Tolkien biopic, starring Nicholas Hoult of About a Boy, is in post-production and when it finally hits cinemas will take fans on a journey, not through Middle-earth, but to the West Midlands.
Mostly unrecognisable to Tolkien, multi-million-pound urban regeneration schemes are under way and the property market is booming.
The average selling price of a second-hand home in the region has risen 22 per cent in the past five years, outstripping the North West (19 per cent), data from Savills show. The property group expects values to rise by 14.8 per cent by the end of 2022, double the rate of growth in London. Given Tolkien’s stance against the Industrial Revolution – the felling and incineration of trees and the mass production of the orc in The Lord of the Rings were telltale signs – he probably wouldn’t approve of the imminent arrival of the high-speed rail service HS2 and the construction frenzy that has gripped his city.
Birmingham is undergoing a dramatic transformation – from the 42-storey residential tower on Broad Street, being delivered by developer Moda, to the new HSBC building Arena Central. Employees will unpack their boxes this year. A ruin bar is being fitted out by Eastside City Car Park, although less is more when it comes to the interior design of this boozer, which is following the Hungarian trend of putting pubs in derelict buildings. The HS2 terminal at Curzon Street is under construction and will be ready by 2026, while a 17-storey office block is going up on the much-improved Snowhill estate. The sought-after areas are still Edgbaston, Sutton Coldfield,
‘It must have seemed like a heightened reality to a boy with such an imagination’
Harborne and Solihull. But Tolkien’s stamping ground of Moseley is growing in popularity. Filled with Victorian houses, it’s always appealed to families but an indie spirit has now taken hold, explains Knight Frank’s Jamie Carter. Hipster pubs have raised the area’s profile with first-time buyers; take the Prince of Wales, with its garden cocktail bar, wine shed, cigar stall and street food vendor.
“Moseley and Kings Heath are considered the up-and-coming areas. Both have a village feel but a cosmopolitan edge,” says Carter. “The Victorian housing is not as expensive as it is in Edgbaston, and it is on the list for firsttime buyers, young families and retirees who are downsizing.” He claims properties are selling fast.
For the Tolkien fanatic there’s a chance to live opposite one of his early homes in the UK. A four-bedroom detached house in Moseley is on the market with Oulsnam for £669,950. Millmead dates back to the 17th century and is a road away from Sarehole Mill, which was supposedly known as the Great Mill in The Lord of the Rings.
But Garth, the Tolkien biographer, warns against reading too much into such links. “There are topographical myths surrounding Tolkien’s work,” he says. “His work was layered, and if he does make an obvious reference [for example Bag End, Bilbo’s hobbit hole, was also the name of his aunt Jane’s farm in Dormston] then I believe it’s a quiet gag just to her.” However, he does accept the author’s love of the Malvern Hills is reflected in iterations of The Silmarillion. “In early drafts, the river running through the Shire is called the Malvern only to be changed at a later date to the Brandywine,” he explains.
The Worcestershire market town of Malvern lies at the foot of the hills and grew from an 11th-century Benedictine monastery. Homebuyers are drawn by the big public school Malvern College and the multinational defence company QinetiQ based there. “Malvern has easy access to the motorway net5yr work and a direct rail link to London,” inc. says Knight Frank’s Charles Probert. 31% “Many of the large Victorian properties 30% in Malvern have been converted to 25% apartments or are used as school 20% boarding houses. When family homes 18% do come to the market, they are hastily 13% snapped up, often under competition.” The average property price grew by 4.9 per cent over the past year and by a third since 2012, according to Knight Frank data.
There’s a five-bedroom townhouse on the market with Philip Laney & Jolly for £575,000, which is nestled into the hillside and overlooking the Severn Valley. Sitting high in the hills is a five-bedroom, 2,500 sq ft eco home, the views from which Tolkien and his walking companion CS Lewis would surely appreciate, overlooking both Herefordshire and Worcestershire. It is £1.2million with Knight Frank.
Worcester’s history reads like a chapter from The Lord of the Rings, littered with conflict, rebellion and fallen kings: it was the scene of the last battle of the English Civil War in 1651 and a Royalist stronghold. In fact, it was from a house in the Shambles that Charles II was smuggled over to France.
Dating back to 680, the magnificent cathedral is the eternal home of King John, who was buried there in 1216. It was also one of the slowest urban property markets to recover following the global financial crisis of 2008, which has left it looking affordable compared with the outlying towns of Bromsgrove and Malvern. It’s a cheaper alternative to central Birmingham (which is a 45-minute train journey from Worcester Foregate Street) and has had a multi-million-pound redevelopment around the cathedral. Further development is planned, with the opening of Worcester Parkway station in 2018 set to improve links to London.
There’s a seven-bedroom Grade II listed Regency townhouse for sale in the area surrounding Worcester University. It’s within walking distance of the independent school King’s, and there’s planning permission already granted to extend the 3,617 sq ft home. It’s priced at £700,000 by Andrew Grant estate agents.
To the east of Worcester, Warwickshire can also lay claim to Tolkien’s affection: he was married to Edith in Warwick’s St Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church in 1916.
The most active property market in the county is Leamington Spa, just over 30 minutes’ train ride from Birmingham and 85 minutes to London. It’s viewed as a savvier buy than Oxford or Bristol, at around £300 to £400 per sq ft. The Georgian and Regency terraces attract young professionals who are working at the big employers Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin, the National Grid and Warwick University.
The biggest clue Tolkien affords us mortals as to his geographic inspiration for the Shire came from his own pen: “It is in fact more or less a Warwickshire village of the period of the Diamond Jubilee.” Protected by its anonymity, hopefully said village still bears some resemblance to how he left it.
Worcester’s bloody history reads like a chapter from The Lord of the Rings
IN DEMAND A house in Leamington Spa, for sale with Fine & Country, above; Tolkien, below
MIDLANDS ENGINE A Regency townhouse in Worcester with Andrew Grant, above; a house in Bromsgrove, right, for sale with Fine & Country
OLD HAUNT The house opposite where Tolkien lived in Moseley, for sale with Oulsnam
A RICH HISTORY Wisteria on the house opposite where Tolkien lived