Hunting Hobbits in Lancashire

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Kissing GateMiddle Earth is in Lancashire; it’s official.  Just as Beatrix Potter was inspired by the Lake District, Thomas Hardy by his native Dorset and AA Milne, in a manner of speaking, found Pooh in Ashdown Forest, so JRR Tolkien is claimed to have been illuminated by the verdant countryside of the Ribble Valley.  John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) is celebrated throughout the English-speaking world, and beyond, as the author of ‘The Hobbit’, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ – and more besides.  He not only invented the astonishingly complex fantasy world in which his stories are set, he also decided which species, some based on fact, some on myth and some a product of his own vivid imagination, should inhabit it.  He even created some of the languages they spoke.  But then Tolkien was a clever chap, a scholar, expert in Nordic and Old German mythology and Professor of Anglo-Saxon and English at Oxford, where he regularly had a pint and a natter with his good friend, CS Lewis.  Indeed, if you’re looking for a Tolkien Trail you might expect to find it among the dreaming spires; or perhaps in the hamlet of Sarehole south of Birmingham and the suburb of Edgbaston, where the great man spent his childhood.  But, no, the Tolkien Trail featured here is about 140 miles farther north.

Stonyhurst College, TolkienIt all began because, in the 1940s when Tolkien was penning the ‘Lord of the Rings’, sequel to ‘The Hobbit’, he often stayed at Lancashire’s Stonyhurst College, just outside the attractive village of Hurst Green, close to Clitheroe.  He was visiting his son, John, who was studying for the priesthood at St Mary’s Hall, adjacent to Stonyhurst and now its preparatory school.  Stonyhurst is a Roman Catholic independent school, founded in 1593 in St Omer as the English Jesuit College, when Catholic education was prohibited in England. Among its more notable alumni is Arthur Conan Doyle, who carved his name into his desk while he was a pupil there. One-time owners of Stonyhurst were the staunchly Catholic Shireburn, or Sherborn, family.  Their local legacy includes lending their name to Shire Lane and the 17th century Shireburn Arms in Hurst Green.  The surrounding countryside is lush, rolling and woven with rivers and streams; to the south is the looming presence of Pendle Hill; brooding beyond sight to the north lies the bleak desolation of the high moors of the Forest of Bowland.  Pendle will be forever associated with its witches, hanged in 1612, and the preacher and Quaker founder George Fox, who had a vision on its summit in 1652.  You may like to imagine that this heady mixture, imbibed whilst striding over hill and dale, perhaps aided by a few jars at the Shireburn Arms, went into the creative cauldron that produced the ‘Lord of the Rings’.  Was this the Shire?  Is this where the River Shirebourn had its source?  Did Pendle Hill help inspire the Misty Mountains?

Pendle HillSomeone obviously thought so, because they created a Tolkien Trail around this part of the Ribble Valley.  Or should that be Ribbledale?

One ringAppropriately, the Tolkien Trail is a circular walk – a ring – of course!  It starts and ends in Hurst Green, where the object of your quest – and there has to be one, given that Tolkien crafted a classic quest story – might be some much-deserved refreshment at the aforementioned Shireburn Arms. Or at the nearby Bayley Arms (other pubs are available). Of course, you could skip the physical exercise and simply go for a pint.

Tolkien Trail, Shireburn ArmsThe walk takes you past Stonyhurst College and St Mary’s Hall, by a medieval barn, across fields and through woods to the River Hodder.  Indeed, a good portion of the walk follows rivers: the Hodder until it is joined by the Ribble, and the Ribble as it is joined in turn by the Calder.  The enlarged Ribble then curves round to zig-zag its way south-west, flowing through Preston and out into the Irish Sea.  The trail takes you by Hodder Place, an 18th century mill-owner’s home, the dramatic looking Cromwell’s Bridge and the 17th century Hacking Hall. Pendle, Lancashire’s highest hill at 1860 feet (557 metres), pops in and out of view as you go.  The confluence of the Ribble and the Calder is near Hacking Hall, where a ferry operated until the 1950s; was this the inspiration for Bucklebury Ferry, which Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin leapt on to cross the Brandywine seconds ahead of the ringwraiths? Who knows?

Ribble, Calder, Hacking Hall, Bucklebury Ferry

Hall Barn Farm, Tolkien TrailWe set off to trek the Tolkien Trail, a fellowship of three, constantly on the lookout for stray hobbits, elves, dwarves, ents, giant eagles, river spirits – or an old man carrying a staff wearing a tall pointed blue hat and a long grey cloak.  Regrettably, we saw none of those.  We were glad not to encounter any orcs, ringwraiths, trolls, great eyes or any other kind of unpleasantness, either.  I’m not saying none of those things were there; we just didn’t spot any that day.  However, we did see a multitude of wonderful butterflies, a heron, a kingfisher, several ducks and plenty of oystercatchers.  It was a world of sweet green grass, of little lanes and illicit-looking wooded paths, of unruly hedges, proud trees and old stone walls; of bubbling, slipping water and large skies, where anything could infiltrate a mind and settle down cosily if it wanted to. Hobbits, who like comfortable living, might feel at home there.  Let’s face it, a fantasy world can be as real as you want to make it, and Tolkien’s world was as real as a fantasy world gets.

Hobbiton, New ZealandStonyhurst, cricket pavilionI won’t bother to give you detailed directions for the walk – there are plenty of other websites that do that.  Probably the best option is to download the route with map and explanations of the main things to look out for from the Visit Lancashire (official tourist) website and, frankly, that’s exactly what we did. If you’re sensible, and keep your wits about you, you can do the walk without using an OS map.  Frodo, after all, coped without one.  The paths are generally obvious and there are plenty of ‘private land’ signs to make it clear where you’re not welcome; though if you’re pretending to be Gandalf that won’t deter you.

Tolkien Trail, River HodderYou’ll also find that access to the river bank is restricted to members of a private angling club, at various points from the confluence of the Hodder and the Ribble onward.  Merry and Pippin explored it anyway; they were small enough for no one to notice.

Tolkien Trail, Hacking Wood

Tolkien Trail, Hacking Wood

Tolkien Trail, Visit Lancashire

Sadly, someone seemed to be trying to grow a sinister crop of black plastic bin liners in Hacking Wood.  I’d also say that the walk seemed a lot longer than its advertised 5½ miles.  Take plenty to drink and some lembas bread with you – there are no facilities en route.  Pints of un-Middle Earth-like Coca-Cola were gaspingly ordered immediately on our arrival back at the Shireburn Arms – though the stuff was on draught and the glasses were initially filled with the equivalent of ¾ pint of ice.  The Shireburn Arms is really attractive; but isn’t it irritating, the way some places set out to rip people off?  Soft drinks are already disproportionately expensive in the UK without serving short measures as well.

Cromwell's Bridge, Visit LancashireAside from the countryside being generally rather lovely, my favourite site along the way was Cromwell’s Bridge over the Hodder.  It has other names, including the Devil’s Bridge, and is a graceful stone packhorse bridge built by Sir Richard Shireburn in 1562 to replace a wooden version that had been there since at least the early 14th century.  Legend has it that Cromwell crossed over on his way from Skipton, via Gisburn, to Preston in 1648, where he engaged and defeated a combined Scots and English Royalist army.  If you can picture troopers of the New Model Army cantering over the bridge, hooves clopping on the stones, harnesses jangling and sunlight glinting off their weapons, think again; the crossing probably took place somewhere else.  It’s a powerful image, though.  Cromwell is also said to have stayed the night at Stonyhurst, sleeping in full armour on a table in the middle of the Great Hall.  That sounds about as likely as self-flagellation, doesn’t it?

Tolkien Trail, LancashireWhich brings us to the big question: how much truth is there in the assertions behind the Tolkien Trail?  I’m no expert, and we can never know for sure, but it all looks rather flimsy to me.  Other than vague speculations, the most specific suggestion seems to be some sort of association with the name of the Hobbits’ homeland, ‘the Shire’, possibly derived from Shireburn.  For some, the term ‘shire’ will always evoke an ideological vision of rural England and it has nothing to do with a Lancastrian family.  Tolkien’s Shire first appears in ‘The Hobbit’, which was published in 1937 before the author visited Stonyhurst.  ‘Lord of the Rings’ was published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955.  Though I understand the Shire is not mentioned by name in ‘The Hobbit’, it was obviously a well-formed concept in it and Tolkien, as an authority on Anglo-Saxon, would have been more familiar than most with the origins of England’s old shires (which pre-date Lancashire, incidentally).  The shire, from the old English (ie Anglo-Saxon) scir, was possibly “the most important unit of government in the later Anglo-Saxon period” (Peter Hunter-Blair, ‘Anglo-Saxon England’).

Winckley Hall Farm, Tolkien TrailTolkien himself said that The Shire was “more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee”. (1897) and was “inspired by a few cherished square miles of actual countryside at Sarehole”.  Certainly, this area of what is now Birmingham seems to be the real Mecca for Tolkien fans – and is firmly on ABAB’s list to visit.  Michael Flowers, writing on the Tolkien Society’s blog is very dismissive of the Lancashire claims.

Aqueduct, River RibbleI noticed that many of the early articles plugging Tolkien’s Lancashire Trail seem to date from around the time that the hugely successful Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings film trilogy was released in the early noughties. The cynic in me can’t help wondering whether the trail was actually a neat piece of promotion dreamt up by an opportunistic, even slightly deceitful, marketing person at Stonyhurst, Visit Lancashire, the Shireburn Arms – or all three. It would of course be fitting if there were a touch of unreality in the claims.

Pendle Hill, Lancashire countrysideThat isn’t to say that Tolkien didn’t get something from rambling through and by the woods and hills and rivers around Stonyhurst; I’m sure he did. And I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from taking Lancashire’s Tolkien Trail; it’s worth doing in its own right, and there are plenty of other reasons to explore in this part of the world too.  But perhaps a visit to Birmingham would reveal a more likely foundation for Tolkien’s inspiration.  The West Midlands was once in the kingdom of Mercia, whose warriors might have had some similarity with those of the Rohirrim or Gondorians.  Middle Earth is primarily a pre-industrial world.  Rohan and Gondor, incidentally and allegedly, might have something in common with the Malvern Hills.  It is generally thought that the Elven settlement of Rivendell was based on a visit Tolkien made to Switzerland’s stunning Lauterbrunnen Valley. And the dead marshes, where corpses lie in pools, might have been influenced by terrible memories of the Western Front, where Tolkien served as a young officer in 1916.  Authors draw on multiple sources and experiences.  A great deal of Tolkien’s inspiration must have come from his knowledge of German and Nordic mythology, as well as his literally fantastic imagination.

But, go on – escape to the Tolkien Trail and hunt some hobbit!

54 thoughts on “Hunting Hobbits in Lancashire

  1. CherryPie

    The trail looks lovely but like you I am a bit skeptical of the Tolkein connections.

    There are claims that The Wrekin in Shropshire was Tolkein’s inspiration for Middle Earth. He did enjoy walking on The Wrekin and it does have that feel about it, but…

  2. Anne Clare

    Maybe the drinks were served in “short measures” as part of the homage to hobbits…? (I tried 🙂 ) Possible false promoting aside, it looks like a lovely walk- thanks for sharing!

  3. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – interesting … I just feel you’re right – but a beautiful area and a lovely walk … glad you told us about it – cheers Hilary

  4. Ellen

    We are huge Tolkien fans and C.S. Lewis fans, too. I read this post out loud to hubby. We found some of Tolkien’s haunts in Oxford and found his grave nearby Oxford at Wolvercote on a trip with our daughter for a high school graduation literary tour we devised by ourselves. Great and through information as usual, Mike! Cheers.

  5. marmeladegypsy

    I’m inclined to agree with the cynic in you about the evolution of the trails, though I suspect Tolkien did hang about more than a little.I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that while I THINK I read the Hobbit in high school or middle school (I have few memories other than owning it at one point in a young ilfe), I’ve never read the Rings books or had much interest. I think I’m more interested in Tolkien and his mind to create such fantasy than the fantasy itself. There was a Tolkien exhibit in Oxford while we were there but by then were too burned out that day (too short a visit) to hang in for it. Now I might be a bit sorry for I’m sure the illustrations were beautiful.

    Whether it is a “true” walk or not, it looks like a beautiful one and if I’m in the neighborhood, I’d be game!

  6. Jane Sturgeon

    This is on my doorstep, Mike and regardless of whatever PR is dotted about, it’s a lovely walk. Your article is delightful, as are your photographs. Thank you. :-

  7. mikedw

    Haven’t you heard? We have it on no less authority than Gandalf himself that “New Zealand IS Middle Earth.”
    That only applies to the movies of course. Ian McKellen was promotoing them when he said it. Now it looks like Amazon producers agree for their new tv series.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Didn’t know about the TV series – I will advise Daughter of Britain (though she probably knows). NZ is, of course, Middle Earth – I have included a shot of Hobbiton, as you can see.

  8. April Munday

    It looks pretty and I’d definitely visit a medieval barn before I went for a pint, although perhaps not in the pub you’ve named.

    I’ve always assumed that the Shire was, just as you say, based on the ancient shires of England.

  9. Helen Devries

    That wall looks in a bit of a state….
    Yes, I too think that the trail is just a coat tail hanger job…but the countryside is still well worth a visit.
    Flying home this week I asked for a fizzy water and the steward said …oh, Europeans don’t like ice, do they? No, I said, we like full value.

      1. Helen Devries

        Having heard ghim chatting with his colleagues about how many places he had visited I suppose that was what he had gleaned.
        He certainly beat the steward on the long haul flight who, when I asked for a gin and tonic, asked me if I was sure!

  10. artandarchitecturemainly

    I too think that Beatrix Potter was inspired by the Lake District, Thomas Hardy by his native Dorset, Charles Dickens by London, the Brontes from their part of Yorkshire and Anthony Trollope by Barsetshire/Somerset. But I don’t know nearly enough about Tolkien to even guess at his origins.

      1. fragglerocking

        No I agree, but I guess these places are hard done by, and anything to get the tourists in will help the local economy. It’s not right, but that’s what we’re reduced to.

  11. derrickjknight

    Fact or fantasy, your piece is far more interesting than I found The Hobbit, which is why I’ve never opened my copy of Lord of the Rings. You capture the nature of the landscape very well.

  12. franklparker

    Another entertaining and informative post with superb photographic accompaniment, Mike. I vaguely remember visiting Clitheroe once, when I worked for Courtaulds. Unfortunately I was inside a textile factory most of the time but I do remember the scenic beauty of the surroundings as we arrived and departed. You’ve inspired me to read Tolkien – I never did get around to it in the past, nor have I seen any of the movies.

  13. Clare Pooley

    I am sure you are right in your suggestion that this is ‘a neat piece of promotion’ and ‘slightly deceitful’. I also think Hurst Green, Pendle Hill and the Forest of Bowland and this whole area have enough attractions and history of their own without the tenuous Tolkien link. I believe most Tolkien enthusiasts will know he was thinking of Warwickshire when he wrote about the Shire.
    However, as you say, and your lovely photos prove, the walk looks well worth doing.
    I always ask for drinks without ice. No-one’s going to deprive me of my money’s-worth of apple juice!

  14. M.B. Henry

    Wow, that is so awesome! As a pretty long-time LOTR fan, I sincerely approve of this post. Gorgeous pictures, I’d love to hobbit hunt on that ring someday (how perfect that it’s a ring trail)!

  15. John

    Beautiful photography! I’d love to walk the Ring, my children loved Wnnie and the crew when they were babies. I enjoyed watching them too. Shhh!

  16. Alli Templeton

    Fascinating! For some reason I thought Tolkien was inspired by somewhere further south, but looking at those photos it’s easy to see why it was the Ribble Valley. I know where to go next time I’m looking for hobbits then… 🙂 Nice to see some Old English too – I adore it. Now I’ve finished studying Latin I’d like to learn a bit from a book I bought – believe it or not – on Lindisfarne! One of the most wonderful things I’ve heard is some of Beowulf being read in Old English. Mesmerising.
    Another great post, Mike.

    1. Terry Dixon

      This article concerns a bit of promotional false news. Tolkien based his shire on the beautiful Warwickshire countryside with it’s rolling hills, green fertile fields and Forest of Arden (where Shakespeare’s mother was born him living in h=nearby Stratford upon Avon)). Tolkien lived on the Eastern border of Birmingham, then in Warwickshire, near Sarehole mill complete with miller and mill pond.

      He was a professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford University and was an expert in that language as well as the related Germanic and Scandinavian languages – the languages in the LOTR are based on these and the story reflects the Anglo Saxon and Scandinavian sagas such as Beowolf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
      His influences were experienced long before any stay in Lancashire (from where I come from).

      It is suggested that his inspiration for the Riders of Rohan was influenced by the Anglo Saxons of Mercia and I personally believe that he would have known of and be inspired to base Eowin on the Anglo Saxon Lady Aethelfled (a daughter of Alfred the Great) who fought the Vikings at several crucial battles and subordinated them as well as fortifying towns. Her base was at Tamworth just north of Birmingham and Tolkien would have been very familiar with this fierce Anglo Saxon queen.

      I suggest reading this as an introduction:
      https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-29787528

      and this for Aethelfled
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%86thelfl%C3%A6d

      1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

        Thanks for visiting A Bit About Britain and leaving a comment, Terry. Unfortunately, you haven’t read the article! Aethelfled was an early English heroine – I like to think she must have been an amazing person. All the best.

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