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Middle 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.
It 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?
Someone obviously thought so, because they created a Tolkien Trail around this part of the Ribble Valley. Or should that be Ribbledale?
Appropriately, 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.
The 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?
We 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.
I 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.
You’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.
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.
Aside 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?
Which 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’).
Tolkien 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.
I 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.
That 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!