Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Tolkien's Hemlock Glade Part 3

A Hemlock Glade, The Houses of Healing, Two Towers and a Beacon: Tolkien in East Yorkshire, Part 3: Thirtle Bridge and Withernsea 
Map showing the road from Roos passing Thirtle Bridge and heading towards Waxholme
 The actual Thirtle Bridge today crossing Tunstall Drain.  Note the new brick work looks 1950s or later
The site of the former Officers' Mess can be seen on the far right of the photo
 Detail of the original foundation stone of the bridge, dated 1832

Thirtle Bridge
After the idyllic period in or near Roos it is believed Tolkien returned to Thirtle Bridge Camp, which is approximately one and a quarter miles south-east of Roos.  On some detailed old maps Thirtle Bridge is marked, but no one lived there before World War One, it was simply a bridge over the Tunstall drain on the road to Withernsea.  The nearest place of habitation before the war was an isolated farmhouse at Renish.  However, for the duration of the First World War a temporary camp was installed on the higher ground above Thirtle Bridge catering for 1,500 men (28).  A rough idea of what buildings were present at Thirtle Bridge during Tolkien’s time may be gleaned from a local paper which advertised the auctioning off of “the whole of the existing hutments” of both Thirtle Bridge and the smaller Dimlington site, which consisted of: “about 40 sectional wooden huts of various sizes, 50 armstrong sectional canvas huts, bath houses, cook houses, several brick buildings, cooking ranges, boilers, a No. 5.0 Bno(?) independent boiler and connections, and 1.25 inch iron piping” (29). The site would have started with many canvas temporary buildings, but by Tolkien's arrival the camp had begun to take on a more permanent nature.  Very little survives of this 'temporary' camp today. However, the westernmost section of the present Mona House is believed to incorporate the officer’s mess and the footprint of the former cookhouse survives as a corrugated barn. 
The current Mona House, the section on the far left incorporates the former Officers' Mess
 The footprint of the former Cookhouse is preserved by this corrugated barn
Dave Mitchell's reconstruction model of Thirtle Bridge, kept at Withernsea Lighthouse Museum
The Officers' Mess is on the far left (front) and the Cookhouse is the reddish building at the rear, slightly left of centre. 
To examine a larger image of the photo, simply click on the image 
Despite the relatively meagre evidence Dave Mitchell, a model maker has examined the ground, looked at surviving family photographs and reconstructed as far as is possible what the camp may have looked like.  Mitchell has informed me that this model represents about a quarter of the camp, there would have been many more barrack huts.  I have examined the model from close-range, and the amount of work which has gone into the reconstruction is amazing.  
(You may view the Thirtle Bridge model for yourself at Withernsea Lighthouse Museum during normal opening times: here)
Dave Mitchell's reconstruction of the view of Thirtle Bridge as approached on the road from Roos 
 A Zeppelin's eye-view of Thirtle Bridge Army Camp
Key to the numbered areas:
1. Sentry Post & entrance barrier  (front, left of centre)
2. Guardroom (right of sentry post)
3. Sports pitch/Physical training area (front right)
4. Accommodation Huts (centre right)
5. Shower block (right of accommodation)
6. HQ and weapons store  (longest building slightly left of centre)
7. Generator room  (centre left)
8. Ammunition compound  (rear left)
9. Cookhouse  (rear to left of ammunition compound)
10. Laundry  (left of cookhouse)
11. Officers' Mess and shower block (behind officer's mess, front left).

Of course Thirtle Bridge was an army camp, and Tolkien was there at a time of war, but when not actually engaged in repelling Zeppelin attacks or involved in physical activity time hung heavy on the hands of the “inmates,” so Tolkien almost certainly had time to mull over his emerging mythology.  The Tolkien Estate have recently informed David Robbie, the Staffordshire historian, that a photograph of Tolkien in an army camp published in The Tolkien Family Album (p.38) is actually inscribed by Tolkien on the rear: "self in Hux's and my cubicle, Withernsea (Thirtle Bridge), 1917" (30).  This must refer to Tolkien's long-time comrade and friend LF subaltern Leslie Risdon Huxtable, with whom he had shared quarters on Cannock Chase.  Huxtable was another signalling officer, and was believed to be Tolkien's understudy, ready to take over if anything happened to Tolkien.  Garth mentions him being based at Tunstall Hall after receiving an injury in France, and being at the 1st August 1917 Minden dinner with Tolkien, but if Tolkien's photo annotations are correct they also shared accommodation at Thirtle Bridge (31).
Edith's Lodgings at 76 Queen Street, Withernsea - 2nd bay window on the left.
Photo from Phil Mathison's book Tolkien in East Yorkshire
 The same address in 2014 - the open doorway marks the entrance to Edith's lodgings
 Withernsea Lighthouse

At the end of the mystery 6 week-period mentioned earlier Edith moved into lodgings in Withernsea.  We know she was installed there by 12th July (32).  Edith’s lodgings at 76 Queen Street are only about 200 yards away from Withernsea’s only monolithic structure, the lighthouse completed in 1894.  The lighthouse is 127 feet high (39m) and is at least three times the height of any of the surrounding buildings.  The lighthouse is a striking structure in what is an otherwise unremarkable town made even more so by being painted brilliant white.  The lighthouse is unusual in being built well inland from the sea (33), and Edith’s lodgings were slightly nearer to the lighthouse than the sea.  Today the white tower is surrounded by domestic dwellings, but in 1917 the adjacent area was much less cluttered, as this early postcard shows.  Since completion it has always dominated the surrounding town and countryside.
Plan of Withernsea showing the position of the lighthouse at 21, and Edith's lodgings at the larger cross to the right.  Detail from a plan in Victoria County History, which includes Withernsea
 The more open aspect of Withernsea Lighthouse in the early twentieth-century
When the light was working the beam could be seen for a radius of 17 miles, but even unlit as it is today, the lighthouse as a structure may still be seen from the southern edge of Roos.  The road leaving Roos undulates slightly, so in the hollows the lighthouse is lost to sight, but it comes back into view again as soon as one gains height.  The lighthouse would have been visible to Tolkien from the camp as long as the sightlines weren’t blocked by the temporary camp buildings.
View taken from B1242 looking east (2015).  Withernsea Lighthouse is clearly visible beyond the buildings currently on the Thirtle Bridge Army Camp site.
Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities the Hull Daily Mail reported that Withernsea lighthouse had been in darkness for a fortnight (34), so when Tolkien was in Holderness three years later the light would still have been doused for most of the time.  There were exceptions though, and the light was permitted to glow again during World War Two if a special convoy needed escorting through the hazardous shallows off the Yorkshire coast.  The evidence is lacking for World War One, but the Withernsea Museum assumes that the situation would have been almost identical during the earlier conflict (35).  
The view of the lighthouse from Arthur Street, which Tolkien would have used when travelling from Thirtle Bridge to Edith, or the railway station
Although Tolkien explicitly states in his interview with Denys Gueroult that he did not think in symbols (36), when he caught sight of the brilliant white lighthouse from anywhere in Holderness, surely he would be reminded of Edith, especially while she was lodged virtually at the lighthouse’s foot?  Indeed, it seems (highly) probable that even after Edith left for Cheltenham that this striking white structure would still remind Tolkien of his wife’s former sojourn in the town.
Map showing the only direct route from Thirtle Bridge to Edith's lodgings in Withernsea.  Thirtle Bridge camp was just above the road junction to the right in the top left-hand corner of this map.  Edith's lodgings were in the bottom right-hand corner of the map, just where the road marked in red bends towards the right.  Just to the left of this Withernsea Lighthouse may also be seen.  Note that roughly halfway along the whole route is a junction at a kink in the road.  This junction is the site of the Black Mill of Waxholme.
There is only one direct route Tolkien could have used from Thirtle Bridge to Withernsea when he wished to visit his wife or when he needed to catch a train to Hull for monthly medical examinations or visits to hospital, and that is the winding, undulating road now known as the B1242.  Initially, only the summit of the white tower of Withernsea Lighthouse can be glimpsed, but as one nears Withernsea it becomes a dominant looming presence.  For over a mile after leaving the camp there would hardly have been a single man-made structure between Thirtle Bridge and Withernsea in what was, and still is, a completely rural landscape.  However, 1 and a quarter miles south-east of Thirtle Bridge on the edge of a small settlement called Waxholme is a hill, on the summit of which is a dark ruined mill, variously called Withernsea Mill, Waxholme Mill, Owthorne Mill, and more often simply the Old Mill or the Black Mill.
From a postcard of the Black Mill at Waxholme dating from 1904 or later
 Another image of the Black Mill taken after the removal of the sails.  
Photo kindly supplied by Phil Mathison (July 2015)
Waxholme mill last ground corn in 1892, and its sails were removed in 1904.  In 1917 the black-painted windmill was still at its full height of approximately 40 feet, and was being used as a watch-tower by the army (37).   It may safely be assumed that on the summit some guns were mounted as a defence against low-flying Zeppelins.  In December 2012 the family who own the mill wrote to Phil Mathison to inform him that they had discovered a box of World War One ammunition in its foundations from its time on the frontline (38).  As the road from Thirtle Bridge approaches the mill it dips into a deep depression, so the final ascent to the mill becomes quite steep, and the black mill on the hill would have loomed larger than if it had been approached on the level.  In 2015 the ruined mill is just a presence on a hazardous bend, but in 1917 and 1918 as a contemporary newspaper report makes clear, the whole coastal road running from Easington to Skipsea was under military control (39), so there would have been a series of road blocks at significant junctions, and one of the most prominent was at this point (40).  Local women complained about the barrier in Waxholme Road because the warehouse in which they had to sign before continuing on their way was over 2 feet above the ground, and many of them had to be helped over it.  One Waxholme resident stated she would remain at home for ever rather than be subjected to manhandling over the stride up to the warehouse! (41).
The ruined Black Mill as it looks in 2015.  Traces of the black paint may still be observed.  Note Withernsea Lighthouse in the distance at the right-hand side of the image.
From the Black Mill it is possible to see both the white spike of Withernsea lighthouse over a mile away in a south-easterly direction, but also a quite different white tower about 1.5 miles away to the south-west.  The latter was virtually brand new when Tolkien was in the area – the gleaming white water tower of Rimswell, completed in 1916.  As far as I am aware this bears no similarity to any tower in Tolkien’s fiction!
Rimswell Water Tower taken in 2015 through a 400mm lens from the Black Mill
 Rimswell Water Tower.  Note the clear date of construction inscribed on a pillar - 1916
I am not suggesting that any towers in East Yorkshire directly inspired those in The Lord of the Rings, but how more probable it is that these two specifically-coloured towers of Withernsea Lighthouse and the Black Mill in a relatively uncluttered wartime landscape are better candidates than two structures from an urban cluttered landscape in Tolkien’s peaceful childhood?  Additionally, Tolkien encountered these two towers just as his fictional landscape was starting to coalesce in his imagination.  You may ask why this theory hasn't been propounded earlier, but the 'Black Mill' is a shadow of its former self, and the black paint is very hard to discern these days.  Also, compared with South Birmingham the area between Hornsea and Withernsea is very sparsely populated, and the mill is on a minor road, so there were always going to be fewer people to make any apparent connection.

 I admit that there aren’t too many similarities between Withernsea lighthouse and Pippin’s initial impression of the Tower of Ecthelion in Minas Tirith, which he saw “shimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, tall and fair and shapely, and its pinnacle glittered as if it were wrought of crystals; and white banners broke and fluttered from the battlements in the morning breeze” (42).
However, the later description when Denethor retreats to his chamber at the summit of the tower to consult the palantír is faintly reminiscent of the function of a partially-used lighthouse: “many who looked up thither at that time saw a pale light that gleamed and flickered from the narrow windows for a while, and then flashed and went out” (43).  Withernsea Lighthouse has the town of Withernsea laying around it, but it is not physically in the centre of the town as the tower of Ecthelion is in the centre of Minas Tirith.  The aerial photo below shows that in relation to the other building it lies towards the rear of the town.  This is because of the constant threat of coastal erosion. 
Withernsea Lighthouse in an aerial photo (centre right)
In some of the early pictorial representations of the towers, Tolkien’s sketches can look remarkably like lighthouses.  One example is the rejected cover illustration for The Two Towers (44).
Tolkien's original rejected design for the dustjacket of the Two Towers.
As the above design depicts Minas Morgul (formerly called Minas ithil), which was originally the sister city of Minas Tirith, and it was originally constructed by the same regime, it may well have had some design similarities to the white tower of Minas Tirith.  So, does Withernsea lighthouse have a sister lighthouse which Tolkien also saw?  The nearest candidate is Spurn lighthouse, which is visible from Kilnsea, which we know he visited when undergoing hospital treatment.  However, the possible ramifications of Spurn lighthouse will be featured in the final blog in this sequence!
A distant view of Spurn Lighthouse (2014), similar to the view seen from Kilnsea
Next time: the Houses of Healing
Part 1 (Introduction & Hornsea) may be read Here
Part 2 (Roos & Halsham) may be read Here
Part 4 (Brooklands Officers' Hospital & Godwin Battery) may be read here
Part 5 (Easington & Spurn Point) may be read Here

My thanks to John Garth, Dave Mitchell, Phil Mathison and Tony Simpson with whom I was able to consult on various aspects of my research while I was writing this paper.

28. Garth, p.234.
29. Yorkshire Post, 2 Aug 1915, p.3.
30. email from Tolkien Estate, dated 10 Apr 2015.
31. Garth, pp..190, 235, 239.
32. Mathison, p.71.
34. Hull Daily Mail, 19 Sep 1914, p.3.
35. Pers comm, Email, date: 24 Feb 2015.
36., Interview between Denys Gueroult & J.R.R. Tolkien, 1964, released 24 Jun 2014.
37. Chapman, Maeve & Ben (eds.), The Archive Photographs Series: Withernsea, (Stroud: Chalford, 1996), p.30. 
38. Mathison, Phil (pers comm.).
39. Hull Daily Mail, 29 Apr 1916, p.2.
40. Ibid, 6 Dec 1917, p.4.
41. Ibid.
42. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 60th Anniversary Edition, p.751.
43. Ibid, p.821.
44. Hammond, Wayne & Scull, Christina, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, (HarperCollins, 1995), p.181.


China Burma India Veterans Identities said...

Hello Michael,

Nice work here! I just posted a reply to the other Michael who criticized this hypothesis on the Tolkien Society website. I will reprint it here.

"We just returned from a short trip to Yorkshire (Leeds, York, and Skipton -- where I believe we met two local Hobbits in a small eatery, though they had not heard of Tolkien!). I became interested in this area as a possible inspiration for his work while there, when I recalled that he had spent time at the University of Leeds in the early '20s; then I learned of his WWI time there before that. Intriguing.

On the current topic, though I am somewhat new to this game (in assigning specific references), let me say that these suggestions about the towers are most welcome indeed. We should always recall that Tolkien was adamant about his work not being allegorical -- so I think even he would willingly allow various interpretations (mixed together) regarding influences on his productions, even as he would no doubt welcome his productions conjuring up many further associations (from all different time periods) in the minds of his readers. Certainly, the local country people in this region reflect his Shirelings (as I have seen first-hand); the Dales sound a bit like Dale and the area of Laketown (the Lakes region is also close by); and I even wondered if Leeds in his day somehow influenced his visions of the industrialization of Saruman's Isengard. Round windows appear to be everywhere in England -- and they can be seen in old buildings in Leeds also. (I won't get into rabbits and their holes -- suggesting Hobbits homes to a small extent for me, as again, they are everywhere in the countryside, near universities in England and near castles in northern Wales, where we traveled this trip.) So to end, I would not be too critical of this suggestion about the towers, though many other influences may have been conjoined in his thoughts on these -- and, as his writing suggest, he had more than one possible interpretation of what they signified (and he constantly revised).

Nice work Michael (keep it up! -- I am glad to have found this site), and nice textual research in your rebuttal Michael [the other Michael] -- but maybe be a little more inclusive rather than dismissive."

David Fletcher (July 2016)

Michael Flowers said...

Hi David,

Thank you for your comnents. I think you mean Michael Martinez. I think he really missed my point. In was trying to say that there were many more than 2 towers in Tolkien's book, just as there were many more than 2 towers in East Yorkshire. I think it's interesting that Tolkien came across a black one, and a white one during his war time experiences, whilst the much trumpeted ones in Birmingham don't have that colour associations at all.

I'm glad you enjoyed yourself in Yorksire, albeit the western side. I hope to research Tolkien's Leeds experience at a later late.

Thanks again