Friday 10 July 2015

Tolkien's Hemlock Glade, Part 5

A Hemlock Glade, The Houses of Healing, Two Towers and a Beacon: Tolkien in East Yorkshire, Part 5: Easington & Spurn Point

Please note the text explaining the latest findings about Tolkien and Easington and Spurn Point may be read in my essay ‘Tolkien in East Yorkshire’ published in Something Has Gone Crack edited by Janet Brennan Croft & Annika Röttinger.

Barbed wire on Easington cliffs (2013). This must be a similar scene to that witnessed by Tolkien in WW1

The Tower, Easington

Very distinctive building in the main street, Easington

So far this week the blog has concentrated on factual matters relating to Tolkien in East Yorkshire.  However, no proof has so far been forthcoming that Tolkien ever actually visited Spurn Point.  Nevertheless, if the opportunity came to visit such a unique geographical feature, I'm sure he would have taken that chance.  Some of the features present at Spurn would seem to indicate that he did visit Spurn, but it must be emphasised that what follows is completely conjectural.

Map of Spurn from Jan Crowther's highly recommended book: The People Along the Sand: The Spurn Peninsula & Kilnsea, A History, 1800-2000.  This illustration clearly depicts the unusual, if not unique, aspects of Spurn's topography

Two old lighthouses at Spurn Point before Tolkien's time.  The stump of the lower light (right) still exists, but has no current function, although it has been used as a water tank and an ammunition store
From Kilnsea Tolkien would have been able to see Spurn Lighthouse three miles to the south.  Spurn is such a unique geographical feature that if Tolkien was as close as Kilnsea, it would be very surprising if he had not visited the peninsula if he was given the opportunity.  As a signalling officer his duties may have caused him to take the special military train from Kilnsea to Spurn, as it is pretty certain that in a time of war purely sight-seeing trips were prohibited.  At the present time there is no documentary evidence that Tolkien actually travelled any further south than Kilnsea, but there are some similarities between Holderness’ darkest lighthouse and aspects of two dark towers in Tolkien’s fiction, which could indicate that Tolkien may have either visited Spurn lighthouse, or read about its operation.  
The current Spurn Lighthouse (before restoration in 2015).  This is the lighthouse which existed in Tolkien's time
The present Spurn lighthouse, which is the one Tolkien could see from Kilnsea was constructed in 1895.  It is 128 feet high, so is just one foot higher than Withernsea’s, but its light had an identical range of 17 miles (65).  However, as with Withernsea it is extremely likely that in wartime Spurn’s light would have been doused apart from specific occasions for guiding out particularly important vessels.  Unlike Withernsea’s completely white appearance, it is believed that Spurn Lighthouse was always painted black around the base, and again directly under the light, with a contrasting, and therefore distinctive broad white middle section.  Some 'coloured' postcards of Spurn exist which depict the lighthouse as red and white, but it is believed that the colourist wasn’t actually familiar with the location.  In addition to the standard white light from the top of the building, Spurn, rather unusually, also had the ability of showing other lights. 

Sketch showing where the different-coloured lights of Spurn Lighthouse shone out over the estuary and the sea.  A detail taken from A History of the Spurn Lighthouses by G. de Boer, p.67.  
One of these lights, which was red, shone at a height of 60 feet and with a range of 13 miles over some dangerous shoals to the south-east (66).  This light would only have been visible to those out at sea, and possibly by people directly under the lighthouse on the few feet of shore to the south-east of the lighthouse.  A contemporary local newspaper report makes it clear that for his Watchman’s Badge a Boy Scout among many other attributes “must know: the beacons, storm signals, coastguard stations, steam tugs, lifeboats, and rocket apparatus, the nearest telegraph offices, telephones, and addresses...and the mercantile code of signals” (67).  So, although it is not stipulated in the Imperial Army’s Official Signalling book, Tolkien, as a signaller in the only too real arena of a country on a war footing may have witnessed, or at least been aware of, the various lights emanating from a dark tower on the edge of the German Ocean!
A photo taken from the current lighthouse of the old lighthouse compound.  The 'ghost' of the old Smeaton Lighthouse may be seen in the very centre of the flagstones. Unfortunately, none of these buildings or the compound survives
If one ascended the lighthouse in 1917 or 1918 one could see through one of the windows to the south  the foundations of the former Smeaton lighthouse, which was painted completely black and its surrounding surviving outbuildings bounded in by a circular wall.  This photograph illustrates this scene perfectly, and the circular structure and outbuildings survived Smeaton’s black lighthouse until at least 1957, although the ‘ghost’ of the dark tower of the lighthouse may still be discerned in the above photo (68).  This is reminiscent of the situation of another dark tower of Tolkien’s imagination: 
             One who passed in...beheld a plain, a great circle somewhat hollowed out like 
             a vast shallow bowl: a mile it measured from rim to rim.  Once it had been
             green and filled with avenues, and groves of fruitful trees...But no green thing
             grew there in the latter days of Saruman.  The roads were paved with stone-
            flags, dark and hard...Many houses there were, chambers, halls, and passages,
            cut and tunnelled back into the walls upon their inner side, so that all the open
            circle was overlooked by countless windows and dark doors...Shafts were
            delved deep into the ground...the shafts by many slopes and spiral stairs
            to caverns far under; there Saruman had treasuries, store-houses, armouries,
            smithies, and great furnaces” (69).  
Barbara Strachey's representation of Orthanc from Journeys of Frodo
Spurn Point had never been filled with green avenues of trees, but  before the lighthouses were built the area would have held the prickly green shrubs of sea buckthorn, which in the Autumn are covered in their bright orange acidic fruits.  However when Tolkien was nearby photographs show very little scrub, with the only real vegetation being marram grass.  The circular wall is common to Spurn and Tolkien, and both circular interiors were paved with stone flags, and as you can see the windows and doors did open out towards the site of the tower, but the scale was enormously transfigured in Tolkien’s fiction.  Until this spring I was unaware of yet another similarity: the subterranean passages.  On a guided walk in April I learnt that a few metres to the north of the present lighthouse there are a series of underground tunnels and rooms.
Smeatons very black lighthouse, which was present before Tolkien's time.  Note the attempts to prevent its collapse.  The compound is visible as are the chimneys of the compound buildings
One thing worth mentioning is that whenever a claim has been made for towers which may have influenced Tolkien they always stop at two: the childhood Edgbaston ones and the recent claim on Channel 5 about Colchester castle and the White Tower of the Tower of London are examples which immediately spring to mind (70).  However, as Tolkien’s letters show even he was initially unsure just which two towers the title of his second volume of The Lord of the Rings referred to and there are many more than two mentioned during the course of the novel: Orthanc, Barad-dur, Minas Tirith, Minas Morgul, Cirith Ungol, the Two Towers of the Teeth at the Black Gate, and of course the white Elven Towers to the west of the Shire.  Similarly, there are more than two towers Tolkien will have seen during the course of his period in the relatively open landscape of East Yorkshire.  We know he had to pass the Black Mill at Waxholme, and he couldn’t ignore the white spire of Withernsea Lighthouse, and he must have seen Spurn Lighthouse and Rimswell’s Water Tower, and even the hospital at Godwin Battery had two observation towers on either side of it, but there is another so close to Roos, that it would be very surprising if he didn’t see it on his walks in the area: Admiral Storr’s 64 feet high brick Tower at Hilston. It should be remembered that Tolkien wrote about towers long before The Lord of the Rings, and as he worked on projects like The Book of Lost Tales in the immediate aftermath of his time in Holderness, it is just as likely that some of them may be inspired by towers he saw in wartime in East Yorkshire.
Admiral Storr's tower in Hilston, very close to Roos
Spurn Point is the southernmost extremity of East Yorkshire, and arriving there marks the end of this journey following Tolkien’s physical associations with the area. Although Tolkien ‘endured’ two holidays from the University of Leeds in the 1920s at the more northerly resort of Filey, they are the only known further visits to the Yorkshire coast.  I hope I have shown that the 18 months Tolkien spent in Holderness in the latter stages of WW1 and the early period of his marriage continued to reverberate in his imaginative fiction in the ensuing decades.  If not, I trust I have made this neglected corner of Yorkshire a little better known to Tolkien enthusiasts than it was before, and that its importance as an inspiration to Tolkien may be more significant than has hitherto been supposed.

There are some areas of East Yorkshire with Tolkien associations, or apparent Tolkien connections, I've left out of this account so far, such as Tunstall Hall, Turmar Farm, and the actual outpost he commanded.  Hopefully, I'll have time to fill in these oversights at some future date.

Howard Frost's diagrammatic representation of some of the features from Easington to Spurn Point.  Note: not all of these were present at the same time, or in Tolkien's period in the area. Taken from his book: Sailing the Rails: A New History of Spurn and its Military Railway, (2001).
My thanks for this whole week of blog posts goes to Marcel Aubron-Bülles, Jerry Aurand, Jan Crowther, Chris Delworth-Kerr, Barbara English, Linda Flowers, John Garth, Andy Gibson, Andy Mason, Irina Metzler, Dave Mitchell, Phil Mathison, Harm Schelhaas and Tony Simpson with whom I was able to consult on various aspects of my research while I was writing this piece.

Part 1 (Introduction and Hornsea) may be read here
Part 2 (Roos & Halsham) may be read here
Part 3 (Thirtle Bridge & Withernsea) may be read here
Part 4 (Brooklands Officers' Hospital) may be read here

61. Mathison, p.91
62. Ibid.
63. Ibid, p.88
64. English, Barbara, The Lords of Holderness, 1086-1260: A Study in Feudal Society, (Hull University Press, 1991), p.7.
65. De Boers, G.,  A History of the Spurn Lighthouses, (East Yorkshire Local History Society, 1968), pp.66-7. 
66. Ibid, p.66.
67. Hull Daily Mail, 13 Oct 1917, p.2.
68. Crowther, p.141.
69. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 60th Anniversary Edition, ‘The Road to Isengard, p.554.
70. Jones, Dan, Secrets of Great British Castles, Channel 5, 10 Apr 2015.


Marcel R. Bülles said...

Dear Michael,

congratulations to an outstanding series of articles on Tolkien's stay in Yorkshire.

I do hope I'll have the time one day to visit this beautiful landscape and walk in your footsteps - truly intriguing!

Michael Flowers said...

Marcel It's only beautiful on a few days in summer, although it has a different sort of very bleak beauty at other times of the year. However, I would definitely avoid a visit in the depths of winter!