Tuesday, 12 July 2016

A Weekend in Tolkien's Staffordshire

On Friday morning I left Hull at c.8.50.  It was quite showery at first, which is never best for motorway travel, but later it got brighter and drier as I headed west.  I arrived in Great Haywood at around 11.10.  The car park behind the Memorial Hall was quite easy to overshoot, and then was extremely narrow, but I managed to negotiate it safely.
Hannah Reynolds' Map of Tolkien's Staffordshire
The Memorial Hall, Great Haywood
Originally I planned to visit some abbeys and castles in neighbouring counties, but the forecast for Saturday was so bad, I thought I'd better take some photographs in the village while the weather was still fine.  I visited the Memorial Hall first, and was highly impressed with the display.  There were about 6 large banners bursting with information and interesting photographs. There were also some really interesting articles, all laminated and judiciously displayed.  There were lots of other exhibits.  My visit was interrupted by a mass of schoolchildren, so I retreated for another look later.
The top of the Great Haywood Banner including a photo from Withernsea beach!
The top of the banner for The Book of Lost Tales including John Howe's striking covers
The top of the "Life in Camp" banner, including Tolkien in his Thirtle Bridge cubicle
The top of another banner - a fine illustration of some of the detailed information on display
The Clifford Arms was easy to find, as was St. John's Church, where the Tolkiens worshipped, and where Edith and Ronald had a nuptial blessing in May 1916. 
The Clifford Arms - as it looks today with its mock-Tudor front
The Clifford Arms as it would have looked in Tolkien's time
St. John's R.C. Church, Great Haywood
The Striking Church Tower
Railway Bridge, Great Haywood
I then noticed an intriguing impressive stone railway bridge.  I walked on under this and soon reached an arched bridge crossing a languid canal.  A little further on was a very attractive structure, which I recognised as the inspiration for the Grey Bridge of Tavrobel.  I tried to capture this from every angle to obtain a series of photographs. This is known as the Essex Bridge, after Elizabeth I's final favourite, Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex.
Railway Bridge, Great Haywood

Essex Bridge, inspiration for The Grey Bridge of Tavrobel
From the bridge one can see two branches of a river, plus a third apparently disused waterway on the far left.  The first two waterways (the rivers Sow and Trent) which meet near the bridge are believed to have inspired the rivers Gruir and Afros in The Book of Lost Tales, and which eventually became the confluence of the Teiglin and the Sirion in the Silmarillion, if I remember what David said correctly.
The confluence of the 2 rivers as seen from Essex Bridge
Shugborough Hall in July 2016
I carried on a little way and glimpsed a large stately home.  Unfortunately, there seemed to be an event going on, so the view was hampered by the erection of many tents and marquees.  It is generally agreed that Shugborough Hall is the inspiration for the House of a Hundred Chimneys in the first Book of Lost Tales, even though it only has 80!  Christopher Tolkien has noted that his father was prone to a little bit of hyperbole and exaggeration!
Shugborough Hall, as it would have looked in Tolkien's time
I travelled to my hotel, emptied the car of my luggage, and swiftly returned to Great Haywood to meet David Robbie and Scott Whitehouse.  They treated me to at least a 30-minute tour of the exhibition and answered my questions regarding all aspects of setting up their impressive exhibition.  Then at 6pm Norwegian Tolkien scholars Professor Nils Ivar Agøy and Magne Bergland arrived after freshening up at their lodgings.  It was Nils's 1988 visit to Great Haywood, which was the true genesis of research beginning into Tolkien's Staffordshire roots.  Magne Bergland is a former editor of the Angetheras, in which I believe Nils's article may have first appeared.
I was even reminded of Tolkien in the Gents' Toilets!
David then took us on a tour of the village.  We went to many places I had visited in the morning, but this time there was lots of extra detail on tap, as David was able to provide many snippets of historical context.  However, new places to me included Rock Cottage, which almost certainly inspired the three-chimneyed house in "The Cottage of Lost Play".  This cottage has already hosted 2 blue plaques, but I was able to photograph the present one, which wasn't replete with errors.
Hazeldene - since demolished where the Tolkiens stayed
Rock Cottage, which Tolkien referenced in The Cottage of Lost Play
The current plaque on Rock Cottage
The overhanging Yew Trees opposite Rock Cottage, which Tolkien also mentioned
Rock Cottage, as it may have looked in Tolkien's time
We also went to see the presbytery behind St. John's church, where Edith lived for some time.  Meanwhile, the gravestone of 'Uncle Gus' otherwise known as Father Augustin Emery was pointed out.  I noticed that he passed away during the course of the Second World War in 1944.  We also ventured into the church, although the present priest couldn't be tempted out of a back room to speak to us.  Later, we were taken to an outstanding garden party of the Great Haywood society, where we were treated like guests of honour.  I've only just realised that I may have been the youngest person there - that doesn't happen very often to me these days!
The interior of St. John's Church in 2016
The Stained Glass in the East Window 
Rev Augustin Emery's Tombstone
Saturday began badly with torrential rain.  I waited half an hour in the Memorial Hall car park for the rain to abate, but I eventually had to take the plunge.  The three guests were given a generous packed lunch to take with us, then we waited for the transport, and waited and waited.  David had to ring them before a relief minibus driver arrived. He had stepped in at short notice, but had been given a different, later start time!  Meanwhile, John Garth revealed on social media that the rain was highly appropriate, as Tolkien complained about similar conditions at the same location: 
"The usual kind of morning standing about and freezing and then trotting to get warmer so as to freeze again. We ended up by an hour’s bomb-throwing with dummies. Lunch and a freezing afternoon. All the hot days of summer we doubled about at full speed and perspiration, and now we stand in icy groups in the open being talked at!" (November 1915). 

"This miserable drizzling afternoon I have been reading up old military lecture-notes again:— and getting bored with them after an hour and a half. I have done some touches to my nonsense fairy language – to its improvement." (March 1916)
World War One Hut, near Rugeley Camp
We were driven by a seemingly zigzag route including the final straight way along Marquis Drive before arriving at a surviving Word War hut near the site of the Rugeley camp on Cannock Chase.  Here, David Dunham took over to explain military matters.  This included a diarama of the various camps on Cannock Chase.  We were then given a tour of the typical belongings of an officer, plus an explanation of the best rifle etc.  Former Staffordshire Poet Laureate Tom Wyre was on hand to read from "Kortirion among the Trees."

We then walked to various places on the Chase.  The rain had eased off by the time we emerged from the hut, then some of the wildlife came out at the same time.  A pair of Swallows were nesting in the ladies' lavatory, a Pied Wagtail ran along the ground, while in the trees during the subsequent trek I heard Coal Tits, Chiffchaffs, and a Goldcrest, which I was able to point out for Maggie.  A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew across an open area directly above my head, whilst a large Buzzard remained perched on a lonely pine, as we skirted the edge of his glade.
Distant Rifle Butts
We were taken to a surviving sand butt, which acted as a firing range, and we marvelled at the distance the rifles were supposed to cover and accurately hit a target.  There were a series of 100 yard ranges getting closer to the target.  We were provided with a poignant story of David Dunham's grandfather who actually returned to this place in old age and was suddenly, and unexpectedly confronted with his firearms training past.  Meanwhile a Linnet flew over.  After another short minibus trip, most participants disembarked to visit a commonwealth cemetery.
Tom Wyre reading "Over Old Hills and Far Away"
(c) 2016 Scott Whitehouse
Next, we were taken to another picnic area, and we ascended through ripening bilberries to the site of an officers' hut in which it is known Tolkien would have been based at 'P' Lines.  Here, Tom read from "Over Old Hills and Far Away" accompanied by a Tree Pipit, and nearby while the others had lunch I watched Green Woodpeckers flying across from one belt of trees to another, and Ringlet butterflies fluttering among the grasses.  Unfortunately, the picnic table was out of bounds, as it was surrounded by fairly deep water!
A Ringlet (photographed in Yorkshire)
7 Rings on the Ringlets in their fields of grass
Finally, the minibus travelled to the site of the former massive water tower, which now is marked by the site of an "erratic" glacial boulder.  A deep cutting behind the water tower marked the site of the former Tackeroo railway.  Apparently, it's strange name derives from a corruption of a phrase involving the main junction of Crewe, but this is disputed by other theories.  
Erratic Glacial Boulder on the site of the Water Tower
 Model of the Water Tower as it would have looked in Tolkien's time
We walked down through rather a rough track to more traces of lumps and bumps in the ground, including one isolated building which may have been a test site for coping with gas attacks.  A prominent pipe was still visible in the almost destroyed wall.  This was the site of 'M' Lines, where Tolkien was based in early 1916.  All these places are apparently better to view in the winter when the existing remains aren't so screened by all the vegetation.  Here, Tom read "Naqelion" another poem translated from Qenya into English in recent times.  Then, the original poem was handed to Magne Bergland, who after a brief perusal proceeded to read from it in beautiful and apparently faultless Qenya.  His rendition aroused a spontaneous round of applause.  The ants' nest was the most memorable wildlife encountered in this area.

Tom reading Tolkien's poem "Naqelion" in English.  Meanwhile Magne (far left) is unaware he'll be shortly reading it (brilliantly) in the original Qenya!  Photo (c) 2016 Scott Whitehouse
We walked down to the bottom of Oldacre Valley, and here we had to negotiate expanses of mud and floodwater from the earlier torrential rain.  By the time we returned to the minibus most of us were bespattered with mud, and chased by annoying flies, some of which followed us into the minibus.  Unfortunately, we ran out of time to see a couple of worthwhile things, so Maggie and then Annette offered to give up time on Sunday to remedy the situation.

Tolkien's sketch of Gypsy Green as depicted at the bottom of one of the display banners 
Scott being introduced by David to Gordon, the current owner of Gypsy Green

For the grand finale of the day we were driven to Gypsy Green, the house where the Tolkiens, Jennie Grove and baby John enjoyed a peaceful period.  The exterior of the house was depicted by Tolkien in a delightful picture, included in Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, and the doings inside depicted in "High Life at Gipsy Green."  We were the first Tolkien group allowed this privilege, and Gordon, the very accommodating owner gave us a very interesting description of the elderly Tolkien visiting the house, explaining he was an author, and lived in the house many years earlier.  This was news to everyone, so I think will be checked for accuracy, and the chronology examined to see if the possible return to Stafford can be authenticated and dated more accurately. He also showed us a very striking period key, which he jokingly referred to as the "Key to the Mountain!"
The rear of Gypsy Green, which in Tolkien's time was considered the front of the property (cf. sketch above)
The archaic key to Gypsy Green
Finally, we were dropped off at the Memorial Hall.  I went back to the hotel to shower and change, and then met up with the others at the Clifford Arms for an evening meal.  Later, we returned to the Memorial Hall for a final time that day.  I was asked to introduce the story of Beren and Lúthien to those who were unaware of the story.  I bluffed my way through a brief summary, but for some reason I managed to talk about the quest for a special Jewel without once mentioning it was a Silmaril!  Perhaps, I was unconsciously concerned that if I did so, I would be expected to do a whole summary of The Silmarillion!  Then I whizzed through the whole of my East Yorkshire Tolkien slideshow, but slowed down during the Roos section to dwell on the Beren and Lúthien story.  
Lúthien as portrayed by Avalon Ramos in Roos, May 2016
(c) 2016 Phil Mathison
 Luthien Dancing (c) 2016 Phil Mathison
 Beren (Chris Hardcastle) & Lúthien (c) 2016 Phil Mathison
Next came a question and answer section which was mainly led by Nils, with very thoughtful interjections from Magne.  Nils explained just why The Lord of the Rings has such wide universal appeal, but perhaps he'll publish that somewhere else.  That was the end of a very interesting weekend, or was it?

On Sunday I had originally planned to set off for home immediately after breakfast, but Annette pointed out that I hadn't had time to see the "Ents" or the "brook of glass", and as these are some of the most picturesque items on Cannock Chase, I couldn't afford to miss them.  Annette made them so sound so enticing I readily agreed to postpone my trip up north.  The Norwegian guests were also intrigued, and Scott offered to lead us on the walk, and the Staffordshire poet also agreed to accompany us.
The beautiful stand of Oak Woodland
We drove in convoy to Coppice Hill, but got separated by traffic and lost our poet.  The first car almost had a Green Woodpecker on its bonnet as it entered the parking area, when one flew straight across the road.  As soon as we disembarked from the cars a Whitethroat's song could be heard singing nearby.  We hung around for 10 minutes, but as Tom failed to appear, we had to set off.  After a quarter of a mile or so we reached a section of ancient oaks, believed to be upwards of 500 years old.  Rather surprisingly in Tolkien's time, the huts were sensitively placed without harming the trees, Scott informed us that one was even incorporated into acting as one of the corners of a hut.  
Oak Tree, nicknamed 'The Ent'
Magne posing inside 'The Ent'
Another ancient Oak
We headed down into the valley passing Birch Polypore and Hoof fungus growing on dead Silver Birches, and hollow husks of trees with bilberries growing inside them.  We eventually reached the beautiful Sherbrook valley and stepping stones. These are rightly renowned, and are obviously a very popular area with visitors.  It is easy to understand why this inspired Tolkien who almost certainly walked this way from his camp to Edith in Great Haywood.  It was at this moment that Tom Wyre managed to join us after locating the rough area we were likely to be in with just a compass!  He read an amazing passage from The Book of Lost Tales, which brought in so many of the elements of places we had heard mention of and witnessed over the last couple of days.  Several Grey Wagtails sported above the water.
The Stepping Stones in the brief moment when no one was on them!
Tolkien's description of the "brook of glass" still seems relevant
We returned along the valley bottom where we encountered a sparser habitat, more akin to the terrain of a century ago, before the invasion of the trees.  The best bird in this area was a very smart Stonechat making the sound of 2 pebbles knocking together, and a pair of Linnets flew overhead.  Later, as we climbed back up towards the car park Magne spotted a raptor, which looked very much like a Hobby as it speeded over the brow of heather.
The final landscape - much as it was in Tolkien's day 
We felt a few spots of moisture at this moment, but luckily the rain held off to ensure the day was not spoiled.  This marked the end of my weekend in Staffordshire.  Of course I was aware of the Great Haywood connection from Carpenter's biography, and of course John Garth's more detailed book, but this trip really opened my eyes to the significance of the area to the development of Tolkien's mythology because being in the actual locations really helped visualise the past.  Taken with East Yorkshire's involvement in the genesis of the Beren and Lúthien story, these 2 locations obviously affected Tolkien at a time when his mythological ideas were just starting to coalesce in his mind, and to continue to do so, for the remainder of his writing life. 

I would like to thank David Robbie and Scott Whitehouse for inviting me to this very special weekend of events.  It is certainly something I'll remember for a long time.  David and Scott were perfect hosts, and the efforts they must have put in behind the scenes to ensure the whole process ran so smoothly must have been phenomenal.  The Haywood Society permitted us to be guests at a fantastic meal at one of their members' wonderful gardens, so my thanks go to all of them too.  I am also grateful to have been introduced to Nils and Magne, who both have a deep knowledge of all aspects of Tolkien, and whose conversation was endlessly fascinating and rewarding.  I hope it may be possible for all four of them some time in the future to come on a tour of the East Yorkshire Tolkien sites.  However, they should be warned that they won't be as fit afterwards, as the walking in Holderness is no way near as strenuous as on Cannock Chase!

To anyone contemplating visiting the travelling Staffordshire Tolkien exhibition, I can wholeheartedly recommend it.  Future venues, dates and related information may be found here

Finally, Tixall's gatehouse was pointed out to me, which I just had to photograph, but there is no known Tolkien connection

Personally, I would have loved the chance of looking round Bottle Lodge!


David Robbie said...

I love the way that you have interwoven your love and knowledge of Tolkien with your love and knowledge of wildlife here. Your ability to see birds and recognise birdsong amazed us and added something extra to our tour. I am so glad that you enjoyed your visit; we certainly enjoyed your company. It was an amazing weekend which will be difficult to repeat. You must come to Staffordshire again to explore some of the roots of Middle-earth as well as the wildlife of Cannock Chase. And we must come to Holderness to complete our picture of Tolkien's life during the Great War. David Robbie.

Maggie said...

Really enjoyed re-living the tour day, and so pleased to hear you got to visit the Ents, and the Brook of Glass on Sunday

Freyalyn said...

Excellent post - I really felt I was there with you all.

Michael Flowers said...

Thank you for your kind remarks

The BGW said...

Thanks for the excellent account - you really captured the visit and we enjoyed remembering it! A couple of comments:
The third waterway at Essex Bridge is a second arm of the Sow which was diverted through Shugborough for landscaping reasons by the Ansons.

The link with Tixall Gatehouse is St Johns RC Church, Great Haywood. This was originally behind and to the left of the Gatehouse until about 1844, following the Clifford-Constable's move to East Yorkshire (Burton Constable). Tolkien worshipped in the church and then also moved to C-C land in East Yorkshire.
Had Thomas Aston C-C not been obliged to sell Tixall Estate, Tolkien might have chosen to base himself there instead of GH (?).

Hope meet again soon, Alan & Annette