how East Yorkshire shaped Tolkien’s Middle-earth fantasy

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<p><figcaption class=Photo: Chris McLoughlin/Getty Images

Trench fever. I used to imagine it akin to the flu, or Covid even, but this is in some ways a nasty disease. Caused by bacteria carried on lice, symptoms include a high temperature, headache and excruciating pain in the legs and back. And even if the symptoms disappear after a few days, it is Bartonella quintana the bacteria continues to rear its debilitating head, causing relapses for months or years.

Disgusting then. But had it not infected a 24-year-old officer fighting on the Somme in 1916, the world might never have had Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, Peter Jackson would have had to find other things to occupy the early years of this century, and Amazon would not prepare set out to launch the most expensive TV series ever made – The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

After the mud and horror of the front, this quiet country rising gently towards the coast must have seemed paradisiacal

Second Lieutenant JRR Tolkien was sent home sick in November 1916 and was never “fighting fit” again. He spent the rest of the war on light duty in East Yorkshire – the former officers’ hospital in Hull where he was treated is for sale – while comrades at the front died in such numbers that by 1918 his battalion, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, numbered just 14 men and was dissolved.

Tolkien’s Shire is based on rural Worcestershire – and the Misty Mountains of the Swiss Alps – but the author’s time in this remote coastal area inspired key elements of his stories, including Middle-earth’s greatest love story.

Hull is said to be at the end of a 50-mile cul-de-sac, making the Holderness Plain to the east a hinterland beyond a road to nowhere. But after the mud and horror of the front, this quiet farmland rising gently towards the coast must have seemed paradisiacal, especially as the spring and summer of 1917 were “brilliantly fine and hot”, according to military reports.

Places associated with the author, who while here wrote poems and stories, and developed two of his mythological languages, are now brought together in the Tolkien Triangle, a path stretching from Hull northeast to Hornsea and south to Kilnsea. I took a walk with Phil Mathison, a musician and author who researched letters and parish and military records for his book Tolkien in East Yorkshire (Dead Good Publications, £9.99).

The hull may be a dead end, but the port made it a target for Germany. For fear of a land invasion, defense batteries were established along the east coast. Although that invasion never came, these camps were where Tolkien, when he was fit enough, spent much of 1917 and 1918.

Even without the Tolkien connection, this bit of East Yorkshire is an atmospheric place, its elegantly curved coastline tapering off to the three-mile long Spurn Peninsula, a narrow strip of land between sea and estuary, famous for birdwatching.

Hornsea Mere, the largest lake in all four Yorkshires.

Hornsea Mere, the largest lake in all four Yorkshires – Tolkien was sent to a training camp nearby. Photo: David Chapman/Alamy

The prettiest resort is Hornsea, with a sandy and pebbly beach and cute Victorian streets between the wide, lawn-filled promenade and Hornsea Mere, the largest lake in all four Yorkshires. Tolkien had married shortly before setting out for France, and when he was first posted to Hornsea Musketeer Camp in early 2017, his wife, Edith, took the opportunity to be close to him, living in a modest house (with blue plaque) near Mere on Bank terrace.

Tolkien spent most of his time along the coast at Thirtle Bridge Camp, near Tunstall, training to become a signal officer: the battalion’s headquarters are now Sand Le Mere holiday park. That this is Northern Europe’s fastest eroding coastline (up to four meters a year) is obvious here: the edge of the land is raw and ravaged, and stretches of path regularly topple down the low cliffs. This and stories the author must have heard about Yorkshire’s “Lost Atlantis”, Ravenser, a great port in the Humber destroyed by storm and flood in the mid-14th century, probably inspired his lost kingdom of Númenor, sunk by a great wave in the second. age.

The sound mirror at Kilnsea was a precursor to the radar.

The sound mirror at Kilnsea was a precursor to the radar. Photo: Artur Chromy/Alamy

To be closer to her husband, Edith moved down the coast to Withernsea – there is a blue plaque marking her accommodation in what is now the Lifeboat fish and chip shop. This once scruffy resort looks up, with a newly developed prom above the vast sandy beach. A photograph held by Tolkien’s estate shows Edith and JRR on this sand – he is very thin from his illness. Some say that the town’s lighthouse – fairly new in Tolkien’s time – inspired Saruman’s Orthanc Tower.

Related: Amazon’s Lord of the Rings cast reveals clips from The Rings of Power at Comic-Con

Probably more believable is the inspiration for names from Midgard. Yorkshire until 1974 was in three “ridings” – the word means a third; Tolkien’s Shire is in four “farthings” or quarters.

The name of Frodo, his questing hero, may have come from the village of Frodingham, near Hornsea. Frod meant wisely in Anglo-Saxon – Tolkien loved the way old language lingers in the place names of East Yorkshire. Frodo’s father was Drogo Baggins: probably after Baron Drogo de la Bouerer, who owned much of Holderness in the 11th century.

Tolkien in uniform in 1916.

Tolkien in uniform in 1916. Photo: Alamy

As a signal officer, Tolkien would have had duties at Kilnsea’s forerunner of the radar, the concrete sound mirror, which focused the sound of aircraft engines onto a microphone. It still stands today, staring out to sea from a field north of the village.

We stayed a few miles away at North Star Sanctum, a development of one- and two-bedroom cottages opened in 2019. Reached along undulating tree-lined streets, they’re in a gloriously peaceful spot that comes into its own after dark. As in 1917, there is no light pollution here: gazing up at the clear, sparkling sky, I could see why Tolkien placed so much emphasis on stars and starry nights. (Though I can’t imagine what he would have made of watching them from a hot tub.) I even saw Venus—AKA Eärendil, the elves’ most beloved star—toward the sea one early morning.

The most poignant site is Roos, where, says Mathison, “Tolkien reality merges with myth”. The pretty, sleepy village is just over a mile from Thirtle Bridge, perfect for some R&R for JRR and his wife. The newly pregnant Edith danced for her husband in what he called “a hemlock glade” in later writings. Experts agree that this was Dent’s Garth, a wood near the village, which still has a glorious understory of frothy cow parsley.

Related: A guided walk in Tolkien’s original Shire, in Birmingham

The sight of his light-footed wife inspired a significant part of what would become The Silmarillion: the story of the elven maiden Lúthien, whom the mortal hero Beren first spies in a sylvan glade. The star-crossed lovers are reflected in The Lord of the Rings’ Aragorn and Arwen (and the Amazons’ Arondir and Bronwyn).

Dent’s Garth curves around two sides of Roos’ 13th-century church, with a yew avenue and the remains of a Norman watchtower. It is the most seductive place in the entire Tolkien triangle. Men were dying in France, but this joyful scene in a sun-drenched forest was a sign of a future worth fighting for.

• The trip was organized by the Coast of England and Visit East Yorkshire, with accommodation at the North Star Sanctum, whose luxury cabins cost from £315 for a three-night stay. More information from englandcoast.com and visiteastyorkshire.co.uk

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