Three Rings for the Elven Kings
Ella kom ye la! I cried unto these ones, I've wandered through the dark so long! I've waited through the night for the rising sun!



Geography of Middle-earth

When we examine the maps of Middle-earth that appear in Tolkien’s books, and compare them to a modern map of Europe, we find that the major geographical features fall into place very neatly – though it must be borne in mind that the maps in Tolkien’s published works were actually drawn by his son Christopher, so we can afford to stretch them a little here and there if necessary. Tolkien did indeed draw maps of his own, but these were mere sketches that were adapted, sometimes incorrectly, by his son.

Middle-earth as Europe

The Frisian chronicle known as the Oera Linda Book tells of a great cataclysm of nature in 2194/2193 BC, which continued for three years (see Chronology for a detailed analysis). Mountains sank into the earth and sea, and others were raised. Whole countries were submerged, and rivers changed their courses. Such an upheaval would certainly be necessary to produce the familar shape of Europe as we know it today. Prof. Peter Bird, of the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), has prepared a map showing how the contours of Middle-earth, so familiar from The Lord of the Rings, have been twisted and bent into those of modern Europe.

Middle-earth – Europe

Of particular interest is Prof. Bird’s location for Minas Tirith, on the easternmost point of the Alps – which he equates, on etymological grounds, with the White Mountains (Ered Nimrais). This places it on the modern Austrian–Hungarian border, where the city of Sopron now stands. Sopron is today part of Hungary, but is surrounded on three sides by Austrian territory and until 1921 belonged to Austria, under the name of Ödenburg. Prior to this it had changed hands many times thoughout history, and is first recorded by the Romans as Scarbantia.

Location of Hobbiton

As for Hobbiton itself, there are some who suppose that this should lie in the same position as Oxford, England – based on a rather vague remark in one of Tolkien’s letters. After studying the evidence, however, it is clear that we should look some 60 miles to the north-west, to Tolkien’s childhood home of Sarehole, in order to find its true historical location. The interactive Google map (below, left), shows Sarehole as it is today. When Tolkien lived there, during the 1890s, it was a tiny hamlet in Worcestershire, but since 1911 it has been part of the City of Birmingham.
Tolkien’s childhood home, 5 Gracewell Cottages, is today known as 264 Wake Green Road. It lies opposite to, and a little to the north of, Sarehole Mill (indicated by the red pointer, below left) acknowledged by Tolkien as the inspiration for Sandyman’s Mill in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s house is therefore in the same position, in relation to the mill, as the Old Grange at Hobbiton, as is shown by Barbara Strachey’s map of Hobbiton and Bywater in her Journeys of Frodo, published in 1981 (below, right). The blue rectangle roughly corresponds to the area shown in the interactive map, insofar as this is possible, given the incomplete information Strachey was working with.
Sarehole Mill, Birmingham

Sarehole (interactive map)

Hobbiton and Bywater

Ignore for the moment the smaller suburban roads on the modern map, mostly dating from the 1930s. Running west to east across its southern part is a much older road (designated the B4146) which goes by a variety of names along its length – Swanshurst Lane and Cole Bank Road, for example. This corresponds to Tolkien’s Bywater Road. Sarehole Mill and its Mill Pond are situated at the junction of this ancient route and Wake Green Road – itself an old trackway heading north, then north-west, past Spring Hill College (now part of Moseley School), built in the 1850s atop the highest hill in the area. This hill is famous locally for its mysterious tunnels, and corresponds to The Hill at Hobbiton, site of Bag End. Tolkien visited Spring Hill College as a child for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, an event that may have inspired his description of Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party. While all the original roads in Sarehole are laid out in the same configuration as those in Hobbiton, the River Cole, on the other hand, runs from south to north, whereas The Water at Hobbiton runs parallel to the Bywater Road. The much smaller Coldbath Brook, however – feeding the Mill Pond from Moseley Bog – is located in the correct position, so therefore corresponds to The Water.
It should be noted that Barbara Strachey has made at least two errors on her map of Hobbiton and Bywater. The first concerns the road heading north from Sandyman’s Mill (to Overhill), which she has running to the west of The Hill. However, Tolkien’s illustration in The Hobbit shows it running east of The Hill, as indeed does the map in The Lord of the Rings. Given this, we can state that the Overhill Road corresponds to Wake Green Road as far as its junction with Springfield Road, then to Springfield Road itself. The section of Wake Green Road north of this junction corresponds to Bagshot Row. Strachey’s second error concerns the Green Dragon at Bywater, which she has placed on the opposite side of the road to Bywater Pool. Tolkien’s description in The Lord of the Rings makes it clear that the buildings in Bywater were situated between the pool and the road, and that the Green Dragon was the last of these on the way to Hobbiton. It therefore corresponds in position to the Bull’s Head in Hall Green, a coaching inn of ancient foundation. Unfortunately, however, there is no pub today on the site of the Ivy Bush at Hobbiton.

Sarehole Mill

Despite endless speculation to the contrary, Sarehole – with its now-famous water mill – is the only place ever acknowledged by Tolkien as being an inspiration to him. In his Foreword the the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings (1965), he wrote:
“The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways. Recently I saw in a paper a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn-mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important. I never liked the looks of the Young miller, but his father, the Old miller, had a black beard, and he was not named Sandyman.”
The following year, 1966, in an interview with Guardian journalist John Ezard, Tolkien said:
“It was a kind of lost paradise ... There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill. I always knew it would go — and it did.”

By the late 1960s the mill was in such a bad state of repair that Birmingham City Council decided to demolish it. A local campaign was launched to prevent this, to which Tolkien contributed financially from the proceeds of The Lord of the Rings, which was now becoming a worldwide bestseller and cultural phenomenon. So, coming full circle in this way, Sarehole Mill was opened as a working museum in 1969.


Hobbiton at Sarehole Mill

Hobbiton model village at Sarehole Mill. The mill and its adjoining field are today the venue for the annual Middle Earth Festival, which also includes guided tours of Moseley Bog, and other sites associated with Tolkien in different areas of Birmingham. In 2012 and 2013, with a large financial grant from Birmingham City Council, Sarehole Mill underwent extensive renovation, and is now in full working order.
We who of the earth are born will lead you through the healing storm,
t’s time to follow the path of the ancient ones!

© 2003 / 2015 Ash Branch