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.
The map below shows Europe as it was when the continental shelf was still above sea level. In particular, it will be noticed that the shelf surrounding the British Isles has a very familiar shape to it, and is of course the huge bulge of Eriador so familiar from the maps of Middle-earth. The English Midlands correspond to the Shire, with the Old Forest to the east. The alteration of coastlines and other features to their present forms must have occurred during the Fourth Age – probably from around 2200 BC onwards (see Chronology for a detailed analysis).
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 go a few miles to the north-west, to Tolkien’s childhood home of Sarehole, in order to find its true historical location. The satellite map below 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, indicated by the red pointer, was known in his day as 5 Gracewell Cottages, but today as 264 Wake Green Road. It lies opposite Sarehole Mill, acknowledged by Tolkien as the inspiration for Sandyman’s Mill. His house is in the same position as the Old Grange at Hobbiton. Ignore for the moment the smaller suburban roads that mostly date from the 1930s. Running west to east across the southern part of the map is a much older road (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 is 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 on a steep hill. The hill is well-known locally for its mysterious tunnels, and corresponds to The Hill at Hobbiton, location of Bag End. Tolkien visited the college as a child during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897. Even the courses of the original roads are the same as those in Hobbiton. The River Cole runs from south to north – but this is in the wrong direction to equate with The Water at Hobbiton, which runs parallel to the Bywater Road. The much smaller Mill Stream, however, is located in the correct position, which therefore corresponds to The Water.
Sarehole Mill, as seen from the west across the Mill Pond – approximately the same view as the young Tolkien would have known from his home on Wake Green Road. The mill and its adjoining field are today the location for the annual Middle-earth Weekend each May, 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.