Many are the parts of Britain that are claimed as the inspiration for The Shire in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Sarehole in Warwickshire, where Ronald’s widowed mother moved in 1896, is a convincing part-model; then there’s Buckland in Powys, Wales where it’s argued the young Ronald and his younger brother Hilary later spent a holiday with their guardian after their mother’s death in 1904. A recent item by a trainee reporter for Devon Live caught my eye with yet another claim for primacy as the original Shire:
Although you may know that Tolkien had connections with Oxford, you may be less familiar with his affection for the Jurassic Coast. According to his biographers, Tolkien essentially turned Sidmouth into the Shire.Toby Codd, Devon Live
My not being a Tolkien scholar in any shape or form this assertion was therefore news to me, since I was only vaguely aware of Tokien having been to Devon’s Jurassic Coast on holiday at some stage. But is Sidmouth really the Shire? What’s the evidence for this assertion? Or is it all down to lazy journalism?
Let me give you a few more quotes from this July 2022 piece, eye-catchingly entitled Lord of the Rings: J.R.R. Tolkien turned Sidmouth into Middle Earth for hit fantasy series.
It is believed that the Jurassic Coast helped [Tolkien] visualise some of the terrain that Frodo and his followers faced on their mission. He is said to have [begun] writing The Lord of the Rings while his children played in rock pools in the area.
More uniquely, the character of Aragon was reportedly inspired by a smoking punter in a local pub. During his visits to Sidmouth in the summer, Tolkien was known to frequent Kennaway House and the Belmont Hotel.Toby Codd, Devon Live
Alarm bells were ringing in my ears when I read “It is believed . . . He is said . . . Aragorn was reportedly inspired . . .” It was time to dig deeper into the likely sources for ‘trainee reporter’ Toby Codd from Gloucestershire, whose reports appear on several West Country online news sites.
The Sidmouth Herald reported on one of the town’s historic buildings, namely Aurora. This was constructed as an offshoot of Fort House, the latter a building called Church House in 1906 and, since 2009, Kennaway House after the Devon family that were one of the first to lease it. Jess Morgan from Kennaway House told the paper “Aurora was built as part of Fort House in 1805, but became a separate residence in 1906. JRR Tolkien used it as a summer holiday home, and wrote part of Lord of the Rings there!” This looked promising.
Another piece from the Sidmouth Herald, this one by Stephen Summer, announced that ‘Ringer’ shares Tolkien’s time in Sidmouth: “JRR Tolkien turned Sidmouth into the Shire and one of his loyal followers is on a quest to share the role the town played in inspiring one of fantasy’s greatest works.” Avid fan (the ‘ringer’) Vicki Angus Campbell told the paper she’d discovered Tolkien had “holidayed in Sidmouth several times, staying at Aurora near Kennaway House and in the Belmont Hotel. She found that one of the pubs helped the Oxford University professor through a bout of writer’s block to develop a major character.” How so?
I like to think he was sitting in the corner of The Ship or The Swan smoking his pipe, and in a flash of inspiration, Aragorn was born.
No matter that Aragorn or Strider was originally conceived as a strange hobbit and called Trotter, is Vicki Campbell’s vision based on fact or the figment of an overactive imagination? And more important, had her research into ‘Aurora’ and Sidmouth’s Belmont Hotel turned up trumps?
We know that Tolkien stayed at the Belmont, but he wrote to his son Christopher that he lodged, apparently for the first time, in this “grim looking” hotel as late as June 1971, long after The Lord of the Rings had appeared – unfortunately for speculative fans. Letter 323 describes what is only a “brief holiday to Sidmouth” – just a week – on the advice of his doctor; despite its appearance he reports that “The Belmont proved a v.g. choice [and] the best in the place – especially for eating.” He also enjoyed being there for the explosion of green and other colours as summer took hold, though unfortunately he caught a bug towards the end of his stay.
So, the Belmont stay didn’t contribute to the creation of the halflings’ homeland.
The other site however strikes gold in terms of links with The Shire. One financial periodical, MoneyWeek, reveals (Houses with famous connections) that Flat 3, Aurora, Sidmouth, described as a “large, two-bedroom flat in the Grade II-listed building” which featured “Gothic-style sash windows with views over open green areas towards the sea […] was used as a summer home by J.R.R. Tolkien from 1934 until 1938, and was where he wrote part of The Lord of the Rings.”
The Tolkien family took another holiday at Sidmouth for two weeks in September 1935, staying again at ‘Aurora’. In the summer of the following year Tolkien was busy writing what would become The Hobbit, eventually published in 1937 at the autumnal equinox. Only 1500 copies made up the first printing of this first edition, which had sold out before Christmas, but Tokien had beforehand drawn up a list of those who were to receive presentation copies, including his friend C S Lewis, former students and colleagues, as well as his aunts Mabel Mitton and Florence Hadley.
One of these special copies was inscribed with the dedication “Mr. & Mrs. Livesley & Edgar with best wishes from J.R.R. Tolkien.” The Livesleys (and their son) apparently ran Kennaway House and presumably ‘Aurora’ too, this link with Tolkien somehow proving – at least according to Sotheby’s, which sold the book at auction in 2021 – that the surrounds of Kennaway House, and thus Sidmouth, “inspired the landscapes, flora, and fauna of The Shire.”
But this seems to be a bold claim on little evidence. Worcestershire, wrote Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter, “is of all West Midland counties The Shire from which the hobbits come; Tolkien wrote of it: ‘Any corner of that county (however fair or squalid) is in an indefinable way “home” to me, as no other part of the world is’ (Carpenter 1978: 197). And Sarehole (now located in Warwickshire) seems closest to Hobbiton itself, where Ronald spent happy childhood years until his mother died, just before he’d reached his teens.
The publication of The Hobbit was not the end of Sidmouth’s tentative connections with The Shire, however. When writing its sequel in 1938, Tolkien took his own family off to Sidmouth at the point where he’d got to the Tom Bombadil episode, in what was yet to become The Lord of the Rings. While in Sidmouth he brought the hobbits far to the east of the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs to The Prancing Pony in Bree, where the halflings meet the stranger who will eventually become Strider.
However Bree, of course, was way beyond the confines of The Shire, left behind when the hobbits departed from Buckland. While it’s very possible that Buckland – at the extreme eastern edge of The Shire – was a distant remembrance of Buckland near Bwlch in Powys, it’s much harder to imagine the clifftop walks and rockpools of the seaside town relating to the halflings’ homely landscapes and dwellings. Unless of course one considers Sidmouth’s then smoky pubs!
It seems to me that the most likely way that Sidmouth may have inspired Tolkien was that it provided periods of relaxation and escape in which to allow his imagination to run where it wanted, rather than any specific aspects of the Devon seaside and Jurassic Coast. Did Tolkien really “essentially” turn Sidmouth into the Shire and did the Jurassic Coast truly inspire the landscapes, flora, and fauna of the hobbits’ homeland?
Or are the town’s advocates chasing a chimaera?
• Humphrey Carpenter. 1977. Tolkien. A biography. Ballantine, 1978.
• Seamus Hamill-Keays. ‘Tolkien and Buckland: An Analysis of the Evidence.’ Brycheiniog: Cyfnodolyn Cymdeithas Brycheiniog / The Journal of the Brecknock Society XLIX, 2018
• J R R Tolkien. 1988. The Return of the Shadow: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part One. Christopher Tolkien, editor. Unwin Paperbacks..
Another post in my Talking Tolkien series. This September will mark the 85th anniversary of the first version of The Hobbit (1937) so I may mark the occasion with a post or two