We spent some time this afternoon at Sarehole Mill Museum a few miles outside Birmingham city centre. On the face of it, there is nothing really special about the place: an untidy carpark, a few old mill buildings and an ill-stocked cafe. Lift aside the mantle of modesty, however, and you will spy J. R. R. Tolkien's very own playground from the time when he was a lad of eight.
He had come with his widowed mother and brother Hilary to Gracewell Cottages next to the mill pond. They were living near family in south Birmingham after the death of Tolkien senior in South Africa. The two boys played all over the still functioning mill, among the millstones and pulleys:
They gambolled in the local fields from which they were regularly chased by a mad Birmingham farmer on which the character of Farmer Maggot was based. Nearby, they found Moseley Bog which itself provided the raw inspiration of Fangorn Forest.
Pictures of the mill from the early 1900s when Tolkien knew it suggest the area was little more than a village within easy reach of a large town. Now, it is one of the many suburbs which slide away with ungainly vulgarity from Birmingham city centre. The noise of the traffic likewise nowadays takes a little something away from the atmosphere's location.
And nevertheless, it is a special spot. Pictures of the mill capture something of its old world charm:
And in the summer sun, with the birds singing brightly and the vegetation humming under the heat, one could not help but summon up the image of Tolkien's young imagination being forged under these kind stones.