The Old Forest
The Tolkien Connection
As a young child I read and instantly fell in love with the world created by the great J.R.R. Tolkien in his breathtaking works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I particularly fell in love with The Shire, the quaint, beautiful and fruitful home of his beloved Hobbits. It was a place that I daydreamed about and would often fantasise that I lived next door to Bilbo Baggins. It was a place that sometimes I could almost make real, especially when walking through a lush forest on a fine spring day. As a teenager I watched and digested The Lord of the Rings films with great enthusiasm. For the first time my beloved Shire was 'real', a place that I could see with my own eyes. However, this place was thousands of miles away in a small corner of New Zealand.
It was only after I decided to look more into the life of Tolkien that I discovered that the 'real' Shire was actually just a few miles from my home in Birmingham. You see the young Tolkien and his family lived at 264 Wake Green Road, in what is now the Moseley area of Birmingham. However, back at the end of the 19th Century when he was there as a small boy, the property was known as Gracewell, and it lay within the long vanished village of Sarehole. Today the village is remembered solely through Birmingham's last remaining still working watermill, Sarehole Mill. If there's one place that can offer us a connection between this Earth and Middle Earth then its this one. As young boys, Tolkien and his brother Hilary played in and around the Mill; routinely hiding from the flour covered miller whom they named the 'White Ogre'.
Where is Moseley Bog?
The Real Hobbiton
The First Moseley Bog Visit 14th February 2019:
If you've ever read the works of Tolkien then you'll be familiar with the Old Forest, home of the jolly sprite Tom Bombadil and the lair of that most sinister and treacherous of all trees Old Man Willow. Whilst Sarehole Mill serves as a real life link to the heart of the Shire- Hobbiton, the real life connection to the Old Forest lies just yards down the road. Moseley Bog is a truly remarkable dell of thick woodland sandwiched between the sprawling suburbs of Birmingham. If not for the actions of local enthusiasts in the 1980's it too would have been lost to the fires of industry. But remarkably it still stands as a testament to the durability of nature and also as a window to the imagination one of the greatest minds that ever put pen to paper.
I'd always wanted to visit Moseley Bog, but somehow had never managed to get round to it. So when Paula and I discussed the best way to spend a gentle Valentines afternoon, the opportunity to visit the real Middle Earth was far too good to pass up. I live just 5 miles away, and thus the journey took a mere 15 minutes. I'd intended to park in the small car park on Yardley Wood Road, but it was full, so we parked a short distance away at Swanshurst Park and walked down the road. Now firmly within the boundaries of Birmingham, the area was busy with both people and cars. Swanshurst though, has still managed to attract a certain amount of attention from the birding community on account of the discovery of an Iceland Gull there back in 2017. I'd made my first visit there at that time to see the bird, and since then the park and surrounding area has become a secondary local patch, serving as an alternative for my main local patch, Elmdon Park.
Normally trips to Swanshurst involved a couple of laps of the Pool in which I note and count the wildfowl and gulls present, but not this time. Instead I merely glanced at the pool as we crossed Swanshurst Lane and made our way down towards Yardley Wood Road towards the Bog. We turned right through the elaborately designed gateway and entered what could only be described as a lost world. We found ourselves on a wooden boardwalk that led us right into the heart of the forest. It was a truly surreal experience staring at the old gnarled trunks and twisted limbs of ancient trees whilst the whirring noise of traffic filtered away into the background. It was almost as if all of a sudden somebody had flipped a switch, with the sounds of the human world dying away and the glorious sounds and smells of nature reasserting itself.
We followed the trail of the Coldbath Brook and there I caught fleeting glimpses of a male Grey Wagtail as it foraged along the water's edge. However, our attention was mostly directed towards the canopy as I strained my ears to pick out the various species that were contributing their small part to the overall quality of the avian orchestra. European Robins were undoubtedly the most common songsters followed closely by Dunnock and the melodious Song Thrush, a bird whose song can be picked out by its tendency to repeat certain phrases over and over again. A Common Blackbird belted out a few notes, a Great Spotted Woodpecker made its characteristic 'chip' 'chip' call as it darted up the trunk on an ancient Beech tree. I could hear European Greenfinches making their unmistakable wheezing like call, and couldn't help but smile when I beheld a family party of Long-tailed Tits making their way through the dense branches.
We made our way to a viewing area in the heart of the forest, and almost expected to see a herd of Deer foraging. I'd had a similar experience in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, but on this occasion there were none to be found, and I suspected that the only species that maybe found here is the non-native Reeves Muntjac, although I saw no sign of any. Whilst in the viewing area, perhaps the most evocative side of the Bog revealed itself, when a flock of Carrion Crows settled in the trees above us. They called to each other, and a small part of my mind fantasised that they had been sent by the treacherous wizard Saruman to check us out. Then, from behind us we heard the characteristic shrieking of an Eurasian Jay. They're undoubtedly one of our prettiest birds sporting a pinkish plumage, with a white throat, black moustache stripe and light blue panel on its vermiculated black wings. Its a striking bird, and seems out of place compared to its corvid cousins. However, the sound of its call leaves no doubt as to its family, and once again the sound of a Jay in this magical place made my mind wander. In my head the shriek became altogether high pitched and terrifying, as I imagined it to be a member of the Nazgul- one of the Black Riders sent out by the Dark Lord Sauron to find the One Ring.
We made our way out of the Bog at a little after half past 4 and along the way couldn’t help but notice the beautiful Snowdrops poking through the leaf litter. Moreover my eye was drawn to the green Bluebell shoots that were already poking through the soil. The shoots were everywhere and straight away I promised myself that I would return once the glorious blue flowers had sprouted. Once out of the Bog the sights and sounds of the human world reasserted themselves. However, as I made the short journey home I took comfort in the knowledge that virtually on my doorstep a small piece of Middle Earth had been preserved for future generations to enjoy.
Where it all Began
Moseley Bog and its Inhabitants
A Further Visit 23rd February 2019:
Nine days after Paula and I visited, I made a solo return journey, well not quite solo- my little Jack Russell Marley accompanied me. It was a bright if slightly misty Saturday morning, so perfect for exploring the dense forest. We parked in the car park at Sarehole Mill and leisurely followed the course of the River Cole north towards the ford at Green Lane. It seemed strange to me to see a ford a mere few miles from the City Centre of Birmingham, but somehow this tiny corner of Moseley had retained that countryside feeling. For a moment, I stared back down the River Cole towards Sarehole, then I looked right up Green Lane towards Moseley Bog and imagined how things were when Tolkien was a lad, and couldn't help but think how idyllic this place was before the traffic and development. Marley and I walked up Green Lane then made a left onto Wake Green Lane. We were heading for Thirlmere Drive, which led into Pensby Close, which in turn offered an alternative route into Moseley Bog. Along the way, my attention was drawn to five very pretty and quaint looking houses, I noticed the plaque up on the front of number 268 which stated that these were the Gracewell Homes. Then I took a moment to admire number 264, the childhood home of Tolkien. I'd half expected to see some sort of commemorative plaque stating proudly that the great author once lived here, but there was none. Still, I took a moment to note the surroundings, the looming Moseley Bog was literally at the end of 264's back garden and Sarehole Mill along with the River Cole was literally over the road. The young Tolkien didn't had to travel far to find his inspiration.
After entering the Bog via Pensby Close I took the opportunity to explore the forest in far greater detail than I had with Paula and took note of its character. I spied many old and ancient trees, including a gnarled Oak that according to the notice board was more than 300 years old. I was particularly intrigued by the amount of dead wood that was lying around. In most of the forests I visit any fallen trees or branches are quickly whisked away to be used as a timber, but not so in Moseley Bog where trees simply lie where they fall and are allowed to rot. A forest of this character is incredibly healthy, and in fact most of the wildlife in any given forest lives primarily on rotting wood. I couldn't help but note the irony that a forest that was so full of death was literally teeming with life.
Just as last time the bird life in the forest was amazing. I was particularly captivated by 4 huge Northern Ravens that continuously circled over the forest calling to each other. They briefly settling in one of the Ash trees before resuming their noisy patrol. A Common Buzzard was heard somewhere high above the forest, although no matter how much I craned my neck, I could not see it. A male Eurasian Bullfinch flew above my head, and a male Common Chaffinch belted out its cheery song from high up in the canopy. I was particularly thrilled to see a tiny Eurasian Treecreeper...creeping its way up the twisted bark of another old oak. These birds can be difficult to see and are nowhere near as vocal or visible as another bird that can often be found on tree trunks, the Eurasian Nuthatch, although unlike the Treecreeper they can move either up or down a trunk whilst the Treecreeper can only move up.
Marley and I emerged blinking from the forest just before midday and once more made the short 5 mile hop home. On both visits now I have been utterly captivated and spellbound by the forest. I hope that it continues to have the same effect on me and others forever.
A Tour of the Real Middle Earth
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 James Kenny
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 27, 2019:
Thanks Lix, its something that I'm very proud of as a Brummie.
Liz Westwood from UK on February 27, 2019:
I had no idea of the Tolkien link with this area of Birmingham. I have certainly learned something new from this interesting and, as ever, well-illustrated article.