The Tolkien Triangle

The name given to the roughly triangular, Eastern part of Yorkshire bounded by Flamborough Head to the North, the Yorkshire Wolds to the West and the Humber to the South. To the East, the land peters out and fades into the sea, the long spit of Spurn head reaching out into the xxx to separate the sea from the estuary. It is named after Tolkien as he spent the last two years of the war here, illness having had him sent back from the front. Although the Eastern part of the area feels quite bleak and isolated, this part of Yorkshire is rural, with little villages dotted in between vast areas of farmland, making a bucolic little backwater of shady copses and charming churches

Tolkien was at Oxford on the outbreak of war in 1914 and spent the early part of it studying for his degree. As hostilities escalated, however, he realised that even he must answer the call of duty: he enlisted in the Lancashire Fusiliers, married his sweetheart, Edith Bratt and shipped out to France in 1916, where he was thrown into the midst of chaos of mud and bloodshed, taking part in the battle of the Somme.

Edith Tolkien’s home in Hornsea

Conditions in the trenches, as we all know, were abysmal. Death and disease were commonplace and boys and young men witnessed horrors that they could barely have imagined. Eventually, Tolkien succumbed to Trench Fever: a disease that thrived in the harsh conditions of the front line, transmitted through lice. The disease was rife during the First World War: AA Milne and CS Lewis were also sufferers. It causes headaches and muscle pain and patients often fail to recover completely, frequently relapsing into the worst grip of the disease. Tolkien was sent back to Britain and a Military hospital in April 1917 and spent the remainder of the war convalescing in various camps in East Yorkshire.

The hospital he was sent to was in Birmingham, his home town. Here he could recover with his new wife, Edith at his side. After he was declared fit enough to contribute to the war effort to some degree, he was sent to Hornsea Musketry Camp, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Edith followed him, travelling across country and moving in with her cousin, who lived in a little terraced house in Hornsea.

I must say that Hornsea was looking far from its best when we arrived, on a miserable October morning. Wet, grey and drear. I could see caravan sites and amusement arcades, half hidden by a grey, dreary drizzle. We looked around the seafront for a bit: there was a little shop there and a fountain, in case residents and visitors felt that a bit more water was needed. We found Edith’s lodgings quite easily: a nice little terraced cottage with a dormer declaring accommodation on three floors. It was mostly hidden behind trees and tall garden fence but the plaque still visible from the road. Everything, of course, looks better in the sunshine, and by the time we left Hornsea, the rain had stopped, blue patches were appearing overhead and the sun was beginning burn through the clouds.

The Dennison Centre, Hull. Previously Brooklands Military Hospital

JRR wasn’t at Hornsea long before his condition worsened, as the doctors suspected it might. He was sent to hospital again, this time to Brooklands Officers’ Hospital in Hull. This hospital had a great reputation as genteel place for gentlemen to heal and recover from their wounds. It was in the countryside outside the city, surrounded by open fields and woodland and Tolkien was able to wander around and enjoy his surroundings. He had started to work on inventing languages while still at school. these would eventually form the basis for the languages of Middle Earth: Elven and Dwarvish tongues. They were very complex linguistic exercises and he was able to use his time at Brooklands to immerse himself in his invented lands, languages and cultures, developing them into fully realised imaginary worlds. Brooklands Hospital is now the Dennison Centre, part of the University of Hull. It was looking very fine in its autumn plumage, a carpet of golden leaves from the mature trees that still surround it, even though it is no longer in open countryside.

Tolkien recovered again in summer of 1917, to be sent to another military camp in the East Riding. This time, it was to Thirtle Bridge Camp he was despatched. Edith moved into a flat in Withernsea and it seems that JRR was able to move in with her, at least for some of the time when his services at Thirtle Bridge were not required. The camp now is farmland. There is a house and one or two farm buildings scattered around and it is fun to speculate on which of these could be part of the original military encampment. At least one, now a private residence, looked as if it could have once served as a barracks. And there are some large, corrugated barns that also fit the bill.

Parts of Thirtle Bridge camp are now being used as farm buildings.

Nearby, in the little village of Roos, is a beautiful little country church, which the young couple are supposed to have visited. It was here that Tolkien first began to write the story of Luthien and Beren, about a man who falls in love with a beautiful elven princess. JRR recounts how he was struck with the idea while watching his young wife dance for him in a ‘Hemlock Grove’. This is believed to have occurred in Roos churchyard and, in the churchyard, there is a small patch of cow parsley, brown and skeletal on the North side of the church. The story forms part of the folklore of middle-earth, appearing in The Silmarillion, a kind of ‘prequel’ to the Lord of the Rings. The image of Edith as an elven princess must have stayed with the Tolkiens throughout their lives together. Their shared grave in Oxford bears the names Luthien and Beren.

Roos Church. Site of the Hemlok Grove?

The house where Edith lived in Withernsea is still here and now hosts a Chip Shop. We stopped in for an afternoon snack. I consider it my duty to sample any hostelry that was well known to writers or bases its premises in (or even near) a literary building. There was a long queue: always a good sign in a chip shop but a frustration nevertheless. The family directly in front of me seemed to be taking a long time to complete their order. There were several children, each of them with a different and complex request. It had fallen to one tired looking chap to ensure each of them was fully satisfied. Not an easy task and one which I’m sure he hadn’t realised the full gravity of before volunteering for the role. He was organising the unruly throng by satisfying their requests one at a time. By the time he’d got one of his charges settled, another was making a request for chips, or cokes, or fishcakes. I felt for the poor chap. He had sauce on his shorts, the contents of a juice box slowly trickling down his neck and the tired, stoical, world-weary look that you only see in young fathers. The staff kept apologising for the wait but, honestly, I was finding the whole show very amusing.

The Tolkiens’ flat in Withernsea is now a pretty decent chippy.

Withernsea is a nice-enough little seaside town. It has a very grand lighthouse, which has been converted into a local local arts centre or gallery, and a pier head with two grand castellated towers. Apart from these, the town is a bit ‘amusement arcadey’ but the chips were good. We ate our impromptu tea by the pier head, where two grand castellated towers guard the entrance to the pier. Unfortunately, the pier itself has gone. It was opened in in 1878 and stood for a full two years before being struck by a boat. Much like a hangnail, once the initial damage was there, it continued to attract collisions and there were more accidents over the coming few years until, eventually, it was dismantled completely. There are plans to restore the pier. A Small display in the shop in the north tower will tell you a little about this and the history of the area.

Tolkien suffered a further relapse and was set to yet another military hospital. This time, a little further down the coast at Kilnsea, near the mouth of the Humber. This one was attached to the Godwin Battery, where, as the name suggests, there were huge, heavy cannons guarding the gateway to the Humber estuary. The army was also playing with giant listening devices, in the form of concrete dishes which were designed to concentrate and amplify the sound of incoming aircraft. Eventually, the military gave up with the idea of trying to hear incoming aircraft and started messing around with radio waves. These would eventually develop into Radar systems but, in 1914, experimentation with sonic mirrors was the way forward. There are still some military buildings on this site, absorbed into the caravan site that now occupies the low cliffs here. On the beach is a jumble of concrete blocks and structures that stood on the cliff before it was undermined by the sea. Apparently, one of the listening devices is still visible in a nearby field but, after my short walk along the clifftop, I failed to find it.

Parts of Goodwin Battery reclaimed by the sea

I had Wanted to walk to Spurn Head, a long promontory that sticks out into the Humber Estuary, ending in a lonely lighthouse at the end of a three mile spit. It was getting late, though, and there was a steady stream of people heading home after a fun day exploring lighthouses or bird-watching. The mud flats and marshes are home to a great diversity of wildlife. There is, potentially, a huge variety of wading birds, feeding on the mud flats in the still water trapped on the estuary side of the beach. You can also see migrating birds like wheatears, whinchats, redstarts and flycatchers, who stop here on their way somewhere. A bit like the Welcome Break services on the M1. You may even see a grey seal or two if you’re lucky.

By the time 1918 rolled around, Tolkien was already starting to think about his life after the war. Edith was now pregnant with his son and JRR had been enquiring about academic jobs at various universities. At Armistice, he had already been appointed as a lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary and, by 1920, had been appointed to a post at the University of Leeds. He was now beginning to develop his ideas about creating another world. His experiences in France had given him a glimpse of the blood and terror of Mordor. His return to East Yorkshire had given him a glimpse of the peace and tranquility of the Shire.

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