Hobbit country


AMONG the comments on last week’s column was this from our dear American friend Audre Myers:

‘When I saw the Ribble Valley (in pictures) for the first time, I mentioned to an English friend that it looked like Hobbits could live there. Not to stretch an idea too thin . . . I think that at some point, the Elves (lovers of green and growing things) and Dwarves (masters stone hewers and builders) once all lived together and created the great beauty of England.’

I don’t think Audre realised it, but she was spot-on. The Ribble Valley was indeed the inspiration for quite a bit of The Lord of the Rings.

Before I go any further, I need to say that I am not a Tolkien fan. I tried The Hobbit several times in my younger days and never got past the first page. My loss, I expect.

Anyway, as many of you will know, J R R Tolkien wrote The Hobbit in the early 1930s while he was a professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford. It was published in September 1937 and was such a success that in December that year his publisher asked for a sequel. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings between then and 1949, and it was published in three volumes in 1954 and 1955, ultimately becoming one of the world’s best-selling books with more than 150million copies sold.

During the war Tolkien’s son John, who was studying for the priesthood, was evacuated with the English College in Rome to Stonyhurst College, the Roman Catholic school near Clitheroe, just a few miles from us. It is a magnificent Grade I listed building.

The seminary was located in St Mary’s Hall, which is now the prep school.

Tolkien visited regularly with his wife Edith, their two other sons and daughter, their names appearing many times in the guest book. He stayed at the visitors’ lodge, which is now the deputy headmaster’s house, about half a mile from the main building. During these visits, which must have lasted for a while, Tolkien worked on The Lord of the Rings in this house and in a classroom on the upper gallery of the College.

In 2014 Jonathan Hewat from Stonyhurst College told the BBC: ‘Some of the most dramatic and vivid chapters were written during the war years – from Gandalf’s fall into darkness in Moria, written in 1941, to the long, painful journey of Frodo and Sam into Moria, which occupied much of 1944.’

As I say, I am no expert on Tolkien, so I have collected these references from various sources.

The area is dotted with names that are familiar from The Lord of the Rings – Shire Lane in Hurst Green, for instance, or the River Shirebourn. Perhaps named after the Shireburn Family who built Stonyhurst. The countryside is dominated by Pendle Hill, famous for its association with witches, sorcery and black magic in the 16th century. There is speculation that it was the inspiration for Middle Earth’s Misty Mountains or The Lonely Mountain.

The house where the Tolkiens stayed at Stonyhurst is said to be the basis for Tom Bombadil’s house in the Old Forest. Hacking Hall, a handsome Jacobean house on the banks of the River Hodder, is the probable source for Brandy Hall in Buckland, the more so when you discover that the Hodder was the ancient boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire, as the Brandywine divides Buckland from the Shire. When Tolkien visited here there was a working ferry across the river, as there is in The Lord of the Rings.

There is a 5.5mile circular walk named the Tolkien Trail from the Shireburn Arms in Hurst Green. You can read about it here and see the route here. To be honest I am not sure how much Tolkieniana is involved, but it must be a lovely walk.

PS: Many readers will no doubt have been worried for Audre whose home town in Florida, St Petersburg, was hit by Hurricane Ian. She left this message on last week’s Sticks a few days after the event:

‘We developed a huge leak in the ceiling over the kitchen and Lon spent hours dumping the pots and pans – at one point, he had to empty them every 10 minutes! Extraordinary amount of rainfall! But we were blessed beyond measure in comparison with our southern counties. The destruction is breath-taking – like a blow to the stomach! Two entire counties had their electric grid destroyed. It cannot be salvaged; it will have to be rebuilt from scratch and that could take months – perhaps even a year and yet folks there (if they still have homes) will have to figure out how to live day to day. Please keep them daily in your prayers – it’s an emotional struggle for them as well as a physical struggle. Our Gov. DeSantis was absolutely outstanding in marshalling all the help we need – 10,000 electric power workers from around the country were staged in three different areas; the Coast Guard and our unofficial Cajun Navy made incredible rescues of stranded people; food and water by the ton available for everybody. He planned and contacted well ahead of the storm to make sure that we would be covered as much as is humanly possible and even the ‘Brandon’ in charge relented and helped out – thanks to DeSantis’ continual contact with him. DeSantis was here giving us updates so we didn’t have to rely on the unreliable mainstream news outlets.’


Our gunneras have had their best summer since we planted them six or seven years ago. The afternoon sunlight reflects off the stream and creates a light show on the giant leaves. I took this video while Sticks was on its summer break.


Sheep of the Week

The Ouessant (roughly pronounced ‘Wesson’) has the distinction of being the smallest naturally occurring sheep breed in the world, with ewes being about 18in to the shoulder, and rams an inch or so taller.

It originates from the island of Ouessant (known in English as Ushant) off the coast of Brittany. Some suggest that the breed was introduced by the Vikings.

The island is swept by the full force of Atlantic weather, and the sheep have to be hardy to survive in all weathers on poor grazing. The Ouessant existed exclusively on its home island until the beginning of the 20th century, by which time it was nearly extinct. It was rescued by French farmers and is now bred in several countries in Europe. It was brought to the UK in the early 2000s and remains on the EU and UK lists of ‘At Risk’ rare and heritage breeds.

The rams have spectacular horns, but the ewes are ‘polled’, ie without horns. The sheep come in several colours, as you can see here.

The fleece is thick and long with a dense undercoat. The wool is of high quality and can be hand spun, felted or woven. The meat is said to be very tasty.

The Ouessant Sheep Society says they are ‘intelligent, inquisitive, gentle and full of character’. You can read more about them on the society website.

Here’s a video showing how friendly they can be.

Here is one showing an ill-advised lamb taking on a rooster.

Although we had a clip of rams fighting last week, this one takes it to a new level with a three-way battle.

Finally a film in which a ram takes a dislike to a bicycle and its rider. It doesn’t specify that it’s a Ouessant but it looks like one. This is more the ‘full of character’ trait than ‘gentle’.


Wheels of the week

This is the sort of car that makes me think of police chases in post-war films, with jingling bells like an alarm clock.

It is a 1946 Riley RMA. The RM series had been due to be launched by Nuffield in the early 1940s but production was halted by the war. The RMA, with a 1.5-litre engine, went on the market in 1945, and was followed in 1946 by the slightly larger RMB, with a 2.5 litre engine.

To quote from Rob’s Riley Pages: ‘The RMA used the excellent Riley 12/4 engine of 1934, mounted on a development of the pre-war 16/4 chassis and with a body derived from the pre-war Continental model. However, despite all of these old and borrowed components, the model was a sensation on launch and can truly be said to be the first all-new car to be launched in the 1940s, with so many of those available from competitors being re-hashed versions of the 1939 range.’

The RMA’s performance figures were 0-50mph in 20.5 seconds, top speed 81mph and fuel consumption 25 miles to the gallon. It cost £709 18s 4d (£22,920 now, according to the Bank of England inflation calculator). A total of 10,504 were produced from 1945 until 1952 when it was replaced by the RME.


One Reply to “Hobbit country”

  1. I first heard of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ from the records of Led Zeppelin – which put me off as it sounded airy-fairy. When it was made into a blockbuster film I was further put off. Having subsequently found out about Tolkien’s links to places like Stonyhurst and his essential English-ness I took more of an interest in him, and I suppose I will read the book one day, when I have time! One of Tolkien’s Christian names was Reuel, a name you never see now, apart from on gravestones. (There’s an idea for a feature Alan and Margaret – names found on gravestones in old churchyards).

    Those sheep videos are hilarious. I love how the sheep take a long dramatic walk backwards before running forward to headbutt each other – or the cyclist!

    ve not read

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *