Tolkien in Bournemouth and Dorset
Rodney Legg finds that the creator of Middle Earth visited Lyme Regis from childhood, lived for several years in Branksome Park, and died in Bournemouth
Published in November ’09
From Bloemfontein to Bournemouth, via Middle Earth, was the life journey of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), who soon became a notable etymologist, linguist and philologist with a natural flair for speech as it sounded a thousand years ago. His public life was based around Oxford, where he became Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the astonishingly early age of 32. In the extra-mural world of the imagination he had already moved on from ‘Primitive Eldarin’ to inventing ‘Sindarin’ as the language of his elves, derived from Welsh, though his favourite word-forms were Finnish.
Private interludes had initially been westwards to Lyme Regis and would extend later to Bournemouth and Poole. Ronald celebrated the concept of countryside in the classroom and saw sagas set in its fields and woodland, but preferred not to set foot in reality for fear of finding litter and other abuses. He did, though, venture to Wayland’s Smithy, the chambered tomb beside the Ridgeway across the Berkshire Downs. There he sensed a ‘Barrow-wight’ ghostly presence which inspired The Hobbit.
For half his life, however, the great books remained as the mind children of his imagination. Sections of some were written down, but only intermittently, and then often re-written in inconsistent and contradictory versions, with little being sorted into proper order until the first volume of The Lord of the Rings appeared in 1954. So it was not as a published author that Ronald was known in Oxford. There the talk was about his eclectic contributions to the Inklings, which was the university’s elite exclusive society. All had heard of it, many wished to participate, but few were chosen. What we learn from the biographies is that the Inklings met on Tuesdays through the 1930s, during the war and into post-war austerity, in what they called the Bird and Baby. This was Oxford’s Eagle and Child hostelry. C S ‘Jack’ Lewis (1898-1963) acted as the domineering master of ceremonies, with Ronald Tolkien as his mild-mannered stand-in, very much the thin-faced deputy headmaster. There were no formal positions, nor a process for applying for membership. The unstated requirement for colleagues and friends to be invited to attend was that they were Christian (preferably Catholic) males with an enthusiasm for literary criticism.
Although bucolic in appearance, Jack Lewis was scintillating with words, which he delivered with consummate ease. His booming voice was likened to a megaphone. What disappointed Tolkien was that Lewis reverted to the Anglican background of his childhood. Only able to respect Catholic absolutes, Ronald once called Jack ‘Everyman’s Theologian’, although he otherwise concealed growing irritation at his friend’s burgeoning popularity when the land of Narnia began its conquest of two generations. Ronald was disturbed by allegorical tales that turned Jesus into a lion.
Edith Tolkien, in her turn, remained jealous of what she saw as her husband’s addictive attachment to Jack. She also loathed academic life and resented having allowed Ronald to turn her into a practising Catholic. Uncomfortable with attending Mass, and finding the concept of the confessional utterly abhorrent (‘confiding in those peculiar priests’), she was distressed that Ronald insisted on taking the children to church. Religion remained a domestic battleground from 1925 until 1940, when a truce was called as real conflict put such matters into perspective.
Their second son, Michael Tolkien (born 1920), put his life on the line to win the George Medal for bravery – on a par with the Victoria Cross for valour – firing a Bofors gun of Anti-Aircraft Command to defend an aerodrome under Luftwaffe attack. Third son Christopher (born 1924) enlisted in the RAF and was sent to South Africa to learn to fly. Elder son John (born 1917) had found his vocation as a Catholic priest. Daughter Priscilla (born 1929) was the only one left living at home. Proud of them all, Ronald Tolkien was always a thoroughly modern parent, to the extent of kissing his sons in public.
Dorset first figured in the life of the Tolkien family during Ronald’s childhood when he was boarding with Aunt Beatrice in Birmingham. Summer vacations were spent in Lyme Regis, where they stayed at the Three Cups Hotel in Broad Street, accompanied by a Catholic priest, Father Francis Morgan. Ronald remembered his first sight of dinosaur bones in the Philpot Museum as ‘petrified dragons’. Pictures for The Silmarillion were drawn to Jurassic coast backgrounds at Lyme Regis during holidays in 1927 and 1928. Later, over the border in Devon, the children played in rock pools at Sidmouth, where Ronald began writing The Lord of the Rings.
Post-war holidays, as a couple without the children, were spent at Bournemouth’s Hotel Miramar in spacious grounds between Grove Road and East Overcliff Drive. The arrangements were always the same – Room 37 was booked for Ronald and Room 39 for Edith, both facing south over the sea. The top-floor rooms have since been merged into new Room 205.
Famous now, Tolkien was irritated that everyone knew where he lived in Oxford, with fans calling at 76 Sandfield Road, Headington, to have their books signed. Others telephoned for a chat, those from the United States often failing to make any allowance for time-zone differences. To add to his distress, in 1966 the house was publicly condemned to admirers and the media by another of the world’s greatest writers. ‘He lives in a hideous house – I cannot tell you how hideous – with hideous pictures,’ W H Auden told the Tolkien Society of America at a New York meeting.
Biographer Humphrey Carpenter rejects the charge as poetic licence. Ordinary middle class furnishings, Carpenter declares, had been overwhelmed by the inevitable clutter of a long academic life. Rooms were bursting with stacks of books and piles of paper but lacked the gadgetry that entered most homes with Formica and the white goods revolution. Despite or because of tensions at home, Ronald curbed his writing career for Edith and turned his back on Oxford to give her a Bournemouth retirement. The imminent move, in 1968, caused clearances to reduce the contents to things boring, frugal and nostalgic.
Their new home had to be a bungalow in a mild location, as Edith was virtually immobilised by intestinal problems and chronic rheumatoid arthritis. They chose cosy suburbia just on the Poole side of what was then the county boundary – at 19 Lakeside Road, Branksome Park. This backed onto a pine-covered bank which drops down to the stream through Branksome Chine. It was home for them both until Edith died in 1971. Ronald then returned to Oxford. Bournemouth, however, remained first choice for holidays, back at the Hotel Miramar. Socially and for the problems of old age there were frequent visits to Dr Denis Tolhurst, both at his surgery at 6 Talbot Avenue, and to his Pinewood home beside Meyrick Park, at 22 Little Forest Road.
Ironically, it was while staying with Denis and Jocelyn – the doctor’s wife – that Ronald’s health failed. He could not have chosen a safer haven but the collapse was catastrophic. It began on Thursday 30 August 1973 as they celebrated Jocelyn’s birthday. Ronald found it difficult to stomach food and just managed a glass of champagne. That night he experienced excruciating abdominal pain. On being taken to a private hospital in the morning, he was haemorrhaging from a gastric ulcer. Although this was operable, he also had a chest infection. The children were told the seriousness of the situation. Christopher was in France and Michael in Switzerland, but John and Priscilla were able to come to his bedside. Eighty-one-year-old J R R Tolkien died in Bournemouth in the early hours of Sunday 2 September 1973. Thirty-five years later, his bungalow in Lakeside Road was demolished for ‘two energy-efficient luxury houses’.