Out to the Oratory

New on the National Catholic Register: “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Birmingham Oratory”.

“Arriving in Birmingham, England’s second city — population in its metropolitan area in excess of 3 million people — I was dismayed to find that the city did not possess a Tourist Information Centre. Not a formal one, at any rate — there is an informal one in the City Library though. It was there I asked for information on the “Tolkien Trail.” The answer I received only increased my dismay: “Is that in Birmingham?”

Yup, that’s Brum city centre and the local council apparatchiks, alright. Apparently it’s been like that for years, with the default position (before the current utter unknowing) being: get the Tolkien freaks on the bus to south Birmingham

“…when I sent media graduate Alma Sanz Fazio in there recently as a test, she was told to catch a bus to either Sarehole Mill (even though it doesn’t reopen until the spring) or Hall Green Library. What a welcome for a first time visitor from Madrid.”

Difficult to avoid the feeling that some of this attitude from the Council is snidely political. Anyway, the lesson is: do your research before you arrive at a place, including virtually ‘walking the route’ by using Google StreetView.

What are ‘the Tolkien basics’ of the West Midlands, then, if you don’t have much time? This is how I’d do what’s still there and is worth seeing. Given that so much has been swept away, there are some ‘maybe’-places and substituted ‘equivalents’.

1. Early morning train from London to Birmingham. Walk from Birmingham New St. station to the Birmingham Museum & Art gallery for the Pre-Raphaelite and Burne Jones collections, Birmingham city centre. (There’s no proof that he and the TCBS were influenced by this world-class collection, as schoolboys. But the long-gone school was at the other end of the street from the gallery, and how could a group plotting a resurrection of the English spirit never have seen this collection?)

I’d skip Moseley in the south of Birmingham entirely, especially if you have to struggle to get there by bus (bad idea). Though the Moseley Bog can ‘have its moments’, if visited in a sunny springtime on a quiet weekday.

2. Uber from the city centre out to the Birmingham Oratory and perhaps a peep at the nearby 4 Highfield Road site. (I have found one mention, as aside in a blog post, that as a boy the young “Tolkien served Fr. Morgan’s Mass daily”, but I’ve never seen any scholarly reference to that apparent fact or its source). The devout may also want to then go on to the Catholic Cathedral. Again, no proof I know of that he was ever actually at the Cathedral, but how could he not have ever been there?

3. Train from Birmingham New St. to Stafford. Walk away from what has to be ugliest train station in England (sorry!), and through the adjacent river-park for lunch at The Soup Kitchen. This is on the principle that the Soup Kitchen is about as close as you’ll get, in wood-panelling / atmosphere / uniformed waitress service, to the long-gone Barrow’s Stores tea-rooms in Birmingham in which the TCBS would meet. Then an Uber from Stafford out to the nearby Great Haywood in mid-Staffordshire.

4. The sites of his First World War camps on Cannock Chase, near to Great Haywood. The Essex Bridge, though trees now mean that Shugborough Hall can no longer be seen from the bridge approach.

5. Uber back to Stafford train station then on south to Stoke-on-Trent train station. An Uber for a quick look at 104 Hartshill Road in Stoke and perhaps the pleasant back part of the Butts where he learned to shoot live rounds with his rifle. Then hop back in the Uber and out of Stoke and up into ‘The Gawain country’ around Wetton Mill and up onto Cauldon Low for a sunset look at the barrow-downs in the west of the Peak District (don’t get trapped by the fog!). Again, there’s no proof he was ever there, but it seems difficult to imagine he didn’t venture up there during his holidays in Stoke, to see the landscape of the Gawain text that he’d spent much of his life working on.

6. Back to Stoke-on-Trent in the dusk and catch the direct two-hour inter-city train to Oxford. Do Oxford the next day, then back to London.


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