Condensed from Tolkien in Buckland: An Analysis of the Evidence, Brycheiniog XLIX, March 2018 by Seamus Hamill-Keays, and presented to The Tolkien Society's Oxonmoot 2018 at St Anthony's College, Oxford. Scholars might like to obtain the full article with attributions, references and bibliography from The Brecknock Society
There is a tradition that J R R Tolkien (1892 - 1973) stayed in Talybont while writing part of The Lord of the Rings in the 1940s. This tradition probably comes about because of the appearance of land named as Buckland and other local names in his epic work.
It can be shown beyond doubt that Tolkien's Buckland appeared in his first draft of the early chapters between 16th December 1937 and 1st February 1938 when he was living at 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford and not in Talybont. However, a mysterious holiday to Wales in 1905 is recorded by a biographer. This article provides evidence that this holiday included a visit to Buckland in Breconshire when he was 13.
TOLKIEN'S MEMORIES OF HIS SHIRE
John Ronald Tolkien (1892-1973) first became famous with the publication in 1937 of The Hobbit, a children's fantasy novel based of the adventures of a group of hobbits, members of an endearing diminutive race, seek treasure guarded by a dragon. The success of The Hobbit encouraged Tolkien to commence work on a much greater work, The Lord of the Rings, one story in three parts in which hobbits, aided by the possession of a magic ring, are in conflict with many sources of darkness. This epic took from 1937 to 1949 to write.
THE BUCKLAND OF MIDDLE EARTH
In the first part of the three volume story, The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien unfolded a stretch of land he named as Buckland. It appeared as a colony of hobbits settled on the far side of the Brandywine River that had previously been the eastern border of The Shire. It was established by a member of the Oldbuck family who founded a succession of Masters of Buckland living at Brandy Hall. Bucklebury is the chief village of this tract of land, which is about twenty miles long from north to south. Christopher Tolkien, Tolkien's third son, drew the definitive map of The Shire about 1953. Map 1 is based on part of his map. What is remarkable are the correspondences of Tolkien's Buckland to the real Buckland demesne near Talybont.
Map after the copyrighted 'Part of the Shire' Map in Lord of the Rings
A main feature of Map 1 is the Brandywine River, flowing from north to south, with Buckland on its eastern bank. The territory narrows to a point at the northern end, at the Brandywine Bridge next to the North Gate. The territory expands eastward then narrows to a point at its southern end at Haysend. The Hedge is thick tall impenetrable hedge to the east that bounds the length of Buckland. Tolkien describes the Hedge as the hobbits' defence against the attacking trees of the Old Forest. There was a way through the Hedge, the 'Gate', used by Frodo and his companions when they left Buckland:
Bucklebury is described as "clustering in the banks and slopes behind Brandy Hall" but is not marked on the map. Brandy Hall, a extensive system of hobbit-holes tunnelled into earth mounds and hills with about a hundred windows, was set into Buck Hill. Crickhollow, to the northeast, is a place where Frodo bought a house. Newbury is a village beyond Crickhollow and Standelf, another village, is in the south. The self-operated Bucklebury Ferry is situated below Brandy Hall down a steep bank.
THE BUCKLAND OF BRECONSHIRE
Map 2 is an extract from the 6 inch 1905 OS map showing Buckland in Breconshire located in the parish of Llansantffraed-juxta-Usk about a mile from Talybont. The Usk River flows from north to south along the western edge of the parkland of Buckland, designated by Ordnance Survey 'Parkland' grey infill. The territory narrows to a point at the northern end at a bridge over the Usk, which in 1905, was wooden. It is here that the North Lodge and Buckland Gate were situated, at Llansantffread (now spelt Llansantffraed). The territory expands eastward then narrows to a point at its southern end, a little more than two miles downstream. This Buckland is very much smaller in area than that in The Lord of the Rings.
Ordnance Survey 6 inch 1905
Nothing like the Tolkien's Hedge existed on the Buckland boundary, but strong stock-proof hedgerows would have been present. Local hedges were pleached by double-brushing, the interweaving of living and dead branches to create a very thick base. The height would normally be maintained at about six feet but might be allowed to reach up to twenty feet just before the hedge was re-pleached. (In Warwickshire, hedges were less substantial, being single-brushed.)
Buckland Hall; South-Western elevation, as if coming from the winding path from the ferry
After a fire destroyed the previous Georgian mansion, Buckland Hall was rebuilt in 1898 in 'Tudorbethan' style, with about a hundred windows. It is situated a few hundred yards from the river bank, backing on to the heavily-wooded Buckland Hill. The remains of a fernery are close by. Behind the coach house, a walled portal built into the hillside leads into a brick-lined tunnel, burrowed deep into Buckland Hill.
Ice-house portal tunnelled into Buckland Hill.
There was a ferry-boat landing stage, providing access across the river to the neighbouring parish of Llanddetty, and, beyond the Buckland landing stage, a steep bank. A winding path, now heavily overgrown, led up from here to Buckland Hall. This is more clearly apparent from an extract from the 25-inch 1888 Ordnance Survey map. This shows a boat house on the eastern bank of the River Usk and the steeply winding path.
Extract from 1888 25 inch OS map showing the ferry site and the winding path
COMPARISON OF THE TWO BUCKLANDS
When comparing the various maps, one cannot help but be struck by similarity of shape, the riparian nature of both landscapes, and other corresponding features: the residences Brandy Hall and Buckland Hall; Buck Hill and Buckland Hill; the two North Gates; the two river bridges; and the two steeply-winding paths leading up from the ferries. The ice-house portal is suggestive of the entrance to the Gate under the Hedge in Tolkien's Buckland. Mark Hooker, the accomplished Tolkien linguist, in Tolkien and Welsh, without actually placing Tolkien in our Buckland, tellingly suggests:
It is possible, of course, that once Tolkien had decided on the name Buckland, he could, by reference to a Gazetteer of England and Wales, or a local OS Map, find these correspondences. But if this was his technique, and considering his deep affection for the English countryside, surely Tolkien would have picked a model closer to Middle England, such as the Buckland near Evesham? But there is evidence that Tolkien used an actual event from Buckland in Breconshire within his tale of Buckland in Middle Earth. There is a boat fatality, for example, found in each. Here is the fictional event in The Lord of the Rings.
Secondly, here is an actual event, recorded in The Monmouthshire Merlin of 3 December 1864.
There are clear parallels in these two accounts of fatalities: a preceding social event, an event held in the seat of the local magnate, a drowning at night-time, and the vagaries of a local boat. The puzzle is how did Tolkien hear about this tragedy of 1864, nearly forty years before? This 1909 Evening Express clipping provides the answer:
I suggest Tolkien heard first-hand knowledge of the real event to hatch the demise of Drogo and Primula Brandybuck. John Cross, the son of the unfortunate Edward Cross, was Head Gamekeeper at Buckland in 1905 with a son of his own Robert, aged fourteen. Tolkien may have heard about it from either, the fatality having become almost legendary, even appearing in a local newspaper as late as 1909, on the death of John Cross.
The Buckland Ferry, and its 1864 misfortune recorded in both Breconshire and Middle Earth, is intriguing and suggestive for placing Tolkien in the Breconshire Buckland. Later, a ferry-boat was not necessary since after 1910 a footway suspension bridge had been built across the river in that year. If Tolkien had visited in 1905, he would have seen the old ferry. The footbridge appears on later maps but is now derelict.
The suspension bridge, with white guard rails, in 1913
A JOURNEY TO WALES
Tolkien used variations of Welsh sounds of places and names in The Lord of the Rings. His imagination had become engaged by the strange names on the coal trucks he often saw in the coal yard at King's Heath station on the nearby railway when he lived in at Westfield Road in Birmingham: Sengenhydd, Nantyglo, Penrhiwceiber amongst others. In an interview in The Scotsman in 1972, he recalled, as a small child, seeing the name 'Ebbw' on a railway journey to Wales and, "never getting over the fascination of the name". Daniel Grotta, who wrote the first biography of J. R. R. Tolkien, suggests that the boy's interest in Wales was enhanced by a childhood holiday. Grotta states, "Shortly after Mabel Tolkien died, Father Morgan, Tolkien and Hilary went by railway for a fortnight's holiday in Wales". Mabel died on 14 November 1904, it is reasonable to assume any trip took place the year after, 1905.
How might Tolkien have discovered Buckland and become so familiar with its locale to recreate it, scaled-up, next to The Shire in Middle Earth? For a possible answer to this puzzle we need to turn to Father Francis Morgan (Osborne) and his family.
FATHER FRANCIS, SCION OF A NOBLE FAMILY
The Morgan Family of Tredegar, near Newport, claimed descent from Cadifor Fawr, lord of Cil-sant, who died in 1089. In the late-nineteenth century, the most recently renowned member of the family was Godfrey Morgan (1830-1913), hero of the Charge of the Light Brigade, Tory MP for Breconshire 1858-1875, 2nd Baron Tredegar 1875, and raised to Viscount in December 1905. His main residence was Tredegar House mear Newport. Lord Tredegar was arguably the most famous Welshman after Lloyd George. His philanthropy and his patronage of many causes made him greatly admired, indeed, loved by all classes and political parties. Although an Anglican, the Catholic Fireside named him 'as the most popular man in South Wales'.
Aaron Morgan, who claimed to be related to the Tredegar Morgans, was born at Sea Mills, near Bristol. He is recorded as being able to illustrate this superior genealogy. He was employed as a clerk by a port wine shipping company in London, in the Lisbon trade. In 1803 he became a partner in a reformed partnership, wine merchants, Dixon, Morgan and Co.. After Aaron's death in 1818, his son Thomas played a leading part in managing the business. Devices of the Tredegar Morgan arms, a griffin segreant charge and a stag's head crest, appear in a stained glass window in St Olave's church near the Tower of London that commemorates Thomas's service as a churchwarden.
Argent, a griffin segreant sable, impaling argent, on a bend azure, three fleurs-de-lis. Crest, a stag's head couped.
(The impalment, fleurs-de-lis on a bend azure, is that of his wife, Elizabeth Bonney)
While Thomas Morgan managed the London end
of the business, Francis, one of his sons, moved to Andalusia in the 1840s.
He established the company's own network of production and exporting sherry
wine and brandywine. He married Maria Manuela Osborne, a Roman Catholic,
daughter of one of the largest brandy and sherry bodegas in Spain. Their
third son was Francis Xavier Morgan Osborne, born in 1857 and brought
up as a Roman Catholic. In time, the company became known as Morgan Bros.,
one of the most important sherry and brandy producers in Spain.
Fr. Francis, 1905, with a book-plate from one of his books showing devices of the Tredegar Morgan arms.
If we accept Grotta's record of a holiday in Wales we can ponder where Fr. Francis and his two wards went. Ronald saw 'Ebbw', the name of a river, that as 'Ebbw Vale', appeared on coal trucks descending the valley to Newport. But where was he going? Tolkien had no doubt conveyed his curiosity about the Welsh language to Fr. Morgan, who may have been gratified because of his own esteemed Welsh ancestry, and set out to visit his homeland with the orphans. For someone who, as we will see, was a proud man, a likely port of call would have been Tredegar House after due contact had been made with his kinsman, Lord Tredegar. It is thus not difficult to suppose that Fr. Morgan used the fortnight's holiday in Wales to provide Ronald with an opportunity to explore the source of the mysterious language that had so fascinated him. It may also have given him the opportunity to show his illustrious roots to the boys. (This is speculative; corroboration is needed and is being diligently sought.)
Tolkien had commented to his son Michael on his guardian's patrician leanings describing him as an, "upper-class Welsh-Spaniard Tory...and seemed to some...a snob". Fr. Morgan was not inclined to lead an austere existence. In 1987, he was remembered in an address given at the Birmingham Oratory as someone who liked to visit the more opulent houses in the Parish. He liked to say that although not wealthy himself, he had rich friends.
Lord Tredegar in 1910
If Fr. Morgan and the orphans were received by Lord Tredegar at Tredegar House, near Newport, they could well have enjoyed the beauty of the deer park only to a limited extent. In those years this beautiful landscape alongside the sinuous River Ebbw was overshadowed by extensive heavy industry and a concentration of railways serving the burgeoning port. But there was an escape beckoning from the industrialisation around Newport: the Brecon Beacons and Buckland. Fr. Francis cannot have stumbled upon this private parkland by accident; somebody must have told him about it and obtained an invitation to visit.
THE BUCKLAND PARKLAND
In the early part of the twentieth century, the Buckland Estate owned most of the land in the Middle Usk Valley. The seat of the Squire of Buckland was Buckland Hall close to the left bank of the River Usk in the parish of Llansantffraed-juxta-Usk. The rolling parkland of Buckland was meticulously cared for by numerous gardeners. It was noted for its exotic plants and rare trees. A maze was based on that of Hampton Court, but smaller. There was the 'Wild Dingle' through which a tributary stream gurgled down to the Fish Pond and on to the Usk. The coach house housed staff, horses, cobs, and carriages. All of this was overshadowed by extensive woodlands on the hills to the north-east and south-east.
The Squire of Buckland was James Price Williams Gwynne-Holford, aged 73. Remarkably, just like those of Fr. Francis, his forbears had been engaged as wine shippers. They had been for a considerable period merchant princes in London, being extensively engaged in the Lisbon trade. A Portuguese document records a great-grandfather of Fr. Francis and a great-grandfather of J P W Gwynne-Holford being on a committee in London that raised money for the relief of Portugal in 1811 during the Peninsular War.
James Price Williams Gwynne-Holford c 1906.
The Squire and Lord Tredegar were two of a kind. The close acquaintanceship of Lord Tredegar with Gwynne-Holford provides another connection. A triangular relationship between the three principals can thus be drawn.
Travel from Newport to Buckland would have been on the Brecon and Merthyr Junction Railway, a direct route to Talybont. The Welsh names that might have, in Tolkien's own words in his famous 1955 lecture, "flickered past on station signs, a flash of strange spelling and a hint of a language old and yet alive" would have included Maesycwmmer, Cwmsyfiog, Fochriw, Pontsticill, Torpantau, Pentir Rhiw and Talybont. Having passed the industrial dereliction around Merthyr Tydfil, it would have been with considerable relief that their train ascended the unspoilt Cwm Taf Fechan to descend the northern flank of the Brecon Beacons to Talybont. A short walk would have taken them across the Usk Bridge at Llansantffraed, to enter Buckland by the North Gate. Buckland Hall lay a mile further downstream mostly along the left bank of the Usk but then through a dingle to the main approach to the Buckland Hall.
The North Gate and Lodge, Buckland c. 1906