TOLKIEN IN BUCKLAND, BRECONSHIRE, 1905

 

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 hobbits' homeland was in The Shire, a well-ordered rural community that loved peace and quiet, eschewing anything more complicated than a water-mill. Tolkien himself likened it to rural Warwickshire at the turn of the nineteenth century. He was very definite that The Shire represented part of England and nowhere else. Some of the happenings are clearly based on people and things he observed in his early boyhood e.g. Farmer Maggot, mushrooms and gamgee tissue. The topography of The Shire is that of the beloved England in which he was brought up. The title of the second part of his story The Two Towers, is accepted as remembrance of two high edifices he saw when he and his younger brother, Hilary, explored the countryside around their boyhood home. These boyhood memories resurfaced many years later.

 

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:

A cutting had been made, some distance from the Hedge, and sloped gently down into the ground. It had walls of brick at the sides, which rose steadily, until they arched over and formed a tunnel that dived deep under the Hedge. (From The Fellowship of the Ring)

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.


Merry led the pony over a gangway on to the ferry, and the others followed. Merry then pushed slowly off with a long pole. The Brandywine flowed slow and broad before them. On the other side the bank was steep, and up it a winding path climbed from the further landing. Lamps were twinkling there. Behind loomed up the Buck Hill; and out of it, through stray shrouds of mist, shone many round windows, yellow and red. They were the windows of Brandy Hall, the ancient home of the Brandybucks. (From The Fellowship of the Ring)

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:

There are...so many Tolkienesque features in the Breconshire Buckland that it seems unlikely they could have occurred by chance, and that Tolkien used this area as one of his models for his "parody" of the toponomy "of rural England".

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.

"After all his father was a Baggins. A decent respectable hobbit was Mr. Drogo Baggins; there was never much to tell of him, till he was drownded".
"Drownded?", said several voices. They had heard this and other darker rumours before, of course; but hobbits have a passion for family history, and they were ready to hear it again.
"Well, so they say," said the Gaffer. "You see: Mr. Drogo, he married poor Miss Primula Brandybuck. She was our Mr. Bilbo's first cousin on the mother's side (her mother being the youngest of the Old Took's daughters); and Mr. Drogo was his second cousin. So Mr. Frodo is his first and second cousin, once removed either way, as the saying is, if you follow me. And Mr. Drogo was staying at Brandy Hall with his father-in-law, old Master Gorbadoc, as he often did after his marriage (him being partial to his vittles, and old Gorbadoc keeping a mighty generous table); and he went out boating on the Brandywine River; and he and his wife were drownded, and poor Mr. Frodo only a child and all".
"I've heard they went on the water after dinner in the moonlight," said Old Noakes; "and it was Drogo's weight as sunk the boat."
"And I heard she pushed him in, and he pulled her in after him," said Sandyman, the Hobbiton miller.

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

Cartoon of the clerical procession crossing the suspension bridge 29th November 1912 for reopening of Llanddetty Church near Talybont by the determined and famously tall Mary Eleanor Gwynne-Holford, wife of the Squire

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.
After his father's death in 1868, Francis moved with his widowed mother to England and was educated at the Birmingham Oratory School. He was ordained as a priest in 1883. After Mabel Tolkien converted to Catholicism in 1900, and later became a worshipper at the Oratory, Fr. Francis became a close and trusted friend of the family. Before Mabel lapsed into a diabetic coma and died in November 1904, she appointed Fr. Morgan the appointed guardian of Ronald Tolkien, who was twelve, and his younger brother Hilary, who was ten.

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.


Route on the Brecon & Merthyr Junction Railway; Newport to Talybont, 1870.

The North Gate and Lodge, Buckland c. 1906

MEMORIES

Grotta records that "Mabel Tolkien had managed to instil in her older son an almost idolatrous love of trees, flowers and nature". The magic of the Buckland demesne, the surrounding mountains, the maze, the exotic foliage in the fernery, the arboretum with its strange trees, the forests, the Wild Dingle, the ice-house tunnelled into Buckland Hill, boating on the Fish Pond or the river, even the recently-built, 1898, 'Tudorbethan' Buckland Hall itself, with its heraldic carvings of strange beasts in the Great Hall, may have manifested themselves in The Lord of the Rings. Trees in the woods on Buckland Hill, planted in military formation by the Squire's father, a Peninsular War veteran, to represent the fighting battalions at Waterloo may have excited the young Tolkien's imagination. He would also have observed the important part ponies, hobbit-sized, played in life at Buckland. We can speculate that the parkland made a deep and lasting impression on him, not least because, among the several hundred names he constructed from real and invented languages that appear in The Lord of the Rings, an English language place-name shines through from his childhood unchanged: Buckland. It may have been affection for this Buckland that led Tolkien's memory to extract it from Breconshire and implant in Middle Earth on the border of an essentially English rurality, his beloved Shire. Maybe Tolkien was so proud of the Englishness of The Shire that he was reluctant to confess that he had attached it to a little part of Wales at the genesis of The Lord of the Rings.

CONCLUSION

Two strands have been followed in this search for the truth about Tolkien in the Breconshire Buckland. The first is the actual placement of Tolkien beside the River Usk. Sufficient evidence has been produced above to connect him with the demesne in the early years of the 20th century. Regretably this episode appears to have been air-brushed out of the Tolkienography. Accepting the truth of the first strand, the second seeks to determine how Fr. Francis discovered this remote parkland. A plausible explanation is given by the connections between the principals, Fr. Francis, Lord Tredegar and J P W Gwynne-Holford but corroboration is needed. The silver bullet that will slay the Dragon of Uncertainity is being sought. When it is found it may turn out a be only a small bullet, maybe just a .22, because after all, it is but a small dragon.

 

I fear that you might be right that the search for the sources of The Lord of the Rings is going to occupy academics for a generation or two. I wish that this need not be so. To my mind it is the particular use in a particular situation of any motive, whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or unconsciously remembered that is the most interesting thing to consider. J. R. R. Tolkien.