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. The full article with attributions, references and bibliography can be obtained from The Brecknock Society .
Ronald and Hilary Tolkien, photo taken in 1905.
There is a rumour that J R R Tolkien (1892 - 1973) stayed in Talybont while writing part of The Lord of the Rings in the 1940s. This rumour 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 in Wales shortly after his mother died in November 1904 is recorded by a biographer. This article provides strong evidence that this holiday included a visit to Buckland in Breconshire when he was 13.
THE BUCKLAND OF MIDDLE EARTH
The Brandywine River flows north to south with Buckland a bulge of land of the left bank. Its boundary is a thick hedge, the High Hay, that meets the river at the North Gate. Brandy Hall and the Buckleberry Ferry are marked. A gated tunnel leads under the Hedge. This was used by Frodo and his companions when they left Buckland. The Old Forest lies to the east. Crickhollow is the place where Frodo bought a house. The name is very similar to Crickhowell, a local village generally referred to as Crick. Girdley Island is situated upstream of Brandywine Bridge.
Map after the copyrighted 'Part of the Shire' Map in Lord of the Rings
THE BUCKLAND OF BRECONSHIRE
The Buckland parkland is indicated by the Ordnance Survey grey stippling.
The Usk River flows north to south with the Buckland parkland a bulge of land on the left bank. Its boundary was a double thickness hedge that met the river at the North Gate. Buckland Hall is marked. A dense forest covers Buckland Hill. An unnamed island is situated upstream from the railway bridge.
The North Gate and Llansantffraed Lodge circa 1906.
The Ice House was a brick-lined arched tunnel that was tunnelled deep under Buckland Hill. This is its portal.
In his childhood Tolkien became fascinated by trees. The Ents, giant marching trees, first appeared in The Two Towers.
The location of the Buckland Ferry across the Usk
Buckland Hall circa 1900. The path leads up from the ferry.
Report in the Monmouthshire Merlin of an actual drowing in the River Usk, 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:
Report in the Evening Express, 1909, of the death of the son of the drowning victim 45 years before.
Tolkien may have 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.
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.
Daniel 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.
The above is factual evidence that Tolkien became familiar with Buckland Hall and its parkland in 1905 when he was 13. This, of course, raises the question, how on earth did his guardian, Father Francis Morgan, discover this remote parkland and Buckland Hall and take the boys there? A companion webpage seeks to find an answer to this conumdrum by establishing the mutual links between the three principals involved, Father Francis, Lord Tredegar and the Master of Buckland.