A Wander Through the Green Hills of the ‘Shire’
By Mike Church
“Frodo and Aragorn stood for a while silent on the hill-top, near its southward edge. In that lonely place Frodo for the first time fully realized his homelessness and danger. He wished bitterly that his fortune had left him in the quiet and beloved Shire. He stared down at the hateful Road, leading back westward – to his home.” – The Lord of The Rings
“Shire”. The word conjures up emerald, rolling pastures dotted with luscious trees, bisected by babbling, rock-lined streams, the home of hobbits and other homely folks.
But ‘The Shire’ I’m describing is not in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
It’s real, and I was there. It’s near Hurst on Green in Lancashire, England — a beautiful, magical place where Catholic beauty abounds.
We were on a private preview tour of ‘Catholic England’ by Regina Trips when we intrepid travelers stepped out one verdant morning to explore The Tolkien Trail, which begins a mere 30 paces from our lodgings at the splendid Shireburn Arms hotel.
The Shireburn – named for the local recusant noble family — has stood since before Henry VIII’s revolt and its Catholic roots show in the simple yet elegant beauty of its rooms and the delightful classic English fare served from its kitchen.
The Trail at its door abounds with Catholic lore. Our trek was guided by a map with very Tolkien-like, coded instructions, which we diligently followed across the thick greensward to our first remnant of pre-Reformation English Catholicism.
A brief note on English grass: It’s really like no other grass in the world, and you must be fond of the stuff to tackle the Tolkien Trail because it’s everywhere.
Catholic kissing gates
It wasn’t long before we ran into one of these puzzling contraptions. Ironically, it was our Scottish trail companions Steve and Helen who informed us about these “kissing gates”, which would greet us often as we trekked diligently through the morning mist.
What’s a “kissing gate”? And why is it Catholic?
A kissing gate is inserted into a gap cut into a simple fence that divides one property from the next and is constructed very much like today’s revolving doors, without the glass. But there’s a clever twist: two people can stand in the gate’s opening, but no matter which direction the twin swinging gates are moved, they can never be in on the same side together.
If you think about it, amorous would-be lovers burdened with the cumbersome clothing of the day, would have found even kissing a ‘Romeo-an’ task — thus preserving each other’s purity prior to marriage.
Our plucky crew crossed a few fields, dotted with sheep – the Bible’s favorite animal — and navigated through three kissing gates. Then, like a dream rising from a field, suddenly we spotted the towers of the ancient college of Stonyhurst. Tolkien’s son attended here, providing him with all the scenery needed to create the Shire of Middle Earth.
Stonyhurst’s magnificent spire-capped cupolas — four of them, arranged in pairs – make us stop in our tracks. I couldn’t resist the temptation to blurt out in my best Peter Jackson brogue: “The Two Towers!”
Were these the Two Towers? Some say that the spire at the Birmingham Oratory, seen from a distance, drew a marked contrast to its nearby Anglican cousin, and that this was Tolkien’s inspiration. (Tolkien attended the Oratory School as a boy and was taught by the then-Bishop, Blessed John Newman.) Tolkien was also inspired by the tragic Catholic history of the place, which begins in 1200 when “Stanihurst Hall” is constructed; by 1373 Stanihurst was Stonyhurst, cared for by Richard Shireburn, the ancestor of our hosts at the Shireburn Inn.
During the reign of Elizabeth and on through the centuries that followed, the noble Shireburns never gave up the Faith and, it is said, always maintained Catholic education in secret wherever they could. The Jesuits returned in 1800 and by the turn of the next century, Stonyhurst had become the most popular Catholic college in England.
From Stonyhurst the Tolkien Trail took us on our beguiling way through what we termed “Hobbit Town” — a row of quaint houses, beautifully framed by lush trees and a majestic, 10 foot ficus hedgerow.
Continuing on our journey, now on a country lane down to a small shire valley, we found ourselves confronted with a 10 foot tall sculpture of Gandalf, Tolkien’s wise wizard.
The finale of the Trail for us was crossing an ancient cobblestone bridge that spans the Hodder River, named Cromwell’s Bridge. (Of interest, it’s also known as Devil’s Bridge.) Its three archways tower 30 feet over the rocky bed of the Hodder; Tolkien based Brandywine Bridge on it in Lord of The Rings.
As I picked my way over the ruined bridge, “paved” with rough, inset stones that date to the 1600’s, I imagined an army of eight thousand men — Cromwell’s or Orcs — making their way across in pursuit of the inhabitants of the shire and their companions.
As I stopped to take in the beautiful view of the Hodder, the valleys and the dale of the shire in the distance, I thought that Tolkien must have done the same thing decades ago.
He imbued his Hobbits with a deep love for their shire, and the satisfaction of being blessed to view Middle Earth and its beauty.
Meanwhile, the Cromwells and the Orcs of this world only see the other bank of the river, and their goal — the slaughter of Baggins and company.
A most fitting, mental picture with which to end my adventure on The Tolkien Trail.
And then there was LUNCH!
See more about Mike Church here