Witchcraft in the Land of Tolkien
Many places in Britain claim to have been sources of inspiration for JRR Tolkien, with the majority of them located within the borders of Mercia. In a later post I shall be visiting all of them, but first we head to possibly the least known one.
The River Teme flows down along it's valley through the northwest of Worcestershire with many picturesque villages nestled on it's banks. Tolkien's mother was born in these parts and the man himself described the area around Clifton upon Teme as “a paradise”, with a route from the village through the Shelsleys down to the river among his favourite walks in the land. It is for this reason that Tolkien experts believe he based the countryside of The Shire on the area.
Hobbit's aside, the area has plenty of folklore and history of it's own. A gulley runs through the woods between Clifton and the Teme known as Witchery Hole. It is said that a coven of witches met there to light bonfires and perform their rituals centuries ago, another version has it that the gorge was also the place of their execution. whatever the real story the name stuck for a reason and it has to be said Witchery Hole does gain a sinister aspect as darkness falls upon it.
This area of the Teme valley was where a tense military standoff took place in 1405 as legendary Welsh hero Owain Glyndwr, with French allies, attempted a full scale invasion of England. The forces of King Henry IV gathered in defence and the two armies faced each other down on opposite sides of the river, skirmishing and occasionally even having organised jousts. Isolated and unsupplied, the Welshmen began a retreat homewards while Henry watched and left them unharried, for reasons we will never fully know. They say that the ghosts of French knights still haunt a brook flowing into the river where the mercenaries drowned in their scramble to escape. Attempts were made to exorcise these apparitions but 15th century French chevaliers could not understand the words of 17th century English parsons, eventually an understanding was reached where the spectral men at arms would only haunt during floodtide so as not to frighten the locals! Could JRRT have possibly remembered this from his boyhood and came up with the Army of the Dead?
Skirting around the famous Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb racetrack the walker then arrives at a “Devil's Den” - another forested gorge with an ill aspect about it, before crossing the road and descending down through a “Hell Hole” towards a strange set of caves in a wooded cliff called Southstone Rock. This hidden curio is a bluff of “tufa” stone, a limestone formed by thousands of years of mineral deposits growing in ambient temperature water. The water that permeates through this porous stone was held to have medicinal properties and cure a host of physical ailments through the middle ages and so Southstone became a place of pilgrimage with various hermits taking up residence in it's caves and caverns. A chapel was built on top of the bluff to serve the pilgrims, eventually crumbling then being replaced by a timber beamed house. The house too is now long gone and the area quiet, but the presence of bones arranged in patterns inside one of the caves suggests the witches might be returning to the area, modern or otherwise...
Adding to the arcane atmosphere, a circular walk back to Clifton through a wood reveals, to the sharp eyed, a strange ruined house. Known locally as “The Temple”, the origin and purpose of this strangely constructed building is unclear. Indeed, a hike around the Teme Valley leaves the walker with no doubt where old Tolkien developed his tales of Hobbits beginning their adventures with the first step they took from their front door.
"Home is behind, the world ahead, And there are many paths to tread Through shadows to the edge of night, Until the stars are all alight. Then world behind and home ahead, We'll wander back to home and bed. Mist and twilight, cloud and shade, Away shall fade! Away shall fade! Fire and lamp, and meat and bread, And then to bed! And then to bed!"
Southstone Rock Caves
Witchery Hole - more pleasant in daylight
Ruined building known only as "The Temple"
Southstone Rock Caves