Moreton-in-Marsh: Exploring the home of the Hobbit
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Tracy Spiers tracks down Tolkien in the traveller’s town of Moreton-in-Marsh
“The Hobbits rode on up a slope and drew together outside the inn...Even from the outside the inn looked a pleasant home to familiar eyes. A sign above the door pictured a fat white pony rearing on its hind legs. Over the door was painted the letters: THE PRANCING PONY by BARLIMAN BUTTERBALL.”
Any Tolkien enthusiast will know that The Prancing Pony is Middle Earth’s most famous pub in the author’s book, Lord of the Rings. It’s situated in Bree, which according to the J.R.R Tolkien Society is really Moreton-in-Marsh and the pub the Shire-hobbits visit is The Bell Inn, where Tolkien used to meet his brother. Perhaps it was after sharing a few pints together, that Tolkien’s imagination took hold.
As it’s March and a traditional time for being a little bit Mad-Hatterish, I write this with a touch of craziness in hunt for the quirky things which set Moreton aside. So, in my own unique style, this is Moreton-in-March, but be warned if you and your fellow hobbits are looking for a bed in Bree, you might be disappointed especially during a certain week. It’s Cheltenham Festival and race owners, trainers, jockeys and spectators will be travelling far and wide to ensure they don’t miss out on the action. For at least 1,700 years Moreton has been a traveller’s town and has been used as a coaching station before the Oxford to Worcester railway arrived in 1853.
Founded on the Roman Fosse Way, it has proved an ideal stopping point to break the journey and still does. So, hobbits, if you’re visiting in March and fancy a stay at The Bell Inn, it promises to be a lively and musical time. Barliman Butterball won’t be serving you, but John Longbottom will. He’s now in his fourth year of business and has helped establish this Tolkien destination as a music hub.
“We have live music every Saturday night and on Bank Holiday Sundays. During the warmer months, we also have Sunday afternoon events as well and we have just built an outdoor bar ready for this summer.”
A map of Middle Earth and photographs of Tolkien and his family appear in the front room of the pub, marking a travelling and journeying theme.
“Tolkien lived in Oxford and his brother lived in London, so they used to meet each other here. I often wonder if it was after drinking a few pints that he created his famous works,” says John.
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“We have so many people coming to stay here because they are fans of Lord of the Rings. I read The Hobbit in the 1960s at school and while my own children were growing up, it became a tradition to watch Lord of the Rings at New Year. I should probably have a map of the United States on the wall because I think during the time we have been here, we have had visitors from every American state. It feels like we have had people from every country, certainly most of Europe and South East Asia. It is an amazing novelty pot of people.”
Those with an interest in history and who enjoy staying in the same places as key figures of the past are in the right town. The White Hart Royal and its preserved cobbled passageway, exposed timber beams and Tudor interior is a great example. It tells a remarkable tale of royal patronage at a significant time during the English Civil War. A rare diary has proved the legend that King Charles I spent a night here on July 2, 1644, but it’s also believed he stayed again on August 30, 1645. According to some guide books, the King left without paying but it could also be said, they might have lost their head if they insisted on charging him! One of the best rooms in the 28-bedroom hotel is the King Charles I room, which General Manager Bill Ramsay says is popular among guests. He believes Moreton has a lot going for it.
“I think people like the hustle and bustle about Moreton. There is always something going on and there are enough interesting shops to keep them engaged.”
Every Tuesday there is certainly a buzz about town. Since Moreton was granted a royal charter in 1226 and granted the right to hold a weekly market, this tradition has continued. The main High Street hosts the largest open-air market in the Cotswolds, with stalls selling leather goods, books, clothing, cookware, fresh fish and other produce. As for Tolkien’s Bree, there is of course an edible version such as Whisky Smoked Brie, in one of Moreton’s popular independents, the Cotswold Cheese Company. Here there is feast of over 80 cheeses from monarch-inspired Richard III to local names such as Moreton and other memorable edibles such as Chaucer’s Wyfe of Bath, White Nancy and Sheep Rustler. Be sure to be tempted by the fine selection of flavoured oils and olives too.
Those visiting Moreton can share the same warm hospitality as the Tolkien’s fantastical creatures and historic royals. As well as a plethora of antique shops, art galleries, a fabulous toy shop, boutiques and other lovely independent shops, there are great places to eat, drink and stay. On this trip, my Mum Jan and my eldest daughter Naomi, opt for Charlotte’s Pantry and enjoy some tasty homemade soup and potato wedges. But I do notice that a Royal Cream Tea is also on the menu with warm fruit scone served with strawberry jam, clotted cream and a glass of Prosecco in keeping with the monarch theme.
I promised to bring out the fascinating facts of Moreton in this feature and the best way to experience this is to pick up a town trail from the Moreton Area Centre Visitor Information Centre, which highlights key buildings. The oldest is believed to be the 16th century Curfew Tower on Moreton High Street. Until 1860, its bell rang nightly to remind people of the risk of fire at night. It apparently helped guide Sir Robert Fry home after he got lost in the fog. He was so grateful, he donated money for its maintenance. The tower was also once used as a local lock-up and on the front a replica board of toll charges on market days makes fascinating reading. Residents having a stall in front of their houses were expected to pay five shillings a year. If you had a coconut shoot it cost two shillings and six pence and every roundabout driven by a horse cost five to six shillings a day.
Landmarks like this give valuable insights into the past. On this trip, I find myself hunting out another of Tolkien’s inspirations – the Four Shire Stone, just two miles out of the town, which is said to be the “Three Farthing Stone,” in the Lord of the Rings.
“The Three-Farthing Stone was a stone by the side of the East Road that marked the point where the borders of the Eastfarthing, Westfarthing and Southfarthing of the Shire came together. It was also said to mark a point near the centre of the Shire itself. The stone stood about five miles south-east from Bywater, and exactly fourteen miles west from Frogmorton.”
In reality, it is a nine foot 16th century pillar made from Cotswold stone along the A44 at the turn off to Great Wolford village. It marks the old meeting place of four county shires, namely Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire and Worcestershire. Although today, due to the change in county boundaries, Worcestershire no longer meets here, so strictly speaking it is the Three Shire Stone and is more in keeping with Tolkien’s text!
March is a time for new life and one place to see this first hand is at Batsford Arboretum and Garden Centre, home to the country’s largest private collection of trees and shrubs. It is truly a peaceful, intimate and romantic setting. There is a timelessness about it and it’s a magical place which inspires creatives like me. In March, visitors can expect to see daffodils joining the hellebores and cyclamen, early flowering Yoshino cherries, primroses, magnolias and mahonia – as well as its permanent resident, a beautifully decorated five-foot hare. Of course, Batsford is a breathtaking garden which is full of charm all year round. Like Tolkien, I am in danger of entering my own world when I go to such places; there is something about walking amongst trees that invites the imagination to spring into life. Knowing her mother’s childlike spirit and my ability to slip into March madness, Naomi takes me to Victoria Gardens in Moreton, a park commemorating another royal event, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. She kindly lets me have a go on the zip wire before we go home.