I knew that J. R. R. Tolkien had once visited Norwich, but imagine my shock and awe at the news, communicated by my friend Mr M. A.-B. – colleague, fellow Tolkienist and translator into German of The Science of Middle-earth - that those feet once trod the streets and beaches of Cromer! But it’s true. On page 49 of Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond’s definitive Chronology of Tolkien’s life, there’s an entry, between 4 January and 6 January, 1914, which reads
Later in 1914: Tolkien visits Cromer in Norfolk, a seaside resort on the north-east coast of England.
North-east coast? I know that Cromer can be bracing, but from this description you’d think it was down the road from Hartlepool. American Tolkienists, eh? Whatcha gonna do? The entry goes on:
The occasion will later inspire a poem, The Lonely Harebell.
Tolkien wrote that poem more than two years later, in November 1916, after having been invalided out from active service on the Western Front, but noted that its inspiration lay in ‘Cromer, 1914′.
My friend Mr M. A.-B. wonders whether Tolkien saw the spiny skeletons of the crabs and lobsters strewn on the beach and was inspired to create all those giant spiders that no self-respecting Tolkien story can be without.
He also wonders whether Tolkien stayed at Cromer’s
hysteric historic Hotel de Paris, and perhaps had a bad experience there, explaining the Great Hobbitmonger’s almost farcical disadain, in later life, for French food. If so, then an hitherto obscure connection, which now I’ve said it is bound to come up in QI, is that Mr Stephen Fry – the celebrated technophile, taxi driver, novelist, National Treasure and, let us not forget, Director of Norwich City FC – once worked there as a waiter when he was a teenager. My father happened to be passing as Mr Fry declared the Hotel de Paris open after a revamp, and recalls that Mr Fry’s oration was rather ripe. ‘A Norfolk Virgin,’ Mr Fry opined, ‘is a girl who can run faster than her brother.’
But I digress.
I suggest that Tolkien was inspired not just by the resident fauna of Cromer’s strand, nor by its accommodation, but by its views. One of my favourite views is of the skyline of Cromer viewed from the east. Just such a picture, courtesy of me and my
box brownie iPhone, adorns the head of the page you are now reading. Now, look at that through the eyes of anyone who’s read Tolkien, or who has seen the films, and tell me what you see. I don’t know about you, but if it were me, and I’d seen in youth that view of a town looking outward from a cliff, with its towers and domes; had composted it in memory for about half a century and two world wars; and then needed a suitably doughty locale to stand against the batterings of the cod haddock enemy … it would come out like Minas Tirith.
While we’re on the subject of Cromer’s bracing views, you might wish to consult Issue 15 of Oh Comely, a magazine as stylish as it is exclusive [trans: I'd never heard of it before they called my agent]. If you do, there’s an interview in it about me and the joys of beachcombing in the exfoliative gusts of winter.