On the 16th of October 1917 Tolkien was discharged from Brooklands for the first time and he returned to Thirtle Bridge. When trench fever or other illnesses returned over the winter of 1917/18 he was sent to Kilnsea for treatment at the hospital at the Godwin Battery. This House of Healing was very different from the other in the quiet leafy suburbs of Hull. At that time it was approximately 300 yards from the sea, and, it being winter, some of Tolkien’s visits must have coincided with pounding waves. Tolkien as far as his memory went back could remember a “terrible recurrent dream” of a “Great Wave, towering up, and coming ineluctably over the trees and green fields.” Although Tolkien’s nightmare predated his internment in Kilnsea hospital it was probably intensified by his proximity to what had until relatively recently been called the German Ocean. The Godwin Battery hospital as is evident from contemporary aerial photographs was built very close to North Marsh Lane, and at the southern end of the lane about 550 feet away from the hospital is the Blue Bell pub, which had a very clear proof embedded in its side of the destructive power of the sea. The plaque states that the pub was built in 1847, and at that time was 534 yards from the sea. When Tolkien was there in early 1918 he would have been able to calculate, should he have wanted to, that the inn was only approximately 250 yards from the sea.
As Tolkien made clear in his interview with Denys Gueroult he was always historically minded, and he would no doubt have heard of examples of the destruction of historical artefacts. The tower of Old Kilnsea church was finally swallowed up by the sea in 1831, and earlier an old ornate medieval cross was removed inland to safety in 1818. This cross is thought to have either commemorated the landing of the future Henry IV at Raverspurn in 1399, or the arrival of the “Return of the King”, Edward IV from exile in 1471. Photos survive of Easington being almost submerged by severe flooding in 1906, and it is very possible the flooding would have been brought to Tolkien’s attention.
The pounding of the waves wasn’t the only sound that Tolkien would have heard when he was hospitalised at Kilnsea. The Godwin Battery of which the hospital was a part comprised two 9.2 inch guns mounted 100 yards apart, and at either side of them were battery observation posts, which were still standing when an aerial photograph was taken in 1964. Meanwhile there were also barrack blocks, which may have housed up to 1,000 men. Since the 1964 photograph was taken the erosion seems to have accelerated. Now both gun emplacements lie on the beach, and the remains of the sea wall in Tolkien’s time may only be glimpsed at extremely low tides. The recurrent great wave dream continued to haunt Tolkien until he managed to exorcise it from his system by writing the ‘Downfall of Numenor’ in the 1930s.
In Hammond and Scull’s The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion when Tolkien mentions the Beacons of Gondor, which were lit to summon aid from Rohan, the authors quite rightly note that: “almost every English man, woman, and child would immediately think of the beacons lit in 1588 to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada.” The authors go on to mention earlier beacons in antiquity, but they fail to refer to Tolkien’s personal association with a beacon during World War One. The Kilnsea Beacon was originally erected in Napoleonic times and was constructed of wood, but when Tolkien was in Holderness it had been moved westwards from its earlier location on a hill, because otherwise it would have been lost to the sea many years earlier. By Tolkien’s time the wooden beacon had been replaced by a rather unusual metal structure. The Kilnsea beacon during World War One was situated north of the Godwin Battery nearer the battery than Easington. It was finally dismantled in the Second World War, as it was thought to be a too readily identified landmark for enemy planes!
When Tolkien was in the Humber Garrison he travelled to Dunstable to sit a signalling course exam in the second half of July 1917. Were Tolkien’s duties as a signalling officer connected in any way with one of the most striking surviving remnants of the Great War in the area? In 1916 an Acoustic Sound Mirror was erected at Kilnsea to listen out for approaching aircraft, which at that time really meant Zeppelins. The sound was focussed by the concave dish to the “collector’s head” mounted on the metal pipe still visible in modern photographs, on which was mounted a rudimentary microphone. Wires from this led down into a trench in which an operator with headphones would listen for approaching aircraft, and would provide an early warning – actually of only four minutes – some things don’t change! We will probably never know if Tolkien was one of these “listeners”, but even if not, when he was in the Kilnsea area he could not have failed to see this brutal, monumental structure. Incidentally, this 16-feet high piece of concrete remains the only listed building in Kilnsea!
After I gave an abbreviated version of this talk in Leeds on 4th July 2015, Irina Metzler, one of the delegates, explained that correspondences could be drawn between the Kilnsea Beacon and the Acoustic Mirror and Tolkien’s Amon Hen and Amon Lhaw. She pointed out that the Acoustic Mirror is very ear-like and was obviously designed to hear approaching aircraft, whilst the beacon was originally placed on a high point and was meant to be seen from afar. Of course in The Lord of the Rings Amon Hen is the Hill of Seeing and Amon Lhaw is the nearby Hill of Listening. As with so many things in Tolkien if indeed he did have these two nearby structures as an inspiration they were utterly transformed in his fiction.