There is only one direct route Tolkien could have used from Thirtle Bridge to Withernsea when he wished to visit his wife or when he needed to catch a train to Hull for monthly medical examinations or visits to hospital, and that is the twisting, undulating road now known as the B1242. Initially, only the summit of the white tower of Withernsea Lighthouse can be glimpsed, but as one nears Withernsea it becomes a dominant looming presence. For over a mile after leaving the camp there would hardly have been a single man-made structure visible between Thirtle Bridge and Withernsea in what was, and still is, a completely rural landscape. However, 1¼ miles south-east of Thirtle Bridge on the edge of a small settlement called Waxholme is a hill, on the summit of which is a ruined mill, variously called Withernsea Mill, Waxholme Mill, Owthorne Mill, and more often simply the Black Mill.
The mill last ground corn in 1892, and its sails were removed in 1904. In 1917 the black-painted windmill was still at its full height of approximately 40 feet, and was being used as a watch-tower by the army. It can safely be assumed that on the summit some guns were mounted as a defence against low-flying Zeppelins. Only a few years ago the family who owned the mill discovered a box of World War One ammunition in its foundations from its time on the frontline. As the road from Thirtle Bridge approaches the mill it dips into a deep depression, so the final ascent to the mill becomes quite steep, and the black mill on the hill would have loomed larger than if it had been approached on the level. In 2015 the ruined mill is just a presence on a hazardous bend, but in 1917 and 1918 as a contemporary newspaper report makes clear, the whole coastal road running from Easington to Skipsea was under military control, so there would have been a series of road blocks at significant junctions, and one of the most prominent was at this point. Local women complained about the barrier in Waxholme Road because the warehouse in which they had to sign before continuing on their way was over 2 feet above the ground, and many of them had to be helped over it. One Waxholme resident stated she would remain at home for ever rather than be subjected to manhandling over the stride up to the warehouse!
From the Black Mill it is possible to see both the white spike of Withernsea lighthouse over a mile away in a south-easterly direction, but also a quite different white tower about 1½ miles away to the south-west. The latter was virtually brand new when Tolkien was in the area – the gleaming white water tower of Rimswell, completed in 1916. As far as I am aware this bears no similarity to any tower in Tolkien’s fiction!
I am not suggesting that any towers in East Yorkshire directly inspired those in The Lord of the Rings, but when we are considering what towers may have been in the leaf-mould of his memory, then some of these should be considered as possible candidates. Apologies to any Midlanders who are reading this, but these two specifically-coloured towers of Withernsea Lighthouse and the Black Mill in a relatively uncluttered wartime landscape seem to me to be more credible than two structures from an urban cluttered landscape in Tolkien’s peaceful childhood? Additionally, Tolkien encountered these two towers just as his fictional landscape was starting to coalesce in his imagination.
I admit that there aren’t too many similarities between Withernsea lighthouse and Pippin’s initial impression of the Tower of Ecthelion in Minas Tirith which he saw “shimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, tall and fair and shapely, and its pinnacle glittered as if it were wrought of crystals; and white banners broke and fluttered from the battlements in the morning breeze.” However, the later description when Denethor retreats to his chamber at the summit of the tower to consult the palantír is faintly reminiscent of the function of a partially-used lighthouse: “many who looked up thither at that time saw a pale light that gleamed and flickered from the narrow windows for a while, and then flashed and went out.” Withernsea Lighthouse has the town of Withernsea lying around it, but it is not physically in the centre of the town as the tower of Ecthelion is in the centre of Minas Tirith. In some of the early pictorial representations of the towers, Tolkien’s sketches can look remarkably like lighthouses. One example is the rejected cover illustration for The Two Towers.
As this depicts Minas Morgul (formerly called Minas Ithil), which was originally the sister city of Minas Tirith, and which was constructed by the same regime, it may well have had some design similarities to the white tower of Minas Tirith. So, does Withernsea lighthouse have a sister lighthouse which Tolkien also saw? The nearest candidate is Spurn lighthouse, which is visible from Kilnsea, which we know he visited when undergoing hospital treatment. However, the possible ramifications of Spurn lighthouse will be featured at the very end of this piece!