Northmoor Project: the Tolkien family’s former home as a popular attraction
Lorena S. Ávila
We all develop great attachment to our houses, not by chance, since it is between its walls that most of life happens. It is indoors that dramas, as well as joys, are fully experienced. It is in the search for a cup of coffee in the kitchen, during family dinners, or a hot bath and in the warmth of the rooms, that thoughts wander around and give rise to great ideas.
This symbolic importance of the home allegedly guides Project Northmoor, a campaign that started on 2 December allegedly to acquire one of the houses in which the renowned writer J.R.R. Tolkien lived, and transform it into an educational and cultural center. The property, located at 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford, was not Tolkien’s only address on that street, but it became an iconic spot as it was there that, between 1930 and 1947, Tolkien wrote his two most important works: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. At this very same address, Tolkien also raised his children and even received distinguished visits from friends like C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Led by romance writer Julia Golding, her husband, lawyer Joss Saunders, and brothers Brian and Frances Boyd, who specialize in communication and marketing, the project was supported by celebrities like Ian Mckellen (Gandalf), Martin Freeman (Young Bilbo), John Rhys-Davis (Gimli) and singer Annie Lennox. The campaign’s promotional video, which is widely disseminated in the media, also includes the names of researchers, such as Joseph Loconte, author of A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War and Michael Ward.
Together, they make an appeal that was used as an official campaign slogan: “Save Tolkien’s house” and ask for donations to raise around £4.8 million. According to the official website, the amount is necessary to acquire the property and continue the project, whose main goals are, they claim, the restoration of the garden, the construction of a hobbit house in the yard and the development of courses, workshops, lectures and other in-person and online artistic training programs. So far, around £500,000 have been raised.
For some fans, the idea seemed attractive, after all, not always are they are offered the opportunity to enter the office in which Tolkien conceived his majestic fantasy. On the other hand, important entities, like The Tolkien Society, and respectable tolkienists like Troels Forchhammer raised a number of issues. The FAQ on the site is dedicated to answering some of the main questions, mainly clarifying that even if it intends to forward Tolkien’s legacy, the project will not focus exclusively on the author’s works. Even so, for many enthusiasts of the Professor, the vagueness of the proposed content and the established goals were crucial to determine their opposition or, at least, their reticence.
After all, what is the nature of the project? Partly registered as a charity and partly as a business, it is implied that the cultural center will be privately-run, at least in part, maybe even housing a bed and breakfast. Some people argue that it would not be a Tolkien centre, but a place of creativity and spiritual retreats, wich happens to be in Tolkien’s former home. The questions made Julia and her team edit the project page on December 8 and 11, updating it with further information and even a schedule of in-person creative writing courses that proposes a tour around the places Tolkien frequented, and another one, online, focused on the fantasy genre.
The Tolkien Society has formally stated, based on an analysis of the entire project as it is presented, that it does not agree with what they believe should be an entity of studies and cultural promotion on the J.R.R.Tolkien’s work a tolkiendili entity. Read the full letter here .
Julia Golding granted a live, with Q&A, to the North American channel Nerd of The Rings, on YouTube, clarifying questions about your project. Trying to look friendly, but being visibly tense, she defended the cause: “I am not trying to get anyone. I’m trying to create something wonderful for Tolkien fans”.
As in the rest of the world, Brazilian fans were also divided. The White Council Tolkien Society in Brazil, an institution representing all the Brazilian smials, i.e., local groups of the British Tolkien Society, posted a note in their official website in disagreement with Project Northmoor, claiming they were unable to perceive the credibility of the project. Check out the White Council note here. In the midst of so many statements and divergent perspectives, we sought to understand the heart of the proposal, formulating an informative content that aims to expose many points of view to the reader.
The writer tells that her greatest inspiration is Wordsworth House, a recreational center created in the house of the poet William Wordsworth. They offer seminars, nature walks, areas for photo-taking, several handicraft activities, and the place also works as an environmental preservation entity, in addition to being established as a large charity that does not necessarily dedicate itself to the works of Wordsworth. At this center, tickets range from £4 pounds to £24 pounds, which can give us a basis of the amount to be charged for future tours at Tolkien’s house.
During the interview for the website, she points out that “I would love to partner with other groups that study Tolkien”, although the project is not aimed at the academic community. She also speaks openly about having legal support for her actions. After requesting a position from Julia on the letter published by TS, the writer decided to publish a video on her social media, clarifying that both projects have different objectives and therefore will not be partners. Tap to watch.
In the following interview, we sent Julia Golding important questions to all who try to understand better the campaign and its guidelines. Unfortunately, the answers were quite brief and the interviewee did not clarify many of the questions we consider fundamental.
Check out the full interview:
Do you consider yourself a Tolkien fan? Have you ever participated in projects promoted by other cultural entities involving Tolkien’s universe? Can you tell us a little about your relationship with the author’s works?
I love this question! In the rush to getting this campaign off the ground, very few people have actually stopped and asked me why I’ve decided to devote so much of my time and energy to it. I first read The Lord the Rings when I was about 10 and I was completely hooked. I finished The Return of the King and immediately went back to The Fellowship because I didn’t want to leave his world. I then developed the habit of reading it about once a year. Tolkien’s ability to create a fantasy world that had depth and breadth was (and is) an inspiration to me as a writer of over 60 novels for all age groups and in many genres. I visit lots of schools doing book talks as part of my work as an author and I can report that he is an inspiration to many young people. I love his values, the courage of the hobbits in the world of big people, the glimpses of Tolkien’s own time in the social relationships. Tolkien is also a brilliant writer describing nature, particularly woods and trees. His spell was so strong that it convinced me the best thing I could do with my life was become an author and cast my own small spells over readers. I also have an academic background in literature (a doctorate from Oxford University) so I’ve also appreciated him as a literary critic and translator.
Please tell us how and when was the Northmoor project idealized? How did you all come together to make this happen? (Here we would like to know about your meetings, the “backstage”, the things that inspired you, the conversations you had etc.)
It started with going past the house with my husband and seeing it was up for sale. We were aware there wasn’t a centre principally about Tolkien, as there is for so many other writers in the UK – Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Wordsworth etc. The house seemed the perfect focus for this. We began by talking to the neighbours and local council to find out what was possible in what is a quiet residential street. We investigated various routes to create a creative centre, but then the pandemic happened and we shelved the idea. Only in November did we revive it, wanting to create something hopeful from out of a difficult year. Let’s end 2020 with something positive!
Is there any other similar project concerned with another author that inspired you to do that?
There are lots of houses in the UK dedicated to other authors – the Jane Austen house in Chawton, Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford, the Dickens Museum in London, Wordsworth’s house in the Lake District. All of these are an inspiration, particularly Wordsworth’s house which also invites people to come and stay for conferences in Grasmere each year. In each case the house is at the heart of an inspiring programme built on the example of the writer. It seems extraordinary that there isn’t one for Tolkien – yet!
Have you thought of allying yourself with other entities related to Tolkien, such as the Tolkien Society? Did you ask for support from Tolkien scholars and other scholars in the UK? If so, why are most of them not involved in the project? Overall, what did they tell you?
Project Northmoor is an independent charity but we are keen to work with all our fellow Tolkien enthusiasts and experts. There are many ways to appreciate the author, our approach to him as a source of inspiration is just one.
We’ve had great support from the scholars we’ve spoken to, some of whom appear in our campaign video. If you are a scholar reading this and want to be involved, we’d love to hear from you.
The house is big for a family but maybe small for visitors. Do you know how much would the activities cost there? Don’t you think it may become an elite project?
Fortunately, the house is the right size for creative writing courses and small groups. Costs will vary with length of stay and the course. Our fundraising includes a target to endow scholarships to help people with low incomes to attend.
How do you plan to maintain the project alive?
That will be the fun part. We will work out with the supporters a programme they find engaging and creative. We have lots of ideas but are always open to suggestions.
The house is a Grade II listed building in the UK, which means it cannot be demolished or altered without special permission. Why does the project campaign claim that the house must be saved?
That’s correct — it is listed and is one of the reasons why it is still very like it was in Tolkien’s day as far as the room plan and size of the garden are concerned. The old garage has even survived. ‘Saving’ is in the sense of making it open to Tolkien enthusiasts to visit, rather than disappear back into private hands and be closed off. Grade II listing is a precious asset that needs to be actively defended against the pressure from developers.
On your website you say the donations are anonymous, and that is why the celebrities who are in your video do not appear as project sponsors. Nevertheless, those celebrities could afford it, if they wanted to. Why would you still need ordinary people’s donations?
This project is about ordinary people and their support. We’ve had such lovely messages of support from people round the world and donations from over 80 countries. We are also very grateful for the attention celebrities can bring to a cause. The ones who join in the video have been wonderful friends but they are not responsible for Project Northmoor’s fundraising.
You also say the house will be a centre of creativity as well, not only a Tolkien-dedicated building, meaning you want to support new writers and artists. We would like to know how Tolkien is contemplated in the project: would he be more of a reference, or do you have a plan especially focused on his works?
Tolkien is definitely the inspiration. We’ve drawn up an initial programme of events which should give you a good idea about our plans and this is posted on the website. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 situation means we have to wait before knowing how soon a programme could start.
Have you prepared an action plan in case the goal is reached? Do you have already a team of collaborators?
We are lucky to have a great team of volunteers around the world helping with the campaign. Initial conversations have begun with course tutors and experts but we are only a few weeks into our existence so will be doing much more work on this. There’s a very strong group of my fellow writers in and around Oxford so much of the talent is on the doorstep.
It is written on your website that you intend to make retreats, although you say the project is not religious. So, what kind of retreats do you intend to do?
Writing retreats. These are times when you can stay without there being a course and use it as a space for writing.
There are some public demonstrations against the project, like Shaun Gunner and Troels Forchammer, including a specific email by The Tolkien Society. What is your position in relation to this?
It would be great to work out areas where we can work together. A centre for inspiring new creativity in the next generation of writers and artists is not in their remit as I understand it but there might be other things we could do together.
Why don’t you have the support of the Tolkien Estate or other entities like The Tolkien Society or even Oxford University, for instance?
We have very good contacts in Oxford University, with many academics who support us, and Colleges who want to collaborate with us. We would love to work with the other groups you mention and look forward to making good relationships with them when they see what we are about, but we aren’t setting out to be an academic research centre. We also hope to partner with other creative writing centres in the UK and elsewhere.
Not having the Estate support, are you not concerned with legal issues that may arise from using Tolkien’s name? We can see you use the name of some of his legendarium’s creatures on the website, especially in the certificates as hobbit gift and Valar gift, for instance. Do you have the permission to do that?
We operate under fair use principles, and respect all legal rights. Please see our website, where we have some coffee mugs and t-shirts and related items for sale. These are original works, and do not use any copyright or trade marks of other people. Donors will receive a certificate to acknowledge their donation, but the certificate does not refer to any brands or protected names.
If the project does not raise enough money, you will not give the donations back to those who have not used PayPal. On your website, it is said that you would use it for other charities objectives. What are these goals concretely? Why not relocate this donation to another non-profit institution focused on Tolkien, whether in England or other countries, or just issue the donors a refund?
Paypal giving does not involve a tax concession, and so we are free to refund donors, and comply fully with charity law in doing this. This will also be the case with the new JustGiving page, within the rules of that platform. In the case of tax exempt funds, the tax rules require that the donation is used for charitable purposes. If we do not acquire the house, we will be free to allocate the donation to other not for profit institutions, as long as they meet the Charity Commission’s requirements, or to run writers’ workshops and other events in Oxford, as set out on our website.
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