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Maybe Middle-Earth: Hurst Green and Three Rivers

Did these rivers, fields and woods inspire Tolkien's creation of The Shire?

Distance 6.4 miles (10.4km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 459ft (14m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Grassy riverside paths, woodland and farm tracks, 11 stiles

Landscape Pastoral scenery, scattered woodlands, backdrop of moors

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 287 West Pennine Moors

Start/finish SD 684382

Dog friendliness Can run free in woodland sections

Parking By Hurst Green village hall or on roadside adjacent

Public toilets Centre of Hurst Green

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1 Walk down the road to the centre of Hurst Green village. Cross the main road and go down left of the Shireburn Arms to a stile below the main car park. Go down the edge of a field then follow a small stream to some duckboards and a footbridge. After a slight rise, wooden steps wind down to the River Ribble. Bear left just above the river.

2 Skirt the aqueduct and return to the river bank. A gravel track swings right past Jumbles Rocks. Go through a gate alongside a small stone building with a mast to rejoin the river bank and follow it, towards the Boat House.

3 After rounding the big bend, go up slightly to a track. Follow this for about ½ mile (800m). Opposite the confluence of the Ribble and the Hodder, go over a stile by a bench.

4 The narrow path quickly rejoins the track. At Winckley Hall Farm go left to the houses, right between barns then left past a pond and out into a lane. This climbs steeply then levels out, swinging left past Winckley Hall. Go through a kissing gate on the right and across the field to another. Keep straight on across a large field, just left of a wood, then down past a pond and up to a road.

5 Turn right down a pavement to the river. Immediately before the bridge, turn left along a track. Follow the river round, climb up past Hodder Place then descend again to a bridge over a stream.

6 Go up the track on the left, cross a footbridge then climb a long flight of wooden steps. Follow the top edge of a plantation then cross a stile into a field. Keep to its edge and at the end cross a stile into a stony track. Keep left, past Woodfields and out to the road. Go down the track by the post-box to Hall Barn Farm and along the right side of the buildings.

7 Turn right on a tarmac track for 200yds (183m). Go left through a gate by the end of a wall and along a narrow field. At its end go right to a track alongside a wood then up to a kissing gate. Follow the field edge to another kissing gate. At the top of the final field, through a gate, a narrow path leads to a short lane. At its end turn left back to the start.

You don't have to be a Tolkien fan to enjoy this walk, which has long been recognised as a logical and graceful outing.

Recent research by Jonathan Hewat (a teacher at Stonyhurst's prep school, St Mary's Hall) has uncovered the extent of the Tolkien connection. This much is certain: J R R Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, knew this area well. One of his sons studied for the priesthood at Stonyhurst and Tolkien spent long periods here while he was writing the trilogy. The rest, though fascinating, is largely conjecture. In the hobbits' Shire there's a River Shirebourn, and the Shireburn family once owned Stonyhurst. But does that mean that Hurst Green is Hobbiton?

Tolkien also drew great inspiration from the country of his boyhood in the West Midlands, deeply regretting its disappearance under roads and factories. Perhaps the enduringly green Ribble Valley reminded him of that lost landscape. No doubt The Shire owes something to both. If the Tolkien angle intrigues you, a locally available leaflet gives much more detail.

Just after reaching the Ribble, you pass the graceful aqueduct, built in 1880 to supply water to Blackburn. An easy ¾ mile (1.2km) brings you to Jumbles Rocks, outcrops of limestone which form natural weirs and a ford. The ford has been used, when the water's low, since time immemorial. Until the 1950s there was also a ferry and the isolated Boat House was the ferryman's home.

In the fields near by are two obvious mounds. The lower one was excavated in 1894 and dated to around 1250 bc. The larger, though known to be artificial, has yet to be properly examined. As the Ribble swings round, the River Calder enters opposite, close to 17th-century Hacking Hall. Less than ¾ mile (1.2km) further on is the confluence of the Ribble and the Hodder, which you follow briefly before leaving it near Winckley Hall.

You'll soon return to the river at Low Hodder Bridge. Just downstream is the ancient Cromwell's Bridge - a misplaced name. The bridge was actually built for one of the Shireburn dynasty in 1562. Legend has it that Cromwell vandalised it, destroying the parapets that impeded the progress of his troops.

You follow the Hodder for almost another mile (1.6km) before climbing steeply away to Woodfields. Tolkien stayed in one of these houses. The track passes St Mary's Hall and then reaches Hall Barn Farm. Near by, on the edge of the college precincts is a small observatory. This was one of a network, observations from which helped the Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland confirm the magnetic origin of the Northern Lights.

Where to eat and drink

In the absence of a Green Dragon or Prancing Pony, the Shireburn Arms has the most Tolkeinesque name, and it's a very comfortable place, if a little bit upmarket for hobbits. (You'll probably want to change out of muddy boots first.) There's a smart restaurant as well as a good range of bar food.

While you're there

Stonyhurst College was originally the home of the Shireburn family and much of the original Elizabethan house still exists, though almost enveloped by vast 19th-century additions. It was taken over in 1794 by Jesuits fleeing the French Revolution and is now a leading Catholic boarding school. It's open to visitors during the summer holidays.

What to look for

One plant to look out for, especially along the riversides, is butterbur. This is another name that will ring bells with Tolkien devotees; there's an innkeeper in The Lord of the Rings called Barliman Butterbur. The flower spikes, which appear in early spring, look superficially like dull pinkish hyacinths, but the individual flowers are daisy-like. Later in the year huge leaves develop, these were traditionally used to wrap butter.

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