(Above) Bob Blackham (second from right) at the photocall to announce a £376,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant for Tolkien's Middle Earth
JRR Tolkien would have been proud of the Moseley Bog story. The nature reserve which inspired the Lord of the Rings writer’s Old Forest refused to dry when it was drained in the 1850s, and survived development via an impassioned Save Our Bog campaign in the 1980s.
It traces 3,000 years of human activity, including Medieval dam remnants and the remains of the Edwardian and Victorian gardens which surrounded it, but the survival of this mythical heartland owes little to the volunteers whose hard work has earned a lucrative Lottery grant to re-imagine the site.
"You've got to understand that the Bog is a complicated environment," says Bob Blackham, leader of the Moseley Bog Conservation Group.
"It's actually a drained mill from the 1850s, but it never dried. It became a wet woodland, and then in the 1980s the valley was filled and planted with trees. The Bog didn't need us – it would have looked after itself."
The Bog and surrounding terrain has survived stints as a tip and playing fields. Photo: Neil Wyatt, Wildlife Trust
A former engineer who has been instrumental in conservation efforts in the area since the 1960s, Blackham has written two books about Tolkien, inspired by playing in the same Moseley fields the author did as a child.
The Group he leads – which has been a meeting point for future marriages and others who "just wanted to do something that wasn't being stuck in the office" – started out in 1997 with the aim of creating a small pond, going on to convene once a month for coppicing, planting and other activities.
"Every six or seven years we cut down broad leaf trees to let the plants underneath them flourish," he says, describing perhaps their most vital initiative.
"All the wildlife comes out, which means no single species dominates and it keeps its biodiversity."
The thriving habitat they have nourished makes the £376,000 award fitting in the International Year of Biodiversity, and the process has given the Bog an international profile.
"It is hard work when you get a lot of people coming," admits Blackham, who is heroically modest about his key role in winning the windfall.
"We've had people from Malaysia and China. They didn't even know how to use a saw."
Blackham and his team have become experts in presenting their patch to such audiences, including "at least once on the telly", when they gave a demonstration of burnt mounds – a kind of Bronze Age sauna created with burning stones.
"There were lots round here," he explains. "We've found piles of heat-shattered stones, so the reconstructions were definitely interesting. You don't realise the places where you've got pores."
Middle Earth Weekend, the annual Tolkien fest held nearby, will have extra cause for celebration as the Bog now prepares for a lengthy programme of improvements.
It's a wonder the creators of the film versions of Tolkien's epic tomes didn't take more insight from his true terrain.
"There are so many references to the Old Forest in the book," he pauses, reflecting on their chosen destination of New Zealand.
"But they had to go 12,000 miles away to get Middle Earth."
This year's Middle Earth Weekend takes place on May 15 and 16 2010. Check out the programme here.