9 Surprising Places that Inspired Famous Books and Music - Atlas Obscura
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9 Surprising Places that Inspired Famous Books and Music

From JRR Tolkien to Pink Floyd, these spots spurred creativity.


Puzzlewood, in England, said to have inspired Tolkien. (Photo: GuyBerresfordPhotography/shutterstock.com)

It’s often said that inspiration can be found anywhere—and sometimes these creative triggers can be incredibly unique. Take, for example, a spinning sign for a foot clinic in Los Angeles. It’s been featured in a song by the Eels, and appeared in a book by David Foster Wallace. Not bad for an advertisement for a podiatrist. Fingal’s Cave in Scotland inspired both an overture and a painting— in the same year. Here are nine places of artistic inspiration. 

1. Puzzlewood

Forest of Dean, United Kingdom

(Photo: Trubble/CC BY-SA 2.0)

“He led the way in under the huge branches of the trees. Old beyond guessing, they seemed. Great trailing beards of lichen hung from them, blowing and swaying in the breeze.” J.R.R Tolkien’s descriptions of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings evoke a place of mystery and suspense, but the inspiration is said to have been at least partly based on Puzzlewood, a woodland located in Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean. Tolkien was a regular visitor to Puzzlewood and reputedly found inspiration among the 14 acres of mossy woodland, winding paths, tree tunnels and low-hanging branches.  

(Photo: Trubble/CC BY-SA 2.0)

2. Fingal’s Cave

Inner Hebrides, Scotland

(Photo: Katarina Tauber/shutterstock.com

“In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there” wrote composer Felix Mendelssohn to his sister after visiting Fingal’s Cave. The vast natural structure, situated on Scotland’s west coast,  has had considerable artistic influence. After his visit, Mendelssohn premiered a symphony called The Hebrides, also known as Fingal’s Cave, in 1832. This was a boon year for Fingal’s Cave: by co-incidence, artist JM Turner completed his painting Staffa, Fingal’s Cave in 1832. It received a more enthusiastic response than Mendelssohn’s concerto. Turner had also painted a dramatic scene, drawing on the circumstances in which he had viewed it: from the deck of a steamer in a storm.

The inspiration doesn’t end there; in 1969, Pink Floyd recorded a number of songs as part of the Zabriskie Point sessions, including one instrumental track that was unreleased.  Its title? “Fingal’s Cave”.  

(Photo: Katarina Tauber/shutterstock.com

(Photo: Katarina Tauber/shutterstock.com)

3. Rock’n’Roll McDonalds

Chicago, Illinois

(Photo: TonyTheTiger/CC BY-SA 3.0)

“McDonald’s is a place to rock/It is a restaurant where they buy food to eat/It is a good place to listen to the music/People flock here to get down to the rock music”. So sang cult artist and songwriter Wesley Willis in his 1995 song “Rock’n’Roll McDonald’s”, inspired by what is now a flagship McDonalds and Museum in Chicago. Willis, who had schizophrenia, also wrote songs about his favorite rock and roll artists. “Rock’n’Roll McDonald’s” was also featured in one of the most well-known documentaries of the 2000s, Super Size Me.  

(Photo: TonyTheTiger/CC BY-SA 3.0)

(Photo: -Maik-/CC BY-ND 2.0)

4. Castle Frankenstein

Mühltal, Germany

(Photo: Boris Stroujko/shutterstock.com

“I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created.” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein famously came into being thanks to a challenge from Lord Byron, who suggested that she, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Polidori all try to write a horror story. Frankenstein was first published anonymously in 1818, when Shelley was 20; it has continually been in print ever since. Yet the circumstances of the novel’s creation may go back further than Byron’s challenge.

In 1814, Shelley had travelled to the River Rhine, close to the location of Castle Frankenstein and the birthplace of scientist Johann Konrad Dippel. Dippel, born in 1673, was an alchemist with a rumored taste for some horror himself: it’s believed that Dippel had also experimented on human body parts. The connection to Shelley’s Frankenstein has not been proven, but there has long been speculation that Shelley was in some way inspired by this gloomy, gothic castle.

(Photo: Jackie/CC BY-ND 2.0)

(Photo: Jackie/CC BY-ND 2.0)

5. Strawberry Field

Liverpool, UK

(Photo: chrisdorney/shutterstock.com)

“Let me take you down/ Cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields/ Nothing is real/ And nothing to get hung about/Strawberry Fields forever.” In creating these lyrics, John Lennon immortalized a place he had known in Liverpool as a child—Strawberry Field, the name of the Salvation Army Children’s Home. Lennon played in the woods behind the home as a child and years later, returned to it in his lyrics. Today, Strawberry Field exists for Beatles fans to visit, although the building itself was torn down in the 1970s. 

(Photo: chrisdorney/shutterstock.com)


6. Snæfellsjökull Volcano


(Photo: Axel Kristinsson/CC BY 2.0)

“…one of the most remarkable in the whole island, and certainly doomed to be the most celebrated in the world, for through its crater we shall reach the center of the earth.” A 700,000 year old volcano seems the perfect place to start on an adventure—certainly for Jules Verne. In his 1864 book, Journey to the Center of the Earth, his protagonists make their way into earth through Snæfellsjökull volcano in Iceland. The volcano is so impressive that, on a clear day, it can be seen from Reykjavik, some 75miles away. 

(Photo: dalish/shutterstock.com

7. Renishaw Hall

Derbyshire, UK

(Photo: giborn_134/CC BY-ND 2.0)

“Wragby was a long, low old house in brown stone, begun about the middle of the eighteenth century, and added on to, till it was a warren of a place without much distinction.” The novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was controversial for decades. Firstly published in 1928 in Italy, and only released in full in Britain in 1960, it’s the story of an affair between Lady Chatterley and Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper, set in her and husband’s home, Wragby Hall. 

This fictional estate is said to be based on Derbyshire’s Renishaw Hall, a 17th century country house set over 300 acres. Since it was built, Renishaw Hall has been home to the Sitwell family, many of whom were artists or art patrons. However that doesn’t mean they approved of Lawrence’s book; writing in 1933, Edith Sitwell declared Lady Chatterley’s Lover was “dirty and completely worthless book”.

(Photo: Esther Westerveld/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Esther Westerveld/CC BY 2.0  

8. Whitby Abbey

Whitby, UK

(Photo: Arka Mukherjee/shutterstock.com

“I have crossed oceans of time to find you.” In 1897, Bram Stoker published Dracula, one of the most enduring vampire stories of all time. In the book, Dracula travels from Transylvania to England, and his ship runs ground in the seaside town of Whitby. Above the harbor looms the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a monastery that was abandoned in the 16th century. It seems that even the local library in Whitby helped inspire Stoker—it’s believed that he first heard about Vlad Dracul through a book he borrowed in 1890.  

(Photo: Jennifer Boyer/CC BY 2.0)

(Photo: Yorkman/shutterstock.com)

9. Happy Foot/ Sad Foot Sign

Los Angeles, California

 (Photo: Rachel Kramer Bussel/cropped from original/CC BY 2.0)

“Sad foot sign/Why you gotta taunt me this way?/The happy side is broken now/It’s gonna be an awful day”. A sign for a podiatrist’s office in Los Angeles is one of the more unexpected sources of artistic inspiration, but then again, this is no ordinary sign— it  features two expressive feet, one happy, one sad, and it rotates between the two emotions under the LA sunshine. For the Eels’ song ”Sad Foot Sign” the focus was certainly on the red-eyed sad face.  In addition to music, the Happy/Sad Foot Sign was also included in The Pale King, the David Foster Wallace book published in 2011 after his death.

(Photo: Miguel/CC BY-SA 2.0