In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.' So began J R R Tolkien's famous children's book, The Hobbit, published 70 years ago this year. This epic adventure was written at 20 Northmoor Road, where Tolkien lived from 1929-47 - just one of his six Oxford residences, and the only one to be marked with a blue plaque.

The Hobbit evolved from the bedtime stories Tolkien invented for his children, and it was to them that he read those immortal opening lines as they sat on the floor of his spacious study at Northmoor Road.

His fascination for ancient languages and mythology fed his imagination, and helped create the loveable Bilbo Baggins, the kindly wizard Gandalf, the "small slimy creature" Gollum and the malevolent Orcs.

The classic theme of "good versus evil" was later developed further in the much more ambitious trilogy The Lord of the Rings.

The hobbit's comfortable little burrow is believed to have been inspired by the interior of 20 Northmoor Road, in particular the way the door opens "onto a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel", off which "many little round doors" open on to rooms "first one side and then on the other".

Tolkien's association with Oxford had begun some years earlier. Born John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1892, he spent most of his childhood in the small town of Sarehole, near Birmingham, before coming up to Oxford in 1911 to study classics at Exeter College. He later changed to English, specialising in philology, and graduated in 1915 with first class honours.

The following year he married his childhood sweetheart Edith Bratt, but only three months later he was fighting in the Battle of the Somme with the Lancashire Fusiliers, returning in July with trench fever. His experiences later inspired parts of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

After the war, Tolkien worked for a while as an assistant lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary, before beginning his academic career as a Reader at the University of Leeds. He returned to Oxford in 1925 and spent the rest of his professional life here, first as Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, and later as Professor of English at Merton.

His first home in Oxford was 22 Northmoor Road, where his neighbour, at number 20, was Basil Blackwell, son of the bookshop founder, Benjamin Henry Blackwell. Basil moved out in 1929 and, by that time, the Tolkiens had three sons - John, Michael and Christopher - so decided to move into Basil's former home, a larger property, to accommodate their growing family. Their youngest child and only daughter, Priscilla, was born at number 20 that same year.

This peaceful haven perfectly suited Tolkien's modest and conservative personality. His study became the epicentre of family life, his desk a glorious confusion of work materials and personal knick-knacks. He became a familiar sight locally on his high-seated bicycle, enjoyed winding down at the end of a busy day with his pipe, and objected to the mechanisation of farming and the gradual destruction of the British countryside. He was a staunch Roman Catholic, and during his years at Northmoor Road he regularly attended St Aloysius Church, on the Woodstock Road.

"I am a hobbit in all but size," is how he once described himself. "I like gardens, trees and unmechanised farmlands. I smoke a pipe and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking. I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much."

At the same time he was cultivating the friendship of C S Lewis and other like-minded academics, who formed a literary club known as "The Inklings".

The group met at Lewis's rooms at Magdalen College, or in various pubs around the city, most famously the Eagle and Child in St Giles. Here they would gather in the Rabbit Room' (then a back room with a coal fire, but now part of the main bar) and read and discussed their work.

It was to this congenial group that Tolkien read parts of The Hobbit during its gestation, and the admiration and support he received encouraged him to send the work to a publisher. Lewis, in particular, was sufficiently moved to comment on its "deft scholarship and profound reflection" that made "everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true." He added, prophetically, that "The Hobbit may well become a classic."

The book was published by Unwin in 1937, and its success spurred Tolkien into embarking on his greatest masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. This epic saga took him 17 years to complete, and was inspired not only by his Oxford surroundings, but by his childhood in Birmingham.

In 1947, after his children had grown up and moved away, Tolkien moved to 3 Manor Road, a small, mid-terrace house near the city centre. He subsequently lived at 99 Holywell Street and 76 Sandfield Road, Headington, before moving to Bournemouth in 1968 in the hope that it would restore Edith's failing health. Sadly, she died in 1971, and he returned to Oxford, where he lived at 21 Merton Street until his own death in 1973.

He was buried alongside his wife at Wolvercote Cemetery, and his grave regularly attracts Tolkien pilgrims from all over the world. It is a fitting memorial to a man whose fantasy novels introduced a new literary genre and changed the face of English literature forever.

Further Reading: Sears, Revd Dr Jeanette: The Oxford of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (Heritage Tours Publications, 2006) - a detailed guide to Tolkien and Lewis locations in the city centre