I’ve always wanted to go off on a really big adventure. Lock the front door, jump the stile at the end of the lane and head off into the wild blue yonder with a rag tag bunch of compadres.
Yes, I’m jealous of Bilbo Baggins.
But while I’m unlikely to join a band of dwarves fighting a fire-breathing dragon, I can at least visit the place where it all began: Bag End in The Shire.
Well, ok, it’s actually a film set just outside Matamata on New Zealand’s North Island but it’s where Sir Peter Jackson filmed The Lord of the Rings and more recently The Hobbit movies. The Hobbiton Movie Set now stands as a permanent monument to Middle-earth and is proving to be one of the country’s major tourist attractions, with visitors coming from 120 countries worldwide.
Hobbiton has been built on a 500 hectare beef and sheep farm but is well away from civilisation to give it that authentic medieval feel. And ‘authentic’ is the key word for General Manager, Russell Alexander, whose father was first approached by a location scout in 1998 after he flew over the land in a helicopter.
“They wouldn’t tell us the name of the movie at first,” explains Russell. “My dad hadn’t even heard of The Lord of the Rings.” Six months of negotiations followed until the deal was done, although the Alexander’s were sworn to secrecy. Security guards were posted to keep prying eyes away as a 500-strong construction crew descended on the farm.
It has taken time for word to get around but more than 200,000 people came through the gate this financial year and it’s hoped to break through the 300,000 barrier once the third movie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, sparks another bout of hobbit fever at Christmas.
The tour begins several kilometres from Hobbiton at the purpose-built visitor centre. Guests are transported via mini bus and there’s not a glimpse of the place until you disembark, walk through a cutting and then there it is laid out before you. The element of surprise and wonder is duly achieved, seeing the place for the first time as movie-goers did in The Lord of the Rings.
The first thing you notice is the remarkable attention to detail over the four-hectare site. Authentic materials from the period prevail with homes designated for individual hobbits. There’s a hole for the blacksmith, the carpenter, the potter, even the village drunk, complete with to-scale accessories and tools. And there’s something of a social scale here, too, with the smaller holes at the bottom of the hill for the less affluent, ranging to the larger holes at the top for the more prestigious residents.
What you also notice is that there are no gimmicks, no animatronics and no characters dressed up as hobbits – it is life just as it would have been led in The Shire.
“I’m a bit paranoid about not making it into a theme park,” Russell says. “That’s what America does well and I totally respect that but what we do in New Zealand is something different and unique.”
I spent a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours wandering the narrow lanes and seeing some of the 44 hobbit holes they have constructed. Some are big enough for humans to walk inside but here the magic ends. The insides are just empty shells – the interior shots in the movies were done on a film set in Wellington.
There are some other movie secrets to be uncovered along the way. I won’t spoil all of Russell’s stories but suffice to say all is not as it seems, with 200,000 artificial leaves flown in from Taiwan and trees constructed from steel and silicon.
Highlights of the tour are Bag End, home of the most famous hobbit of all, the ‘Party Tree’ and the chance to sup a pint of locally-brewed ale in The Green Dragon. Visitors can also partake of evening dinner tours, with a banquet in The Green Dragon followed by a guided trip through the set with each guest given an authentic hand-held lantern.
So does replicating a place featured in one of the most beloved and read books in the world add extra pressure when it comes to creating a real-life Shire?
“The underlying thing is that this is a passion and if you are passionate about what you are doing and trying to achieve, the responsibility doesn’t really come into it,” says Russell.
“But it is very humbling and the best thing we can do is to keep doing what we do well. People don’t come to a country just for two hours. We are only one piece of the jigsaw.”
GETTING THERE: The Hobbiton Movie Set is in Matamata, a two-hour drive from Auckland.
ACCOMMODATION: A number of farm stay options are available in the Matamata region, offering country-style accommodation.
WHEN TO GO: Tours operate daily and depart every 45 minutes from 9.30am to 2.45pm. There are additional afternoon departures from August 20 to May 19 and December 27 to February 28. Tours last three hours and cost $NZ75 (approx. $AU67) for adults, $NZ37.50 (approx. $AU33) for 10-14-year-olds and $NZ10 (approx. $AU9) for children aged five to nine.
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