Possibly the most anticipated blog from my New Zealand adventure has finally arrived. Hobbits! If you’re an avid Tolkein fiend, Jackson junkie or Frodo follower, this post is for you. Come with me into the magical lands of Middle Earth as brought to life in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
I Love Hobbits
I remember having some picture books as a kid about Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. They were highly simplified versions of the stories in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but my mother loved those stories so much, she made sure I got started early. The books had read along audio cassettes that I could play in my own little cassette player (because digitial music didn’t exist yet, that’s why). I learned about Golum and the One Ring while I was learning to read. It’s safe to say that the stories of Middle Earth are embeded in my foundation.
In high school, we used to use Dwarven runes to write secret notes and one of my friends even learned basic Elvish. In 1999 or 2000, my mother and I were walking out of some movie or other and saw a poster on the wall of the theater with Elijiah Wood and my mother immediately exclaimed, “It’s Frodo!” without even reading the text on the poster. It was indeed Frodo, and the poster was the first advertisement for Peter Jackson’s film rendition of the epic stories. Now the books have spawned a movie franchise, sharing Tolkien’s work with a whole new group of fans with 6 movies so far, and I hear more in the works. So, when I found out that the Hobbiton movie set was still alive and well in New Zealand, I of course fantasized about going there. And, when I found my travels taking me down under this year, I finally got my chance.
The Movie Set
The Hobbiton movie set is on private land. Jackson and his team chose from among several farms in NZ, finally selecting this one for the combination of the Party Tree (that giant tree Bilbo stands under at his 111th birthday party), and the natural hillside that enabled them to build Bag End in such a way that matched the physical description in the books. Jackson’s attention to the detail in the books was demanding, sometimes to an insane level, but it made the movies match the mental image so many readers and artists had carried for years after reading the tales. When Jackson asked permission to use the land, the farmer agreed with the proviso that the land be returned to exactly the way it was after filming. However, when Jackson returned to film the Hobbit movies, the farmer saw an opportunity, and this time demanded the set be built to last a minimum of 50 years so that tourists could come to visit after the filming was done.
Visiting Hobbiton is not an inexpensive proposition. It costs a little over 50$ US for the tour, but this goes into maintaining the amazing detail of the set, a full time staff of gardeners and repairpersons as well as guides and staff at the Green Dragon to brew ale and cook Hobbit food. It’s so much more than a movie set left behind, it’s a very nearly living village that makes one believe the Hobbits have just ducked out for a moment but will be right back. Also there is no way to view the Shire from the public roads, so if you want to see Hobbit holes, this is it.
The Tour Begins
The tour is 2 hours long and starts at the visitors center where a massive car park surrounds a quaint gift shop and cafe. I was truly surprised at the number of cars in the lot when I arrived. The movie set is outside Matamata, and is quite remote. I had seen more sheep than people my whole drive over, and the nearest petrol station was more than 10 minutes away. When I turned into the car park, however, it was like a shopping mall on a Black Friday, I nearly didn’t find a parking spot. I did go on a Sunday, which may have accounted for the higher turn out, but there is no doubt that Hobbiton is a prime attraction. There is a fleet of green buses (the color of Bag End’s front door) emblazoned with the Hobbiton logo that drive visitors from the car park over to the movie set itself. On the way, the guide, Sam (our guide was named Sam, he swears it’s his real name and just a coincidence) told us that originally there had been no road into the farm this way. The New Zealand Army was contracted to come in and build the road so that all the set and filming equipment could be moved in. The farmer himself was under a non-disclosure agreement, so when one of his neighbors asked why the army was on his farm, all he could say was that they had been selected for a random road building exercise.
Deep in the farm, past many more sheep and the now empty fields that once once housed the set construction, make up tents, cast trailers and craft services hall, we finally caught our first glimpse of the Shire, the water mill and the Inn of the Green Dragon on the lake. The excitement on the bus was palpable. Despite the huge numbers of tourists visiting each day, it seemed that very few were idle viewers and most were just as happy as was to be arriving at the real, physical, 3D version of Bilbo’s home town. We piled out of the bus to begin our walking portion of the tour next to some last minute bathrooms. I hadn’t had a chance to go at the visitor’s center so I decided to do so here. The outside looks like nothing so much as a rustic gardener’s shed, and I rather expected the inside to be about the same. Instead was surprised to encounter one of the cleanest and most well appointed restrooms I’ve ever seen outside a formal restaurant. So that’s one more thing the entrance fee is covering, well done.
Welcome to Hobbiton
There is a sign at the entrance with old drawings of the Shire and an overgrowth of ivy. It welcomed us to Hobbiton and marks the real edge of where Earth becomes Middle Earth. As we continued on, we came through a narrow path with a high stone wall, the exact path that Gandalf uses to enter Hobbiton in his first appearance. Sam did a great job of pointing out all the details from the movie, as well as the books as we passed by, including many interesting stories of how and why the sets were built the way they were. The scene with Frodo and Gandalf on the cart uses forced perspective to make Elijia Wood seem Hobbit sized, so the path itself is very long and narrow to aid in the cinematic illusion.
As we continued into the town, we encountered a few differently sized Hobbit holes. Each set was built based on whether it would be used as background for a “normal” sized actor playing a human or a Hobbit, or a smaller actor playing a Hobbit, or simply as background, all to create the forced perspective illusion that Hobbits and their homes are small in comparison with the visiting wizard.
After each explanation, we had time to wander around the immediate area and take pictures. Apparently the record for most pictures on one tour is over 3,000 and I’m happy to say I didn’t come anywhere near that. The detail on the sets was incredible. Tiny windows set into the mounds of earth with even tinier window dressings. Knickknacks, tools, tiny Hobbit sized clothing out on a line to dry in the sun, stacks of firewood, jars of honey, fish out to smoke, picnic tables set for second breakfast, the garden bursting with real produce, as though we were intruders in a life still lived.
We circled around the gardens, the frog pond, up the hill past the baker’s house, taking in the sweeping view of the Shire as we slowly ascended the Hill toward a familiar oak tree and the distant shadow of a green door. Most of the sets are closed off by gates, and Sam asked us to leave them shut, but there are a few without gates, where we could get much closer, and even one with an open door to give us the chance to stand inside the traditional round portal. There is nothing inside, of course, the interior of the Hobbit holes were only filmed in the studio, but it makes for a unique and fun photo opportunity to place yourself in the role of a Hobbit. I didn’t have time on this trip, but when I get the chance to go back and stay in NZ longer, I’d love to dress up and get some photos in cosplay on this set. I’d also love to bring my niece and nephew before they get too big (Gnome, Squidgette, I’m talking to you) because so many of the Hobbit sized sets are perfect child size and include a lot of props that are not hidden behind gates. There was a Chinese family in our group and watching the little ones pose in front of the smallest Hobbit holes was a cuteness overload.
Up the Hill
The higher we got up the Hill, the more amazing the view became. I had to present my vacation to my students (learn English so you can do this too!) and I used a clip from the beginning of the Fellowship to show off the Shire before starting and it really made me appreciate just how very much like walking through the movie this place was. Jackson’s attention to detail and commitment to the book was so intense that during the filming, he was unable to find plum trees in the right size to match a written description of Hobbit children sitting under plum trees, so instead he brought in pear and peach, but stripped them of their fruit and leaves to replace it with plum foliage, each leaf wired on by hand. The scene is only in the extended edition and only visible for about 2 seconds.
Other examples of his eccentric dedication include the frog pond which had such an abundance of loud frogs that staff had to be employed to catch and move the frogs before filming each day because they were too loud to work around and managed to return each night. Finally, the famous oak tree above Bag End. New Zealand does not have oak trees, so the entire tree was built from steel and plaster, with real (although dead) tree branches for the outer boughs to imitate the movement of wood in wind. The leaves were made in Taiwan and shipped in, then stitched or wired onto the tree frame one by one. On the actual day of filming, the leaves had faded and were no longer the right color, so Jackson sent a team up the tree to paint them.
When we finally reached that oh so familiar green door and the sign on the gate reminding us that there were to be no visitors except on party business, it was as though a piece of my childhood had stepped from the pages of a book and come to life in front of me.
The gate was closed, and our tour was not there on party business, so we remained just below the entryway, but we could still see through the partially opened door, the hallway decorations of Bilbo’s house. Because Bag End was filmed from both the outside looking in and the inside looking out, the entryway of Bilbo’s house needed to be correctly decorated, unlike the open door we’d been able to stand in for photo ops earlier in the tour. Additionally, while that opening door concealed a small space that only 2-3 people could stand in, the interior of Bag End can hold about 30 people and film equipment. The all-interior shots were filmed in a sound stage, but anything that showed Bilbo or Frodo framed against the open door with the Shire in the background had to be filmed there on site.
The Party Tree
It was very hard to leave behind the house on the the Hill, but our next stop was the party tree and the green field where Bilbo’s 111th birthday party was held. However magestic the party tree looked from afar, it was even more imposing up close. It wasn’t so big as Tane Mahuta, but it was taller and still an impressive girth. Unlike the oak tree, the party tree is a real and living tree that was one of the main reasons this piece of land was selected to be the Shire. Within the meadow, there were party decorations and Hobbit games for people to try out including a maypole, some stilts, a game of ring-toss and some see-saws. Children and adults alike had fun testing out the various activities and admiring the detail of the design. Even the fence, which looked old and overgrown with lichen was artistically aged with plaster and paint, but indistinguishable even after we knew what to look for. Before we left the meadow, we stopped off at Samwise Gamgee’s own yellow round door where you could just imagine Rosy and the children playing in the garden.
Around the Lake
From the party tree, we could see the Inn of the Green Dragon across the lake, but still needed to walk a fair way to come to it around the water. We passed yet more Hobbit holes, which is hardly a surprise because there are 44 total home fronts in the Shire (up from 39 for the Lord of the Rings), crossed a tiny bridge and came to a signpost dividing the path between Hobbiton and the Green Dragon. The path went into the forest as we left the town behind and I suddenly realized why so much of my time in New Zealand had reminded me so strongly of Middle Earth (you know, aside from the fact that nearly everything outdoors was filmed here). The forest path we were on, taking us around the lake, may or may not have been in any of the scenes, but it so clearly belonged there and just as clearly echoed so much of the landscape I’d been tromping through for the last week. There is something familiar yet otherworldly about the unique flora of New Zealand that must only seem familiar to the Kiwis themselves. For the rest of us, it is just different enough from what we are used to that it provides a sense of otherness, of the fantasitcal and created without being so foreign as to seem alien. The main context that I (and probably many of you) have become familiar with these plants unique qualities is in the films themselves, so it is no surprise that more than just the buildings here make me feel like I am walking in the footsteps of Bilbo himself.
The Inn of the Green Dragon
As we emerge from the woods, we come to the stone bridge that leads us past the Mill and into the waiting arms of the Inn. This is possibly the only part of the tour that I have any complaints about and it is only because there is simply too much to do and see in the amount of time we are given here. The exterior is amazing enough, with the same level of detail and attention as every part of the set. There are places to pose, things to climb on, and shadowed alcoves to investigate, but inside is, if anything, even more intense. The indoor scenes of the Green Dragon were not filmed here (like all indoor scenes, they were done on a sound stage far away), but the Inn here at Matamata has been designed to replicate the indoor set in every way with the understandable exception of the small area that serves food and the modern plumbing. Once inside, visitors are greeted with a pint (yes, Pippin, it comes in pints) of locally brewed (for the brave and true) ale but there is much, much more. There are comfy armchairs by the fire, and artwork all over the walls. You can have a taste of Hobbit food if you fancy a light snack (I tried the steak and ale pie, it was yummy), you can try on Hobbit clothes, wield Gandalf’s staff, and explore room after room reading the local Hobbit bulletin board, peeking at the range of knickknacks on shelves, visiting the Inn’s cat (not in the movies, but, you know, cats), or just admiring the large wooden carving that gives the Inn it’s namesake. I tried my best to multi-task, to take it all in, but I felt like I’d only begun to scratch the surface when Sam gathered us up to continue our trek.
Walking past the pavilion (used for the Hobbit feast if you’re up for the price tag, and for private events like weddings and birthdays), we continued around the lake back toward the path we had entered from. The weather that afternoon was a brilliant blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds that reflected so perfectly on the face of the still water along with the Mill, the trees and the few water front Hobbit holes. Although these photos aren’t movie accurate, they were still some of my favorite images of the day.
Our bus back may well have been a magic box that transported us from Middle Earth back to the land of car parks and gift shops. The gift shop itself is nothing special. About the only unique thing there is the beer and wine brewed for the movies and now for the tourists. There is a better selection of LOTR merch online, but that’s ok, this isn’t about the gift shop. Just expect that your souvenirs of Hobbiton will be your photos and your memories.
Despite it’s potential for crass commercialization, I enjoy movie magic. I’ve been to Universal Studios (still have to do the Harry Potter exhibit, but..) Hobbiton is different. It isn’t the costumes, actors or creatures that make Middle Earth come to life here, it’s the land itself. The majesty of the Party Tree, the sweeping vista visible from the front of Bag End that, as you stand there makes you feel that it is indeed a dangerous business, going out that front door, stepping onto that road because there really is no telling where it will take you…but you’re sure it will be one heck of a ride
I have so many wonderful photos and memories of this day. I sincerely hope you’ll take a moment to go and see the full album on Facebook. If you’re a Hobbit fan, it’s worth it. May the hair on your toes never fall out!