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.
In January 2004, when James and I traveled to Matamata, North Island of New Zealand, the world was still in the throes of Lord of the Rings mania.
Or at least, James and I were. We had seen each of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films in the movie theatre. I’m pretty sure we went to midnight openings for all three. Both of us have also read the books.
Fans of the films will already know this, but one of the most iconic settings for the movies is the Shire, Hobbiton, where Bilbo and Frodo and Merry and Pippin all start their adventures. While the interiors of the hobbit houses were shot in Wellington, the buccolic scenery of Hobbiton was discovered by film scouts on the back of some farmland in central North Island New Zealand.
In March 1999, Lord of the Rings film crews started site construction, including a 1.5 kilometer road into the site.
Before that, only sheep, cows, and the farmer needed to get around what would become Hobbiton.
For the three movies, fourty-five hobbit holes were created with untreated timber, plywood, and polystyrene. Over the course of three months, hundreds of people swarmed the farmland-turned-Middle-Earth-folk-homeland, filming the scenes that would be in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. The actors now made famous by their roles as little halflings and wizards got into character as they moved around the hillside.
When James and I visited the Hobbiton Movie Set back in 2004, much of the details had to be recreated in our imaginations. While there were a few hobbit hole doors and the famous Party Tree, the setting was farely spare (although evocative)… the rolling green pasturelands and pond certainly were identifiable as Hobbiton from the movies. But it was less a *set* than a *site*.
Of course, Peter Jackson returned to the Alexander family (who owns the land, which is still a working angus beef and sheep farm) to enquire about use of the Hobbiton set for The Hobbit film Trilogy.
A bit savvier this go round, the Alexanders agreed* to allow the films to be shot there, but insisted that this time, the structures be built out of permanent materials, including an artificial tree that was made out of steel, silicon, and individual artificial leaves imported from Taiwn (and individually wired onto the tree!).
The set construction started in time for rapid aesthetic aging to take effect–after all, Hobbiton wasn’t built just a few years ago!
When our family arrived at the film set in Matamata, the scene that met us was much more built up and orderly than what James and I found in 2004. For starters, we parked at a large carpark with nicely-consistent signage showing us the way to the toilets, welcome booth, and bus loading area. There was also a giftshop and a cafe (where is there NOT a cafe in New Zealand)?
We paid a pretty penny for a two hour guided tour. There’s no visibility at all of the hobbit neighborhood without tickets because the set is off amongst the farm hills. At 1pm we got onto a bus emblazoned with “HOBBITON MOVIE SET” on the side. Our bus driver told us some interesting facts about the set before we got off:
-Peter Jackson didn’t like the look of the sheep; they were too “white” and modern looking, so he imported sheep from England. Anytime a shot included some of the NZ sheep, he would call up the farmer to move the flock to another field.
-at some points there were as many as 175 vehicles on the property during the busiest shooting, and the dining tent could feed as many as 500 people per meal: 2 course breakfasts and 2 course lunches and 3 course dinners
-it was all because of a large, perfectly formed tree at the edge of a small pond that the location scouts found the property: the tree would become the party tree under which Bilbo Baggins gave his birthday speech.
And then we were finally there!!, walking into the lovely Shire.
Several things stood out as truly exceptional as we walked around for the next hour:
-attention to detail: the hobbit holes were more than just holes cut into the ground. Each one had its own “personality” and style. There were little props like tiny ladders in the tiny orchard, the laundry hanging out on the lines, and smoke coming out of chimneys
-the pastoral beauty of the landscape: we were lucky to have a gorgeous, temperate day with clear skies and sun. The hills were unbelievably green and lush.
At the end of the tour, the Green Dragon Tavern provided a half pint beverage for each ticketholder (but alas, only 15 minutes to drink it, before getting back on the bus). James got a stout and I ordered an apple cider. The kids each had a ginger beer (non-alcoholic, of course). There were two fires in the Green Dragon fireplaces, warm and cheery against the shiny wooden interior.
It was everything I hoped it would be, and the kids agreed.
Here are a few more photos:
Reviews from the kids:
Evelyn: “Enchanting” If you read the books or watch the movies before, it’s better, because there are a bunch of references you’ll understand better. It was really cool to learn about how they made the set look old, including the ‘moss’ and ‘lichens’ on the wood fence. They made it with wood chips, glue, clay, paint, and yogurt. The yogurt helped real lichens grow faster on it.”
Charlotte: “Cute and amazing. The Hobbit houses always have something special about them: there’s a cheesemonger, a carpenter, an artist…”
Calvin: “Cute, fun, and crazy. The tour guide told us: they age the windows to make them look old and wrinkled.”
*I would love to see the contracts or at least learn some of the conditions of the arrangement, but both tour guides we’ve met have been reticent supplying information about money and terms of the arrangment between the movie people and the farm people…