Tolkien made real – a visit to the Hobbiton movie set. Part 1.

It’s early morning and light rain is falling as we depart our motel for a tour we’ve been planning for years but never got around to. Until now. Hobbiton.

Outside Bag End on the Hobbiton Movie set.
Outside Bag End on the Hobbiton Movie set.

When The Lord Of The Rings was being made, my wife and I were living under the shadow of the hills that hosted the Minas Tirith and Helms Deep set – both built on the same spot. We walked the same downtown streets as the actors. It was a matter of a few minutes’ drive to reach the locations picked for Isengard, Rivendell, Lothlorien and other places that had only existed – until then – in Tolkien’s imagination.

There is still a road sign pointing to Rivendell; but all the sets are long gone – along with others built around the country from the McKenzie Basin to the Waikato. Except Hobbiton, just southwest of Matamata.

New Zealand is the only country in the world where you can make a phone call to Hobbiton, as I did to book the tour. And then go there in your car.

Of course it isn’t the fictional Hobbiton invented by the late Professor T. It is the Hobbiton Movie Set – something explicit on all their promotional collateral for reasons that I suspect have a lot to do with intellectual property rights – although we discover the Matamata-Piako District Council hasn’t made the distinction on their town welcome board. I suppose it beats the alternative motto – ‘Matamata. You’re standing in it.’

The Tolkien imagery also jars a bit with the town’s previous incarnation of itself as a frontier territory in the wars of the 1860s, complete with redoubts and a concrete tower.

The welcome sign in Matamata, the town nearest the Hobbiton Movie Set.
The welcome sign in Matamata, the town nearest the Hobbiton Movie Set.

We set out for Hobbiton through rolling horse stud and cattle country – manicured, gardened and flowing with cash. Think Southfork Ranch and you’re not far off, even the fencing style is the same.

Southwest of the town, on Buckland Road. we find the Alexander family farm, and in the middle of that farm is the movie set. Buckland is not a Tolkien allusion; it’s a historic road named after William Thorne Buckland, (1819-1876) who settled at nearby Taotaoroa in 1866.

Hobbiton is intriguing. The original set, for The Lord Of The Rings, was demolished as soon as shooting was complete in 2000-01. Fans still flocked there – apparently locals recognised the distinctive profile of the Kaimai ranges when The Fellowship Of The Ring came out, which told them where the cameras had been, and it didn’t take long for the farm to be found. The tours were popular, even though it was just a valley amidst a farm. But for The Hobbit, the set was reconstructed with later tourism in mind, in permanent materials.

Walking into the real thing - the Hobbiton Movie set.
Walking into the real thing – the Hobbiton Movie set.

Tours are strictly by guided group. No dressing as Gandalf and wandering around here. We have a bit of time before our tour starts, which we fill in the gift shop. It’s a mecca for fans and the tourist dollar. There’s Hobbit Monopoly, Middle Earth ale – brewed by a micro-brewery in Auckland, to custom recipe for the Hobbiton site – and 1/160 miniature hobbit holes by Weta. All suitably priced, of course. There’s even one of the magic Elven cloaks. Yes, for a mere $900 I can make myself invisible against green grass, green sky, green rocks and green water.

The Hill and Bag End, complete with a chintzy artificial oak tree.
The Hill and Bag End, complete with a chintzy artificial oak tree.

Finally we join an excited, polyglot group of world travellers – French, Americans, Chinese and others – on a bus bearing the moniker Fili, for the drive to the middle of the farm. On the way it transpires that some of the visitors haven’t read the books or seen the movies – they’ve arrived as part of a package that takes in the Waitomo Caves.

The morning sun comes out as we arrive in a village lush with grass and sparkling with recent rain – an imagery, I remind my wife, that is iconic in Tolkien’s writing.

Hobbit holes on the Hobbiton Movie Set.
Hobbit holes on the Hobbiton Movie Set.

It’s called a movie set. And the Hobbit movies were shot here. But it isn’t really a set. We find that apart from liberties with the way some of the 44 Hobbit holes are scaled – a nod to the nature of filming and camera angles – it’s all real. Real? Real. That’s Jackson’s hallmark. And so the Hobbiton Movie Set is dressed with real laundry, real artefacts – wheelbarrows, carts, chairs, equipment and so on – surrounding a real vegetable garden that produces food for the café, real flower gardens, and all the paraphernalia you’d expect in a Merrie England-style village with a population of about 300.

Hobbit laundry on the Hobbiton Movie Set.
Hobbit laundry on the Hobbiton Movie Set.

The interesting part, for me, is that we always talk about the magic of the movies and their limitless capacity for illusion. Here, though, there is no illusion – it’s all real constructionJackson merely had to arrive with the cameras and start shooting, documentary-fashion.

Sam Gamgee's house on Bagshot Row - where the very last scenes of The Lord of The Rings were shot.
Sam Gamgee’s house on Bagshot Row – where the very last scenes of The Lord of The Rings were shot.

Our guide, Jordyn, gives us stories about how the movies were made, and who sat where. I can’t help thinking that this is an international thing. It’s not the Kiwi way – the fact is that when both Middle Earth movie trilogies were being made, it was usual to walk into Wellington cafés and find Sir Ian McKellen or some of the hobbit actors having coffee, unmolested by autograph-hunters. Kiwis don’t make a fuss of celebrities. Others in the movies were ordinary New Zealanders. Years ago, my wife knew the wife of one of the actors who played a dwarf in The Hobbit, who lived not far from where we used to. We’d see them occasionally in the local video store.

Flower garden at Bag End inside the Hobbiton Movie Set.
Flower garden at Bag End inside the Hobbiton Movie Set.

The tour takes us past Bagshot Row and along a walkway, overlooking the Party Field with its iconic macrocarpa tree. We reach Sandyman’s Mill, which is under rebuild. The original building, it seems, was a shell. Now it’s being reconstructed as a conference venue. Diggers are excavating the car park. And we finish up in the pub. Of course. The Green Dragon is a Hobbit-style building in full human scale. We’re served samples of custom-brewed Middle Earth beer. I’m driving, so I choose bespoke Hobbit-fashion ginger ale instead.

And then it’s over, and we’re back to the car and the real world. Well, the world, anyway. As we’ve discovered today, Hobbiton – the movie set – is as real as anything else.

Part 2 – The Green Dragon and Sandyman’s Mill – soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


27 thoughts on “Tolkien made real – a visit to the Hobbiton movie set. Part 1.

  1. Very interesting! I’ve never been to NZ, and I admit that my knowledge of it comes from a book by Elizabeth Goudge, Green Dolphin Street, published half a century ago at least. She never went to NZ either, apparently so probably got things wrong, but anyway… Maybe someday.

    1. Even New Zealanders don’t know about New Zealand…🙂 If you’re curious, I wrote a general illustrated history which is still in print and has been put out on Kindle – http://www.amazon.com/Bateman-Illustrated-History-New-Zealand-ebook/dp/B00IMORJF0/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 – in it I was explaining the ‘how and why’ of New Zealand today, which has been an intriguing journey and one with many close parallels to the US frontier experience of the same era.

        1. Very much so. All were part of a diaspora – the ‘Pacific Rim’ frontier – that shared very similar ideals, hopes and experiences. The Canadian, New Zealand and Australian examples were closely related because of the common origin in Britain; but there was also a huge US influence – driven, physically, by the way gold miners emigrated, in vast numbers, around the ocean rim from the late 1840s (California, Victoria, Otago).

    1. It’s well worth a visit, if you’re ever out in NZ. The intriguing thing is that it’s on the ‘tourist’ map generally – people on my tour hadn’t read Tolkien or seen the movies, but they’d come to Hobbiton. Incredible!

  2. I feel as if I was walking beside you the whole time. Wonderful storytelling, Matthew! Thank you for a truly enjoyable journey.

      1. I love your “feature article” approach! You could sell this to a newspaper or magazine as a travel article, Matthew. It’s wonderful — and I’ve never read anything quite like it. Well done, sir!

        1. Thanks! It’s in the style of the travel articles I used to write when I was freelancing to some of NZs national newspapers. I made a decision a few years ago not to persist with them – I was let down once too often by travel editors who didn’t fulfil agreements, and where I wasn’t paid for the agreed work, to my cost and loss. Not how I would run a business but it’s a reality of the media freelancing world unfortunately

  3. I dream of visiting here.
    These books and movies must someday become real to me. Your writing is wonderful, but the pictures do me no good, so I must live the dream and make it there. Just quite the journey from Canada.🙂
    Looking forward to your post next week.

  4. Being just across the ditch from NZ, I do hope I get there one day. Don’t even need a visa or passport🙂 My daughter and son in law did the Hobbit tour a couple of years ago and loved it.

  5. Thanks for taking me back there in my mind, Matthew. I visited Hobbiton almost two years ago and it remains a highlight of my trip to New Zealand. Looking forward to your next post…

  6. I went there before they made the place permanent. About 15 years ago it was just a movie set and my sister took me for a tour for my birthday. I’d love to go back, and that sister now lives about ten minutes down the road, and my birthday is coming up …

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