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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 construction. Jackson merely had to arrive with the cameras and start shooting, documentary-fashion.
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.
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