By Ron James
Recently when my wife Mary and I were planning shore excursions for an upcoming Celebrity cruise around New Zealand and Australia, she asked if I would be interested in visiting a place called Hobbiton while we were in port at Tauranga, New Zealand. I said I had never heard of it. “It’s the set where Peter Jackson filmed the Shire scenes from the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies,” she explained, holding up her iPad with a photo of a Hobbit home.
That got my attention. I’m a huge fan of J.R.R Tolkien’s books and Jackson’s movies about them. But Hobbiton was news to me. With a couple clicks, we added a visit to our ever-growing itinerary Down Under.
A few weeks later in Tauranga, we joined about dozen cruisers aboard a mini-bus bound for Hobbiton. Most of our fellow passengers became fans of the Hobbit more than a half century earlier, decades after it was published in 1937. The bus ride was nearly two hours, but viewing the amazing New Zealand countryside kept us occupied through the journey. As our bus unloaded us at the staging area, The Shire’s Rest with its café, gift shop and restrooms, it was obvious that the movie had forged ardent new fans from every generation. Tours sell out quickly during the New Zealand summer season, so reservations are highly recommended. We had just enough time to refresh before we were herded into a Hobbiton bus and introduced our young New Zealand guide who would lead us through the Shire.
The visit is basically a guided walking tour through the set of the Shire, which, while not strenuous, involves a bit of a hike up and down hills with frequent stops at each Hobbit hole and key scene locations. Be sure and wear good walking shoes, high-heels definitely not recommended. We didn’t see any baby strollers or wheelchairs, so check the website if you have walking issues. The bus dropped us off in a parking lot surrounded by farmland with one side walled off by a small forest of trees and shrubs. We were led along a dirt path and through an opening where a 14-acre magical world appeared before our eyes.
For as far as we could see, the Shire’s green hills and valleys were dotted with 37 Hobbit houses, storybook gardens, and connecting narrow dirt paths. This was not Disneyland. There were no costumed characters roaming around or Magic Kingdom music being piped in from hidden speakers. We were in the Shire, just like the movie, only the Hobbits (and film crew) were away.
Our affable guide took us from one wonderfully detailed home to another and began to tell the tale of Hobbiton. Even though the tours were time limited, our group didn’t feel rushed and we accommodated those who had to take their time climbing or descending a hill. The Hobbit houses looked inviting but were all false fronts with no interior except Bilbo’s hole where you could open the door into a small room cut out of the hill.
We stopped at almost every Hobbit house where the guide would add a little tidbit of trivia about the movie or the set. There was plenty of opportunity to take pictures of each other and the group in front of our favorite movie Hobbit houses. It was the stuff of a fantasy – a story of a relatively prosperous farm family tending 13,500 sheep and around 400 cattle, suddenly thrust into a storybook that dramatically changed their lives and fortunes.
The story began on normal Saturday afternoon in 1998 on the Alexander family farm near Matamata, New Zealand, when there was a knock on the door by a “fairy godfather.” The stranger happened to be a film location scout for Sir Peter Jackson who would be directing The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Jackson had spotted the farm during and aerial search of film sites.
The Alexander sheep and beef farm in the bucolic rolling hills of the Waikato region fit perfectly with Jackson’s vision for the “Shire.” There was a large established pine tree, later re-named “the party tree,” ideally placed in front of the lake. The surrounding farmland was free of highways, modern buildings and power lines making it perfect for Hobbit homes.
The Alexanders’ and Jackson came to an agreement and set construction began in 1999. Jackson convinced the New Zealand Army to bring in bulldozers to build the road to the set and contour the rolling hills into the Hobbit village. Jackson didn’t build with sequels in mind, so the Hobbit houses were constructed from untreated timber and Styrofoam. When shooting began in December, the set was truly a little village. At its peak, 400 people were working on site, including Jackson, and actors Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Sir Ian Holm (Bilbo), Sean Astin (Sam), Billy Boyd (Pippin) and Dominic Monaghan (Merry).
The first daily two-hour tours began in December 2002 led by Russell Alexander who assumed the responsibly of running tours while his brother Craig and father Ian ran the farm. “I think it was basically the day after the premiere of The Fellowship of the Ring… I made contact with New Line Cinema in America, and I think that took me eight months to get their approval to do what we are doing today in tours,” said Alexander in a recent interview.
Even before the first movie was released the set had deteriorated and most of it was torn down. The early tours left a lot to the mind’s eye as visitors hiked through the village pockmarked with the empty Hobbit holes along winding paths where the occasional story board told tales of the early filming.
When Jackson got the green light for The Hobbit Trilogy, he arranged with the Alexander family to rebuild the Shire set. But this time, with dramatically upgraded tours in mind, the farm family insisted the set be built to last. Jackson agreed.
Rebuilding got underway in 2011 and this time they did it right: Gardeners and artisans created an idyllic 17th-century English countryside complete with hedge rows, orchards, bountiful gardens, lichen-covered fences and well used paths. “I knew Hobbiton needed to be warm, comfortable and feel lived in,” wrote Jackson “By letting the weeds grow through the cracks and establishing barberry hedges and little gardens a year before filming, we ended up with an incredibly real place, not just a film set.”
Skilled craftsmen were brought in to build the new Hobbit holes, fences and create authentic looking handmade pots, wood piles, clotheslines and chopping blocks complete with axes. The bricks used in the chimneys and houses were made on site. To patina fences and facades, workers applied a vinegar and yogurt mixture to encourage lichen growth. The village garden burst with plump vegetables and flowers.
A 26-ton oak tree overlooking Bilbo’s home was cut down and brought in from a local farm. Each branch had been cut and numbered so the tree could be bolted back together on top of the Hobbit hole. Thousands of artificial leaves were imported from Taiwan and individually wired onto the dead tree to bring it to life for the film. When he saw the finished tree, Jackson didn’t like the color of the leaves and had each leaf repainted by hand to get the look right. Shire 2.0 took two years to complete.
“When the tourists come here they don’t quite know what to expect,” said Russell in a recent interview. “They have no idea how big it is, and the detail – I suppose for want of a better word – it actually blows them away, what’s involved in making a major movie.”
Our group of walked down the path from Bilbo Baggin’s house to the Village Green anchored by the party tree where several scenes from the books and the movies took place. Bilbo had his farewell Birthday Party speech her with and lanterns were hung in its branches before leaving the Shire on his quest. And here is where they found the tree cut down on their return. Fortunately for us the tree was alive and well and made a great backdrop for more photos.
At the end of tour, we were escorted to The Green Dragon Inn, a replica of the Inn featured in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies and the last new addition to Hobbiton. Over 60 craftsmen created a true old world English pub with hand-carved doors, windows and beams. Thatch on the pub and nearby mill roofs was cut from rushes around the Alexander farm.
We had mugs of complimentary apple cider, ginger beer and ale custom-brewed locally for The Green Dragon. Light pub grub is also available for a reasonable fee. I had an excellent meat pasty. Once a week during the season night tours are offered along with dinner in the Green Dragon dining room.
Our shore excursion to wonderful Hobbiton far exceeded our expectations and ended up being one of the most memorable discoveries on our adventure Down Under. It is a monument to the vision of Jackson, the Alexander family and J.R. Tolkien who set things in motion with his pen almost 80 years ago. “You can’t help but be proud of this place,” said Russell Alexander, “… there’s obviously a huge sense of responsibility. But you also have to have huge passion. If you haven’t got passion it doesn’t work.”
IF YOU GO
Tours depart from The Shire’s Rest, 501 Buckland Road. Including transport to and from the movie set from The Shire’s Rest please allow approx. 2 hours.
Tour prices from the Shire’s Rest (check website for changes)
Adult (17+) $56.00
Youth (9-16yrs) $28.50
Child (0-8yrs) Free with full paying adult
Check in to The Shire’s Rest ticketing center no later than 15 minutes before your tour is due to depart.
Ph: +64 (7) 888 1505
Freephone: 0508 4 HOBBITON