Visit Hobbiton (Bucket List #61)

Hobbiton, The Shire, Middle Earth • January 2017 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes

“What is the full address of Bilbo’s house?” asked Rolo, tapping me on the shoulder. We were sat at the back of a tour bus hammering its way along the single-lane highway that cuts down New Zealand’s North Island, and heading towards a rather special location if you’re a big The Lord of The Rings fan. As we got closer and closer to our destination, it was becoming more and more apparent that my travelling companion was just that.

“Easy,” I chimed. “Bag End, Hobbiton.”

“Wrong,” he jibed back, immediately. “The full address is actually: Bag End, Bagshot Row, Hobbiton, West Farthing, The Shire, Middle Earth.”

“Someone’s done their research,” I said, as we passed a sign directing us to the film studios.

“I’ve been looking forward to this more than anything else in New Zealand,” he replied, a coat hanger-wide smile across his face. “I’m a self-proclaimed LOTR nerd.”

This huge fan soon lit up like the sky during a fourth of July fireworks display as our driver pulled off the highway and into the parking lot of the 1250 acre sheep and beef farm where the studio’s reception was located. Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, discovered the Alexander farm in September 1998 during an aerial search for suitable film sites, and immediately knew that it was the perfect location for the fictional village of Hobbiton. After reaching a contractual agreement with the owners of the land, the Alexander family, site construction began in March 1999. Initially, this involved heavy earth moving machinery provided by the New Zealand Army, who built a 1.5km road into the site and undertook initial set development. Thirty-nine Hobbit holes were then created with untreated timber, ply and polystyrene for use during filming before being deconstructed once it was complete.

Following the success of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson signed with New Line Cinemas to then make a prequel Hobbit trilogy. He went back to the Alexanders and requested use of their farm again for the filming. In the period between these two projects the farm had been restored back to its ordinary use, but that had not stopped keen nerds of the books and films constantly passing by, snooping around, and asking to be shown where Bag End had been located. Therefore, when the set was rebuilt in 2009, it was decided that the structures be made out of permanent materials, including an artificial tree which was made out of steel and silicon. The entire reconstruction process took two years, but the set is now expected to have a life of 100 years and is open all year round as a permanent tourist attraction. We had signed up for one of their tours, and after buying our tickets and getting a quick bite to eat in the café, we were led by our guide, Candice, into the magical world of Hobbiton.

“Filming for the original trilogy commenced in December 1999 and continued for three months,” said Candice, leading us along the hedgerow-lined path which young Bilbo famously ran down shouting, ‘I’m going on an adventure’. “At its peak, four-hundred people were on site, including Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Sean Astin (Sam), Ian Holm (Bilbo), and Martin Freeman (young Bilbo).”

We gazed in awe at the scenery unfolding in front of us. It genuinely was like we had been transported into a different world. On the surface, Hobbiton is really nothing but a very well kept garden, but the attention to detail of the whole area gave it a mystical air.

“As you may have read in the pamphlet you received alongside your ticket,” continued Candice, “the New Zealand Military was brought in to help construct the original set as volunteers, and they worked painfully hard for nine straight months in order to get it completed in time for filming to commence. For all of their hard work, Peter Jackson offered them each a role in the film as a thank you. Can you guess what characters they played?”

“Orcs,” shouted out Rolo, confident in his answer.

“Correct,” said Candice. “The entire orc army was made up of members of the New Zealand Army. This was good for Peter Jackson in two ways. Firstly, he was able to use locals which, as a born and bred Kiwi himself, he really wanted to do. Secondly, they had all already received combat training as part of their jobs, so there was no need to spend additional time and resources teaching a bunch of extras how to fight properly. There was just one small problem with that, though. The military men, being as they are, took their roles slightly too seriously, and when they were let loose to fight with the cameras rolling they got a little carried away and actually started to punch one another for real. Peter Jackson had to call ‘cut’ before anyone got seriously hurt and a fair few black eyes had to be hidden by the hair and makeup department for later takes.”

We stopped in the main clearing to take it all in, the hobbit holes littering the hillside above. Only two of them actually opened and could be entered, but every single one of the forty-four homes were used in filming. Everyone got happy snappy with their cameras, but getting a photo without other gawking tourists in the background was near impossible, especially considering that we were being shuttled around the set so fast I almost got a stitch. Capitalism always prevails, and the number of tours that were being run simultaneously meant that the paths more resembled the queues at a stadium rock concert than peaceful dirt tracks. Each tour was only scheduled to last for two hours, and Candice may well have had a bloody stopwatch on us. We were soon being told to get on our way again, and everyone was getting a bit pissed off with her. We’d paid a decent wedge of money to visit Hobbiton and wanted to take it all in at a more leisurely pace. Thankfully, though, she managed to redeem herself with more great anecdotes as we made our way up the hillside path towards Bagshot Row. Every single fact she threw out, mind you, made Peter Jackson seem one step closer to belonging locked up in Bethlem Royal Hospital for the mentally insane. Side point, this is where the word ‘bedlam’ originated from.

“The large oak tree that overlooks Bag End was cut down and transported from nearby Matamata,” she said, pointing skywards. “200,000 artificial leaves were then brought in from Taiwan and individually wired onto the tree. They are the only fake pieces of foliage on the set, and each of them was hand-painted a specific shade of green. During pre-filming, however, Peter Jackson was testing his equipment and decided that he didn’t like the colour. Instead of compromising that it would have to do, in a diva-like moment he ordered every single leaf to taken off and repainted. The tree was in the film for a total of ten seconds.”

“Definitely a psychopath,” I whispered to Rolo, giving him a nudge.

“He also went to extreme lengths to ensure the authenticity of the set,” continued Candice, shuffling us along like sheep in a pen. “A professional roof thatcher was brought over from England to make the roofs of all the houses using rushes from around the farm, and a woman was paid a whole month’s wages just to walk back and forth between the hobbit hole entrances and the outdoor washing lines so that a natural footprint trod in the grass would be present.”

“A complete nutter,” nodded Rolo.

Reaching Bag End, Bilbo and Frodo’s home and one of the most iconic spots from any of the films, Smudge had a moment of embarrassment. Pulling a pose to get his picture taken, he complained to Rolo when looking at the resultant photograph that he’d failed to take one without the ‘no admittance except for party business’ sign that hung on the gate, failing to realise that it was actually a prop from the film as opposed to a warning for tourists to keep out.

“We have to keep going, folks,” said Candice approximately ninety seconds after stopping. “Otherwise you won’t have time to get a free mug of beer at The Green Dragon pub at the end of our tour.”

With a heaving sigh, we trudged back down the hill and to the field where Bilbo’s one-hundred-and-eleventh birthday party was held. In order to audition for a role as a hobbit in one of the films, you had to be no taller than 5’ 2”, or 158 centimetres. For the party scene, however, Peter Jackson rightfully thought that a more authentic atmosphere would be created if the family and friends of the Hobbit cast members were brought in to make up the additional necessary numbers. Again, however, as with the colour of the tree leaves and the brutality of the New Zealand Military, Peter Jackson noted a problem. It was all a bit wooden. He needed the cast members to loosen up a bit, get into a more jovial mood, and let their hair down. It was time to introduce some alcohol into the proceedings. Understandably, though, he didn’t want his cast getting completely hammered, so Peter Jackson paid a visit to a local brewery to see what they could drum up. The result was a 1% beer made exclusively for the movie set, which gave the party a proper atmosphere but without the resulting slurring speeches and hammering headaches.

As we reached The Green Dragon and the end of our trip, it was a relief to find that we would not be being served any of this watered down variety, however, but a proper ale. Sitting around a table in front of a large smouldering wooden fire, the team all toasted to Hobbiton and for our own future adventures to be even one-tenth of what Frodo and Bilbo got up to in their respective journeys.