A Journey to Middle Earth
“Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?” he said. “It’ll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower field ... and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
This is how Samwise Gamgee tries to encourage main protagonist Frodo Baggins — reminding him of the Shire, their home — in the last installment of the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy, “The Return of the King.” It comes after he breaks down on the slopes of Mount Doom and is unable to take one step further despite being so close to the end of his quest to destroy the evil ring.
The “Lord of the Rings” boasted many breathtaking locations on screen, but one of the most beloved of fans of the movies — and the books — has been the Shire, located in the northwest of Middle-Earth, home to the quirky and lovable Hobbits, who lead simple lives, love their land and have an affection for good food and wine.
The Shire was not only prominently featured in the trilogy, but has naturally found its rightful place in Jackson’s latest offering “The Hobbit,” the first part of which was released last December.
Thanks to a joint effort of the Alexander family that owns the land and Peter Jackson, director of everything Middle-Earth, as well as overwhelming requests from fans, the film location of the Shire in New Zealand has been kept intact and is open for visitors.
Hobbiton Movie Set Tours is located in Matamata, about two hours south of Auckland on New Zealand’s north island.
Taking a stroll through the Shire makes one feel as if they have indeed been transported to Middle-Earth, as the picturesque set is complete with gardens, chimneys, mailboxes and clotheslines.
Fans will recognize the different hobbit holes, most prominently Bilbo Baggins’ home Bag End, the bridge by the mill that wizard Gandalf crosses at the start of the first film, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” and the gigantic party tree that overlooked Bilbo’s jovial 111th birthday party.
It was, in fact, this pine tree by the lake that caught Jackson’s eye as he circled the area in a helicopter in search of the Shire.
In the books, the Shire had been described in such detail that it was of utmost importance to Jackson to keep faithful to author J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision.
When his eagle eye discovered the Alexander farm, he didn’t hesitate. The helicopter landed, Jackson knocked on the door of the Alexander homestead, and the rest, as they say, is (film) history.
Today, the farm remains a working sheep and beef farm, with the Alexander family actively involved in the Shire tourism business.
Guides take visitors on tours from one hobbit hole to the next every 15 minutes, seven days a week, sharing lesser-known facts about the film set along the way. The tour takes about one hour up and down the hills — although visitors should be aware this is a walking tour.
Exploring Hobbiton is not only a delight for Middle-Earth fans, but can be also interesting for film enthusiasts keen to see “behind-the-scenes” of a movie set, and will also appeal to families with children.
Sam, the young local guide and a self-proclaimed fan of Tolkien, as well as the movies based on the author’s work, was very knowledgeable and well-trained.
When the “Lord of the Rings” movies were filmed, he said, everybody involved was sworn to secrecy.
“Even the neighbors didn’t know what was going on,” he explained. “All they knew was that one day 107 vehicles showed up at the front gate, most of them 44-tons trucks and trailers. They all came to the back of the farm, worked for 10 hours a day and left again in the evening. And they did that every day for seven weeks. They knew something big was happening, but they had no idea what it was.”
Six months later, he continued, the film was released, “and the locals were clever enough to put two and two together.” People were naturally excited to discover Hobbiton, and suddenly fans from all over the world showed up at the Alexander farm, wanting to see the place that had been turned into the Shire.
On the tour, it becomes clear how meticulously people have worked to bring the Shire to life. There are almost 40 hobbit holes on site, Bag End being the most prominent and biggest in terms of layout.
“One of the scenes that they filmed up here was Bilbo and Gandalf sitting on top of Bag End and smoking a pipe,” Sam explained. “They are sitting underneath the oak tree, overseeing the party tree and watching the sun set. But the problem was that there was no tree. So they had to bring that in.”
The film crew approached a neighbor who had an oak tree on his property that seemed to fit the purpose, paid him $1,500, cut the tree down in 40 pieces and brought it to the film set, where it was reassembled, a process that took about two months.
“When they finished filming, the tree was removed again,” Sam said. “Filming ‘The Hobbit’ wasn’t in the pipeline yet at that point, so when they came back to film ‘The Hobbit,’ they realized that they are not going to find a tree that looks exactly the same. At the same time, they also needed one that was about 40 percent smaller, as ‘The Hobbit’ is set 60 years before ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ so the tree needed to look younger.”
In the end, instead of going on a long search for a similar tree, it was simply decided to make an artificial tree.
“The tree on set now is 100 percent fake and completely inorganic,” Sam explained. “They also stuck 250,000 fake leaves to make it look real — all attached by hand.”
After having explored the Shire, visitors are led to the Green Dragon Inn for refreshments. It serves drinks with wondrous names — Sackville Cider and Southfarthing Ginger Ale — and hearty food. The pub only officially opened for business in December last year, having been a mere structure on location before.
The interior of the Green Dragon Inn comes with intricate details and much thought — even the restroom is worth a visit simply for its true Hobbit feel.
Indeed, while having a butterbeer at the pub, you probably wouldn’t be surprised if hobbit troublemaker Peregrin “Pippin” Took or Gandalf the Grey stopped by to join you.
This article was first published in the Jakarta Globe on 01/05/2013