THERE and back again. It’s every traveller’s tale but immortalised in the journal of Bilbo Baggins, the humble Hobbit hero of The Lord Of The Rings saga.
“It’s a dangerous business, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to…”
As filming continues on Amazon’s upcoming Lord Of The Rings TV series, set in the Second Age of Middle-earth before the events of Peter Jackson’s movies, it’s time to get into good Hobbits.
Shooting of the new five-season series has resumed after a Covid-enforced break in New Zealand and, at an estimated billion dollars, it will be the most expensive TV series ever made.
But, as I discovered a few years ago, you can live the adventure for real at bucketlist attractions inspired by the Tolkien movie adaptations, and currently still open to the public with suitable social distancing measures in place.
During a three-week stay in New Zealand, I called in at Bilbo’s home, tried on his magical Mithril armour and followed in his hairy footsteps at locations made famous in the movies.
First stop, and top of any self-respecting list, is Hobbiton itself. The film set, sited on a family farm near Matamata on North Island, is the No 1 Lord Of The Rings attraction anywhere in the world.
When Peter Jackson was searching for his Shire in 1986, he ordered photo flights across the country and chanced upon the 1,200-acre farmlands owned by the Alexander family, who lived there with thousands of sheep and cattle.
Set decorator Alan Lee commented that the location’s hills “looked as though Hobbits had already begun excavations”. Jackson’s agents opened negotiations with the family, not telling them what they were filming.
It was only later that they were let in on the big secret, and sworn to secrecy as work started on transforming parts of the farm ready for shooting, using heavy equipment brought in by the Army.
The work included creating the facades for 37 Hobbit holes, gardens and hedges, a mill and bridge, an inn and a 29-ton artificial oak above Bilbo’s Bag End home. The set itself would become home for 400 members of cast, crew and visitors each day during shooting.
Jackson wrote: “I knew Hobbiton needed to be warm, comfortable and feel lived in. By letting the weeds grow through the cracks and establishing hedges and little gardens a year before filming, we ended up with an incredibly real place, not just a film set”
The set used for the Lord Of The Rings films, however wasn’t built to last, and much of it was torn down after filming. But in 2010, Hobbiton was rebuilt in a more permanent fashion – for The Hobbit trilogy.
As a result Jackson was able to shoot all the new Shire scenes in just 12 weeks, while the set, by now a growing tourist attraction, was closed to the public. Such is the location that it cannot be seen from surrounding roads.
Upon arrival at The Shire’s Rest – a visitor centre and cafe – you board a small minibus to be driven into the farmland, and to the edge of the Hobbiton set. From here on in, it’s a guided walking tour filled with wonder.
Highlights of the two-hour tour include Bagshot Row, the Green Dragon inn, and Bag End, one of 44 hobbit holes now on view although it’s only possible to set foot inside a few of them, and there’s nothing to be seen anyway.
The interior of Bag End, if you’re wondering, was shot in a studio in Wellington – but the interior of The Green Dragon is all you’d hope for as you sip a pint of ale, and munch on pork pie and chutney.
The Hobbit holes are set along a meandering path and our guide, Mike, explains which were used for which scenes in the movies, revealing all manner of backstage gossip and secrets along the way.
Apparently, Peter Jackson didn’t like the look of the sheep so they shipped in a different flock for filming, and he had fruit on the trees replaced by plums because that’s what they are in the books. Then there were the leaves that were entirely the wrong colour and had to be replaced.
Mike reveals that the classic scene in which Gandalf bangs his head in Bag End was completely unscripted and happened by accident – but Jackson loved it so they kept it in.
And the scene in which Merry and Pippin set of Gandalf’s fireworks earlier at Bilbo’s party resulted in real-life shrieks and screams because nobody expected them to go off just when they did.
Among the best Hobbit Holes are Bag End and the yellow-doored home where Sam settles down with Rosie at the end of the original trilogy. Some have cheese and pickles set on the table.
There are clothes hanging on washing lines; fruit filling a carelessly forgotten basket; a beekeeper’s hat and gloves … it’s as if the inhabitants have all just nipped down to the Party Field and dropped what they were doing.
It is throughly immersive but here’s a tip. Head here early in the morning, during lunchtime or late afternoon to avoid the crowds. The quest for endless selfies by some can lead to a degree of frustration.
Stay upfront in the group to hear the guide’s commentary at each stop, then drop back to the rear if you want to take photos that aren’t marred by tourists taking photos of themselves,
Guide Mike also offers his favourite Hobbit jokes. “A Hobbit bumps into a wizard and says ‘Saruman’” and “They used special wood for the trees on the Shire set: Elijah Wood!”
He’ll at at the end of the pier all season…
* Hobbiton prices are around £45 adult, £23 youth and children under eight go free. Family tickets are available. See www.hobbitontours.com for latest Covid advice.
Read about my visit Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop and a 4×4 off-road tour of Lord Of The Rings locations here.