A quiet valley in the middle of New Zealand's North Island isn't the first place you'd think to find the perfect union of art and nature. But then, life is full of the unexpected. Just ask Bilbo Baggins.
A 40-minute drive from the small town of Matamata, in the Waikato district, is a world-first -- a genuine, permanent movie set open to the public. This is the location of Hobbiton, the village first featured in the Lord of the Rings movies and now the Hobbit tetralogy. It's on the Alexander family farm, and tours depart every quarter-hour for a 90-minute wander around the set. On a coach ride from the Shire's Rest car park to the five-hectare site of the village, guide Henry Horne gives us the background.
Back in 1998, in an unwelcome interruption to a televised rugby match, a New Line location scout tapped on the door of the Alexander homestead and was asked to call again later. It was an inauspicious beginning to what has become a mutually beneficial partnership between the family and director Peter Jackson. He had spotted the farm from the air while searching for a setting for Hobbiton, the bucolic country village where the Lord of the Rings saga begins.
The huge old pine tree beside a lake was the clinching factor -- Henry explains how it had almost been felled earlier, as it was in the way on a stock track used by the farm's sheep -- and 30 contractors moved in to spend nine months building a cluster of hobbit houses with their small round doors and windows set into grassy banks.
At the conclusion of the filming, Hobbiton, like all the other sets around the country, was to be destroyed, but weather delayed the work. Before deconstruction could begin again, so many rabid Tolkien fans had come knocking on the Alexanders' door wanting to look at the site that son Russell persuaded Jackson to allow him to conduct tours of what was little more than a series of holes in the ground. Even so, 200,000 international visitors came in the following eight years. And when making the Hobbit movies was proposed, the Alexanders knew exactly what to do.
This time, more than 70 workers spent 21/2 years constructing 44 Hobbit holes that are built to last, and once filming finished, Hobbiton Movie Set Tours began operations. Now visitors can delight in walking around a village that is complete to the tiniest detail, with hobbit trousers hanging on clotheslines, firewood piled up outside individually designed doorways, moss and lichen clinging to the picket fences, flowers and vegetables growing in the gardens. The artichokes are real, but the lichen is the result of art and artifice, a small-scale example of the obsessive care that has been, and still is, taken to ensure a totally convincing experience.
"We want to enable a real emotional opportunity," explains Henry. "People should feel that they're stepping inside Middle Earth."
That's part of the reason why visitors are guided: "For us, it's all about the story and the personal journey, and we want to be able to share that with the world." The second instalment of the Hobbit tetralogy, The Desolation of Smaug, was released in cinemas on Dec. 13.
He adds: "It's not just the movie that's the draw card. A third of our visitors haven't seen the movies, but 98 per cent have read the books."
Nevertheless, it's the examples of Jackson's finicky care with background detail that fascinate everyone. Standing on the hill above Bag End, the house belonging to Bilbo and Frodo that is one of just two with a proper interior -- the others are only a couple of metres deep behind their doors -- is an oak tree painstakingly reconstructed in fibreglass moulded on an original, its thousands of leaves made in Taiwan and individually wired in place.
"It was in shot for 11 seconds," Henry says.
The path leads through the shaggy grass, past Samwise's house in Bagshot Row and the party tree opposite, around the lake, over the humpbacked stone bridge by the water mill, and the tour finishes at the cosy Green Dragon Inn with a special brew of cider or beer.
Across the lake, set into luminously green hillocks, are the brightly painted round doors of the hobbit holes surrounded by foxgloves and hollyhocks. It's as pretty as a picture, but it's also marvellously real.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014