Hobbiton, NZ - slice of Middle-earth
When Peter Jackson flew over New Zealand scouting film locations for his next big project, he was impressed by the green hills and peaceful pastures surrounding the little farming town of Matamata.
It was 1998 and Jackson was searching for locations for his biggest-ever movie project, New Line Cinema’s three-part film adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
The project would require more than 150 locations and a wide variety of spectacular landscapes to bring the epic story of four brave little Hobbits to the screen, and Jackson scoured New Zealand’s North and South islands to find the perfect matches for the mythical Middle-earth.
Discovering the ‘Shire’
On the Alexander family’s sheep and beef farm - just outside Matamata - Jackson discovered the perfect place to create The Shire and village of Hobbiton.
Hobbiton media manager Ian Brodie says location scouts knew immediately that the farm was a perfect match for the village.
"When they reached the location, it was immediately clear to them that they had found the perfect spot. The concept artists that were with the team just sat down on the grass and started drawing, placing Hobbit holes in the landscape."
The valley that holds the set is completely hidden from any signs of modern New Zealand, with no power lines, buildings or signs of human dwelling.
The large pine trees that had been on the land for many years had grown into amazing twisted shapes, and the edge of the little lake was the ideal place to build The Green Dragon and The Mill.
"It has a slightly surreal look to it - the green is intense, the puffy summer cumulus clouds are very white and the sky is this deep blue," says Brodie.
But, while the existing topography would provide the backdrop, a lot of work was still needed to create a complete village of neat little Hobbit homes, hedgerows and gardens that would meet the director’s high standards.
An army of workers - set builders, landscapers and a thatcher or two - spent nine months on the farm during 1999 preparing the film set.
The New Zealand Army constructed a 1.5km road into the site and completed initial land-shaping. Thirty-seven hobbit holes were created in the hillside, and the mill and double-arch bridge were erected on the edge of the lake.
Barberry hedges and trees were brought in, and new gardens were nurtured through winter. A 26-tonne oak tree was sourced from another farm, cut down in segments, transported and reassembled with artificial leaves on the spot above Bag End.
The three-month film shoot for The Lord of the Rings began in December 1999. At the peak, 400 people were working on site, including director Peter Jackson, and actors Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Sir Ian Holm (Bilbo), Sean Astin (Sam), Billy Boyd (Pippin) and Dominic Monaghan (Merry).
After The Lord of the Rings filming finished, the original set was dismantled but the setting developed into a popular tourist attraction.
Hobbiton Movie Set Tours
Since the Hobbits and film-makers moved out, the Alexander family - who’ve farmed the 1250-acre / 500ha property since 1978 - have developed a tourism business that runs alongside their traditional farming operation.
More than a decade on, the Hobbiton Movie Set has become a must-see tourist activity for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fans travelling through New Zealand.
The Alexanders have opened a cafe called The Shires Rest, and run a series of movie set tours on the working farm.
Knowledgeable guides lead tours through the 10-acre film site, telling stories about the making of Hobbiton and the films. Tours run several times daily, seven days a week, and include favourite Hobbit haunts such as the reconstructed oak tree, and the Hobbit hole of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.
In the lead-up to filming The Hobbit, the film set has undergone extensive development.
The holes have been built in permanent materials so tourists can actually go inside one of the Hobbit holes, and experience the movie set year-round - maintained by 40 staff working full-time to keep Hobbiton Movie Set looking exactly as it did in the movies.
Since opening in 2003, Hobbiton Movie Set Tours has attracted more than 266,000 visitors - 52,000 in the past 12 months, demonstrating the increasing popularity of the newly developed set and interest in The Hobbit films.
The Alexander Farm runs around 13,000 sheep and 300 Angus beef cattle producing mutton, wool and beef. The owners shear all the sheep on the property themselves.
Managing director Russell Alexander says the land means everything to his family.
"The land is the soul of the Alexander family as we have always been farmers of the land. It is basically all we know and do, and we take tremendous pride in our land."
Farm-stay accommodation in Matamata can also be arranged for tourists visiting the region.
The vivid descriptions of Hobbits in JRR Tolkien's books have been brought to life through New Line Cinema's The Lord of the Rings films, directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson.
Hobbits are described by Tolkien as an uncomplicated and ancient little (no more than four feet tall) people who seldom wear shoes because their feet have tough leathery soles clad in thick, curly hair. They are shy of ‘Big Folk’ and prefer well-ordered and well-farmed countryside.
A typical Hobbit is a happy individual who loves nothing better than a good party with lots of food.
Hobbiton is one of the places in The Shire where the Hobbits live in both The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit.
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