Hobbiton - from family farm to film fame

It was a normal Saturday afternoon in 1998 on the Alexander family farm near Matamata when there was a knock on the door that was to change lives forever.

The caller was a film location scout, and the tale of how he spotted this ideal setting for the Shire in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, amidst the Alexander’s sheep and beef farm in the rolling hills of the Waikato region, has been told many times. But the impact of that day 16 years ago and how this small chunk of farmland has become some of the most famous countryside in the world - in a life-changing moment of fate for its unassuming owners - is a story that continues to fascinate.

In some ways everything has changed and in others, nothing has. Hobbiton is still a working farm but it has also become one of New Zealand’s most visited tourist attractions - a must-see not just for fans of Sir Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, but for multitudes of local and international visitors of all ages.

Russell Alexander - general manager of Hobbiton Movie Set Tours and unofficial 'lord of the Shire' - would be the first to admit life has taken on a whole new landscape.

Hobbiton from above

Russell Alexander gazes down over his domain - pristine rolling green meadows, tidy hedgerows, rambling paths and neatly tended gardens of seasonal flowers, vegetables and fruit trees behind picket fences.

He’s been up since 5am on a perfect spring morning facilitating an important photo shoot on what has become New Zealand’s most famous farm. Conditions could not have been better.

At Hobbiton - on the Alexander farm in the fertile countryside just outside the small Waikato town of Matamata - fantasy has become reality.

Nature created the now familiar backdrop - hills, lake and grassy pastures - but a visionary film director, innovative designers and a dedicated team of landscapers, along with large portions of Kiwi farming ‘no. eight wire’ can-do philosophy, have provided the rest.

Here Russell presides over a village of tiny homes with distinctive round doorways surrounded by small but perfectly formed gardens. Every day of the year it’s on show to crowds of visitors - fervent fans, passing tourists and locals who drop by to admire the amazing collective talent that has gone into creating the movie set.

"When the tourists come here they don’t quite know what to expect," says Russell. "They have no idea how big it is, and the detail - I suppose for want of a better word - it actually blows them away, what’s involved in making a major movie."

"You can’t help but be proud of this place … and maintaining it there’s obviously a huge sense of responsibility. But you also have to have huge passion. If you haven’t got passion it doesn’t work to keep this place and keep the business."

Rollercoaster ride

While the farm continues to raise sheep and cattle - an added attraction for visiting internationals - Russell is now more concerned with growing the tourism business, leaving his brother Craig and father Ian responsible for the business of farming.

It has been a long journey since a location scout first came knocking on the Alexander farm door. Back then, the fertile green paddocks on a quiet back country road were home to the Alexander family, and their grazing livestock - 13,500 sheep and around 400 cattle.

Kiwi film director Peter Jackson discovered the Alexander farm in September 1998 during an aerial search for film sites for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The fantastic views and rolling countryside closely resembled that of the 'Shire’ in the popular classics by J.R.R Tolkien.

The large established pine tree, later re-named 'the party tree', was already ideally placed in front of the lake. The surrounding farmland was untouched by 20th century clutter such as roads, buildings or power lines making it the perfect setting in which to recreate the home of the Hobbits.

The making of the miniature village turned out to be a massive project that took the Alexanders on their own unexpected journey, from a quiet farming life on to centre stage as one of New Zealand’s most visited tourism attractions.

Construction & filming

Site construction started in March 1999 when the New Zealand Army moved in with heavy earth-moving machinery to create the village contours, and continued for nine months.

The three-month filming schedule began at the end of 1999 and, at its 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).

The first film in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was released in 2001, followed by the second and third in 2002 and 2003.

Movie set tours

By December 2002 Russell Alexander was conducting the first tours of the movie set, and since then tourists from all over the world have been flocking to Hobbiton to get their own insider’s view of the epic filming projects.

"I think it was basically the day after the première of The Fellowship of the Ring … I made contact with New Line Cinema in America, and I think that took me eight months to get their approval to do what we are doing today in tours," he recalls.

The original set built of temporary materials - such as 7mm ply and styrofoam - was largely deconstructed at the end of The Lord of the Rings filming, leaving the form of the village with the empty Hobbit holes, winding paths and the party tree so guided tours were based on story boards, and a wealth of stories and insights gathered during filming.

The set was rebuilt in 2011 for The Hobbit Trilogy - this time in permanent materials, complete with Hobbit holes, gardens, bridge, and mill, and is now operated by the Alexander family in partnership with Sir Peter Jackson.

The new set took two years to build, and Russell is confident that it will last for 50 years.

English country vision

This latest version is a magical rendition of an idyllic 17th century English country vision of barberry hedges, orchards of apple and pear trees, lichen-covered fences and well used paths.

The sets are a mass of crafted details from the handmade pots, wood piles and chopping blocks complete with axes, to ladders and clotheslines.

Russell knows every tree, hedgerow and corner. The vegetables and flowers are real, and much of the vegetation - 1.2km of hedges and mature Hobbit-scale trees - have been sourced all over the local countryside, including a 35-ton tree that was moved from a neighbouring farm with the aid of two bulldozers and diggers.

All the bricks used in the chimneys and houses were made on site, and buckets of vinegar and yoghurt applied to help age the wood and encourage growth on the bricks.

The Green Dragon

The Green Dragon Inn is the newest addition to Hobbiton where visitors can relax after their movie set tour.

A complimentary apple cider, ginger beer and a variety of beers - custom-brewed locally for The Green Dragon - along with light meals are on the menu. There are several bar areas inside, a cosy snug, a garden bar under a shady willow tree, lawns and plenty of room to accommodate large single groups.

And once-a-week when day turns to dusk visitors can enjoy a truly magical experience with a night tour and dinner at Hobbiton. After a tour of Hobbiton visitors are treated to a feast fit for a Hobbit in the Green Dragon dining room. Once dinner has been enjoyed guests re-join their guide to make their way back through the Shire with illuminated by pathlighting and an authentic hand-held lantern leading the way.

Up to 60 builders and landscapers worked long days to complete The Green Dragon and the grounds around it under the direction of set designer Brian Massey - a green maestro whose other significant landscaping projects have included the 2004 Chelsea award-winning 100% Pure New Zealand Ora garden.

Expert tradesmen created intricate ‘olde worlde’ detailing on the inn doors and interior joinery, expertly carving out the massive macrocarpa beams and pillars beneath the thatched roof using a lathe they also made on the job.

The Hobbit Trilogy

Since filming wrapped on The Hobbit Trilogy, there’s been a huge increase in the flow of fans and tourists to the film set.

Tours, which begin at The Shire’s Rest café at the farm gate, are operating every half hour for the New Zealand summer season. Since release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey visitors have continued to arrive at the farm gates - more than  800,000 people over the past 12 years.

"The business has grown hugely - particularly the last couple of years. When it started off, I think we were looking at one staff member and I’d sort of oversee it while still doing other work … and within a year we were up to 10 staff, and then we were 15 - 20 staff and now on a permanent basis over 50 staff - up to 180 staff over the peak period."

It has been another exciting year for Hobbiton. Facilities have been expanded to cater for special events, large incentives groups and even weddings, so there’s no time for Russell to sit back: "Since the beginning, my philosophy has been to add something new each year - changing and developing, there’s enough room here to keep us going for a long time."