It’s hard to imagine that just a few short years ago the idyllic pastures and rolling green hills of the Hobbiton Movie Set were distinguished by a few plain, white-framed Hobbit holes.
But the fact that these significant artefacts left over from filming the Sir Peter Jackson-directed The Lord of The Rings Trilogy commanded such an audience is testament to the universal pull of these incredibly popular films.
Fast-forward a couple of years and those who may have visited Hobbiton in its earlier incarnations would likely be astounded by the film set that is now a beautifully crafted, permanent ode to Middle-earth and a must-do attraction for tourists, Tolkien and movie fans alike.
The story of how the Hobbiton Movie Set came to be is now as well-worn as the trails that were once trod by Hobbits and are now traversed by tourists, but it is also a story so fantastical that, like the Tolkien novel that inspired it, forever deserves to be told.
It was in September 1998 during an aerial location search for the mythical Hobbiton, to be portrayed in the impending The Lord of The Rings Trilogy, that Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema stumbled across the Alexander farm near the small agricultural town of Matamata, in the Waikato region on New Zealand’s North Island.
The English-style countryside on the 1250 acre (500 hectare) family-run working beef and sheep farm, in an area devoid of visible modern-day amenities, such as power lines and cell phone masts, caught the attention of the Kiwi director and movie scouts.
According to legend, it was the perfectly placed oak tree situated in front of a tranquil lake that really sealed the deal - a tree that had once been scheduled for felling was soon to become known the world over as the ‘Party Tree’.
An intense period of work began on the farm as Jackson and company set about recreating The Shire born of Tolkien’s imagination.
The release of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy created a demand from fans who wanted to walk the same paths as Frodo and his friends - regardless of whether they were allowed access to the farm and Hobbit holes or not - this was where the idea of Hobbiton Movie Set Tours was born.
Movie set tours have been running on the Alexander farm since 2002, but it was in 2009 when the set was completely rebuilt for The Hobbit Trilogy filming - under a 50/50 partnership between Jackson’s Wingnut Films Productions Limited and Rings Scenic Tours Limited, operators of Hobbiton Movie Set tours - that Hobbiton began its transformation to today’s amazing attraction.
Hobbiton Movie Set General Manager, Russell Alexander and sales manager Henry Horne have played a major role in developing the thriving Middle-earth attraction.
Russell Alexander, in particular, is someone who appears to derive enormous pleasure from seeing the look of glee on visitors’ faces as they encounter Hobbiton for the first, second or seventh time. It seems that Hobbiton is a sacred place created by the people, for the people.
Looking at how far this tourism business has come proves that this Kiwi farmer and his right-hand man possess very shrewd business brains.
Russell Alexander has never lost sight or control of the land which is still farmed and maintained by the Alexander family, and he is constantly working on ways to keep Hobbiton moving.
Since the first tour in 2002, an estimated 500,000 people have visited the location. And, for 2013/ 2014 alone, Hobbiton recieved an estimated 240,000 visitors.
Since the release of the first instalment of The Hobbit Trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Hobbiton has somewhat taken on a life of its own.
The work that has gone into preserving the set, the only permanent set in New Zealand and indeed the world, is awe-inspiring. Colour and sparkle seamlessly combine with an air of understated, otherworldly homeliness to provide the perfect Middle-earth experience.
Manicured vegetable patches tended by a team of dedicated gardeners make the mouth water, hobbit-sized clothes blowing in the breeze hint at Hobbits just around the corner, and Pickles the resident Hobbiton cat adds to the surreal feeling.
In 2012, with the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the Green Dragon Inn, the perfect pint stop for a pint-sized Hobbit, featured in The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit Trilogies, was recreated on the site.
This delightful 17th century-style ale house, overlooking the picturesque lake with a view to the Mill and Hobbiton on the hill, is now a part of the movie set tour. Here visitors can enjoy a bite to eat and a complimentary beverage of locally-brewed beer, wine or ginger beer served in pottery mugs.
As with most things in Hobbiton, the Green Dragon has a real air of authenticity, everything has its place without feeling like it has actually been placed there at all.
With the release of the second instalment, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Hobbiton was‘brought to life’. Where they once sat darkened after hours, a selection of Hobbit holes throughout The Shire have now been wired with power, giving operators the ability to offer twilight tours with the set lit against a darkening dusk sky.
A feast fit for a Hobbit in the Green Dragon dining room is also on the menu and can experienced as part of a 'night-tour'.
Other new developments include the illumination of key landmarks: the Mill, the Bridge, the Party Tree and The Green Dragon Inn - a twinkling lightshow that offers a different take on some of the iconic locations seen in The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.
The newly redressed set comes alive as smoke drifts from chimneys, the faint sound of flutes and fiddles floats through the air, and curtains twitch at random curtain to capture the attention of curious visitors.
The famous oak tree that towers above Bag End has also received some recent attention after being painstakingly ‘releafed’ with 376,000 leaves. The entire set has also been redecorated with barrels, carts and new props.
And, for those who want to experience a memorable moment at one of the most memorable venues in New Zealand, weddings and functions are also on offer/
Matamata in the limelight
It is not only the Hobbiton Movie Set that is benefiting from the ever popular franchise - the nearby town of Matamata is also enjoying the limelight and it doesn’t look like that will be coming to an end anytime soon.
In 2013 the Matamata’s i-SITE (tourism information site) was given a Hobbiton-themed makeover with a NZ$500,000 extension to serve the increasing crowds flocking to town. Designed by Dan Hennah (production designer, The Hobbit Trilogy) and project managed by Brain Massey (art director, The Hobbit Trilogy), the i- SITE is the perfect welcome point for visitors heading off on their own ‘unexpected journey’.
Matamata has undergone a whirlwind transformation from a small town predominately focused on farming to a booming tourist mecca, of course none of this would have been possible without the Hobbiton Movie Set, whose ever evolving plans are keeping Matamata firmly on the map.
In 2012, with the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it was the opening of the Green Dragon. In 2013, with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, it is parties, weddings, in 2014 it was feasts and lights.
With the release of the final instalment in The Hobbit Trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies who knows what 2015 will bring.
Hobbiton - from family farm to film fame
Fact file: The Hobbiton Movie Set