I am once more on the road, spending 11 days in New Zealand with my travel-writing husband, Tim Richards. Starting in Auckland, we’re taking trains (and a ferry) in stages southward and will end up in Christchurch.
Our first day in Auckland was spent initially with Dane of the Home Fires of Tamaki, learning about Maori history through arrival, colonisation, contemporary issues and the future – a superb, engaging and dynamic experience, and Dane’s an excellent and passionate storyteller. That afternoon was a wine tour on Waiheke Island which Tim’s written about.
The next day, however, we zipped down to Hamilton on the train and met Amber, who drove us to Hobbiton!
I knew of Hobbiton of course. I remember that in the early days, just after Lord of the Rings, people had started to seek out the New Zealand farm that had been transformed into the hobbit village in the Shire where Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin all lived.
The place had been meticulously built with lots of detail, but after the filming was over most of it was taken away again. People came to see it anyway. Then The Hobbit (expanded into a trilogy) was made, so Hobbiton was recreated all over again, only this time the Armstrong family (owners of the sheep and cattle farm on which the village was built) managed to negotiate to keep everything in situ.
Now, hundreds of thousands of people visit a year, and you can’t go through it without a guide (possibly to make sure LOTR fans don’t go breaking off bits of hobbit houses to take home, or keen gardeners don’t denude the gardens and landscapes of cuttings).
I thought I might find the hobbit village cute and fun to visit because of its Tolkein connections: I didn’t realise just how delightful the whole thing would be! Because it’s not just a leftover set from a set of two trilogies.
Hobbiton in fact works on several levels: one of which is that it’s a living landscape, with glorious flowerbeds and lush vegetable patches; it has apple trees and herbs like mint and rosemary growing tall; as you walk around the village and up the hill to Bag End, a dell full of bluebells is below one track. A fat, loud, frankly enormous bumblebee (of the size I’ve seen in the UK but never in Australia) looms around bright red flowers.
The scent of all this nature combines with the fragrant smoke of four or five chimney stacks, which are stoked up with manuka woodchip to add the final touch to a delicious aroma that infuses Hobbiton.
On another level, Hobbiton is like a sculpture garden, with its curated plant life dotted all round with an art installation: “The Homes of Hobbits and How They Live”.
At the same time as you’re enjoying the charming garden, and marvelling at the artistry of the hobbit houses and all the fine detail that is put into making the village feel occupied and as though the hobbits are all just at a party at another village, you have the nostalgia of remembering the films, and then the insider-delight of seeing under the skin of the movie magic.
For lovers of the Tolkein books and films, there’s the delight of seeing the Party Tree under which Bilbo holds his eleventy-first birthday party. That’s a real tree, unlike the oak which stands atop Bag End, which is entirely artificial and has 200,000 leaves wired onto it.
After cooing over Hobbiton – our guide, River, even has a Middle Earthish name – we walk down the path to the Green Dragon Inn, where a hungry hobbit or human can fill up on a well made lunch or try out the ale, stout, cider or ginger beer (all brewed locally by Hamilton brewer Good George). The first three are brewed exclusively for the Inn, and I discovered for the first time that stout is… chocolatey! The ginger beer is still my favourite though.
If you’re wondering if it’s worth a trip to Hobbiton, is absolutely is. Even if you’re not a fan of the Peter Jackson films or even Tolkein at all.