Waikato: Bilbo Baggins' tiny town

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright follows the tour buses to a sheep and beef farm in Matamata for the Hobbiton Movie Set Tour
The tour of Hobbiton explains the tricks of the films, such as scale and perspective. Photo / Christine Cornege
The tour of Hobbiton explains the tricks of the films, such as scale and perspective. Photo / Christine Cornege

"I like visitors," says Bilbo Baggins, "but, I usually like to get to know them before they visit."

Baggins' words must have rung true with the Alexander family, whose daily life was turned upside down by the appearance of Peter Jackson's location scouts one Saturday afternoon in 1998. The scouts had spotted their farm from the sky and declared it the perfect spot for Hobbiton.

One day, a group of scouts seeing the light on in the farmhouse, kept knocking and knocking, right in the middle of a rugby match.

I don't imagine the family were that pleased at the time, but today, with a thriving movie tour business, the disruption from unknown visitors looks to be paying off in bucketloads for the Alexanders.

After filming wrapped, the Alexanders would get knocks on the door from film fans wanting to find Hobbiton at all hours of the day and night.

So on an ancient bus we trundle along past bright green hills and fluffy white sheep to the tour entrance, which has a hut with dozens of golf umbrellas lined up in case of rain.

The grass is long and soft as we head down the muddy track to the first hobbit house. It's very sweet, with washing hanging on a line near a chimney poking out of the grass mound roof. There are also flowers and herbs hanging to dry next to a round yellow door and baskets filled with pumpkins.

Nearby is a vegetable patch, which was filled with oversized plants during filming so the hobbits would look smaller. They've thought of everything to make Hobbiton homey.

Our guide, Stacey, who has a degree in media and creative technologies, explains the tricks of the films, such as scale and perspective. Some of the hobbit houses are on only a 30 per cent scale so Gandalf looked huge and the hobbits had to be played by children; others are 95 per cent scale.

She talks with a fan's love of the film's authenticity and Peter Jackson's attention to detail. As an example, she tells us that when brewers turned down his request to create a one per cent alcohol beer for the party scene, he bought a brewery and created his own beer, which he called "Sobering Thoughts".

She also tells stories about the crew and a few odd fans who have visited.

One, a 2m-tall German fellow, came dressed as a very tall hobbit and refused to leave "his home" after the tour.

They let him stay until the end then drove him into Matamata, where he bid them farewell with the words: "Now, I can return to my journey, like Bilbo."

Some of the tales sound a little incredible, but as Gandalf once said: "All good stories deserve embellishment," and Stacey tells them with humour and energy.

We walk around the 44 hobbit houses - the wealthier hobbits lived highest on the hills - and take in a view across the lake to the Green Dragon Inn, which looks a lot like one of the thatched Lilliput Lane cottages my mum has on her coffee table. It's a very English scene.

After a walk along narrow paths winding around the hills, we come to the inn, probably my favourite part of the tour and relief for our children whose "knees are tired" and need carrying.

It's here Stacey buys us a cider, traditional ale or ginger beer, served in old-fashioned ceramic cups. There's also hearty fare - if you can eat it up within 15 minutes.

From start to finish, the tour is extremely well run. Considering it was done as an afterthought by a farming family without hospitality or film business experience before getting the first knock at their doors, it is especially impressive.

There are hundreds of visitors in small groups doing the tour on the day we visit. It must feel a bit like finding oil in your backyard, to be the Alexanders, who still maintain the family farm amid the film frenzy.

The tour brought the films and books to life but was also just a nice reminder that in life you never know what is around the corner, or who might next be knocking at your door.

IF YOU GO

Hobble along: Hobbiton Tours start in Rotorua, Matamata town or at The Shires Rest Cafe at 501 Buckland Rd, Hinuera, Matamata. The tour runs for 1 hour, 45 minutes, 9.30am-3.30pm, daily.

Danielle was a guest of Hamilton and Waikato Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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