Fresh from Tolkien's English Midlands, Thomas Bywater assesses the Lord of the Rings landmark through the eyes of a Hobbit
For better or worse, we have a long history of importing things from the UK.
Whereas some things were New Zealand's gain, some we could have done without. Along with fish and chips and BBC reruns came rabbits, stoats and weasels.
A disclaimer, dear reader: I too am an English import.
However, I cannot claim to have done half as much damage to the population of ground-nesting kākāpō and indigenous flora and fauna as the rest of the invasive species which arrived from Blighty before me.
Some of the introductions were accidental, a few well meaning, others just naive.
I imagine the early settlers pining for the Motherland and writing desperate letters home: "Feeling homesick. Send hedgehogs."
Since the late 1800s, parts of our landscape's flora and fauna have slowly come to resemble the rolling fields of England. Cambridge, Hamilton, the farming communities around Morrinsville feel like long lost extensions of the West Midlands.
But there is one invasive species that has altered Aotearoa more than any other: the hobbit.
No amount of 1080 is likely to have an effect on these furry-footed beasties. They are here to stay.
Albeit fictional, the burrowing animals have done more to change New Zealand's place in the world than even the All Blacks. Invented by J.R.R. Tolkien and popularised by Peter Jackson's movies – hobbits exist in the same strange area of shared heritage as rugby. Both were invented in England, and later taken to another level here, in New Zealand.
It was in Matamata that Tolkien's fantasy world was made real - first as a film set then as a tourist attraction. Hobbiton, a model village based on the films, brings in more than half a million visitors a year. Today it's more closely associated with this fantasy novel than the parts of rural Worcestershire in which the author grew up and wrote his stories.
Setting off on the two-hour drive from Auckland to Matamata, I couldn't help but wonder:
would Tolkien recognise his creation, constructed 20,000km away from Middle England in rural Waikato?
There and back again
Matamata has embraced its recent re-imagining as a Middle-earth theme-park.
From the impressive straw-thatched tourist information centre to the nearby 'Hobbit Sushi' (which just seems to be clutching at straws) the whole high street seems to have cashed in on the fact that large sections of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were filmed nearby.
In the 20 years since the first films were made here, the film set of Hobbiton has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
But how close to Tolkien's vision is it? The author set his stories in a landscape inspired by the West Midlands, where he was raised.
As the backyard of both C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, it's the kind of countryside from which fantasy writers sprout like mushrooms. Essentially the back catalogue of the past 20 years of New Zealand cinema can be blamed on this English hinterland. The original "Shires".
I was travelling with two English friends from the West Midlands. If nothing else, this mission provided the perfect opportunity to reminisce over a pint in the Green Dragon pub.
Apart from being briefly held up by sheep on the wrong side of the fence, the coach ride on to the set was unremarkable. A real coach ride through the back lanes of the Shires is a far more nauseating and circuitous process. After a momentary pause for members of the party to affix plastic pointy ears, we were out of the bus and into Hobbiton proper.
A burst of screeching guinea fowl rolled down the hill. It might have been the grey skies and constant threat of rain, but it was already feeling uncannily familiar.
Our guide informed us the birds and half a dozen pheasants were a new addition to the set in an effort to bring more life to the town. Grown fat and tame from overfeeding, they loomed around the vegetable patches like they owned the place. A very familiar sight.
Through a latched wooden gate, around an impenetrable hedgerow, we had our first glimpse of Hobbiton. The effect was remarkable.
Opening up as far as the eye could see the hillsides appeared to have sprouted round wooden doors and gardens – these were the 44 "hobbit holes" as the dwellings were known.
It took some time for the eyes to adjust and take it all in.
In the distance a tour group of giants appeared to be posing for pictures, while nearby hobbit-sized visitors were noseying through the windows of the closest house. Each of the buildings had been made to different scales during filming to help create the illusion of a village inhabited by tiny, child-sized people.
Middle England or Middle-earth? There is no hiding the majesty of New Zealand's great outdoors, or the odd cabbage tree. It's a good effort but the Kaimai Ranges give it away instantly. There is nothing quite so dramatic in the Midlands. For a more mellow landscape, closer to Tolkien's own inspiration, try the Malvern Hills. The Cottage in the Woods is the perfect hobbit-esque bolt-hole from which to explore: cottageinthewood.co.uk
The Hobbit holes
Tolkien gave fairly liberal description for what these mythical dwellings look like. He stated simply that his creations lived in "a hobbit hole, and that means comfort". I can confirm, in as far as that brief is concerned: Hobbiton has failed. Behind the round wooden doors you'll find little space for anything, let alone find comfort.
Like so much of film-making, they are there to dress the scene. Some even have wood chipping fires and smoking chimneys. Though if you are waiting outside to be invited for a cup of tea, you'll be wasting your time.
Of these hobbit holes, a great degree of thought has been put into what kind of character they are home to. The tools of varying trades, fresh-picked vegetables and washing conspicuously left out in the rain. It's as if the entire town has decided at a moment's notice to up sticks and leave en masse.
In that respect, Hobbiton has inadvertently imported a long-held pastime as English as cricket on the village green. No, not, prying through one's neighbours' windows but the long tradition of the "model village". Up and down the country from Bourton-on-the-Water to Bekonscot, there are model villages and railways built by - and for - eccentrics. Long before Hobbiton, people have been paying for the novelty of walking among tiny houses and imaging the lives of the people that live there.
England is a strange place.
Middle England or Middle-earth? The town of Ledbury springs to mind. With much built before the 1600s, its low door frames and lintels give the impression of entering the realm of the little people. There's even the fantasy castle of Eastnor within 30 minutes questing on foot: visitherefordshire.co.uk/explore/ledbury
The Green Dragon Pub
The heart of any Shires town – real or fictional – is the public house. Although what was behind most of the other doors in Hobbiton left us roundly disappointed, the contents of the Green Dragon was enough to make a country bumpkin homesick.
As one of my fellow expats recounted, what the Shires lack in culture or infrastructure - "It's the only county in England without a motorway or without a university," he said - we agreed they easily make up for it with "the cheapest pint in Britain".
And the Dragon almost lived up to expectations – with real, roaring fires and slices of gelatinous pork pie.
The attention to detail was astounding, with wooden beams and a carved dragon above the bar.
Perhaps the biggest giveaway we were in Waikato and not the West Country was the beer - supplied from the Good George Brewery.
Each guest was given a complimentary drink, after the not inconsequential price of admission ($84) it can hardly compete for economy with a pint of Butty Bach from the Wye Valley.
Middle England or Middle-earth? The Dragon was a highlight of the tour, but you can't help but compare it to other pubs. The Live and Let Live in Bringsty Common might be the closest thing to a hobbit pub in England. It's the oldest thatched pub in Herefordshire and Worcestershire and the bucolic surrounding has altered little since Tolkien's era. Without the rush of a being on a Hobbiton set tour, in the Let Live you'll have plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere: http://liveandletlive-bringsty.co.uk.websitebuilder.prositehosting.co.uk/
What would Tolkien think of Hobbiton?
Apart from the Alexanders, who owned the farm that became a film set, there are few people left in Hobbiton who can remember back to a time before the film set.
Fortunately, art director Brian Massey is a regular visitor to Matamata.
He had first arrived in Hobbiton in 1998 as Master of Greens for the Lord of the Rings films, returned in 2010 for the Hobbit sequels. Due to the living nature of the set, Massey's been making monthly trips to take care of his creation ever since.
"We have to remove a lot of plants because Waikato has some really good growing conditions. A tree in a hobbit garden can soon take over," he explains.
As the designer in charge of landscaping and planting the set, he had little to go on but the books and the countryside of the author for reference.
"Tolkien wasn't so much a gardener but he was very particular," says Massey. "He was a great observer."
And Massey has followed the descriptions where he can, right down to the species nasturtium flowers written in between the orchards and plum trees of Hobbiton.
It is fair to say he shares this keen observation for detail, and in between designing the greens and landscaping for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films his work has won gold for New Zealand in the 2004 Chelsea Flower Show.
"I'd say Tolkien would definitely recognise the place."
Much of the plant life, described in the pages of The Hobbit was be found within the Waikato long before The Lord of the Rings had even been written, having been introduced by European settlers. Massey and his team were able to source all of his plants from within New Zealand.
"Tolkien would build up the natural landscape in his books. Even in some of his paintings that he made to illustrate his books, landscape and the plants were important to him."
But where Tolkien failed to deliver on paper, Massey was able to refer back to the landscape the author knew and loved. Although much of it was developed and absorbed by expanding urban centres.
"It was a kind of lost paradise" Tolkien said of his rural Worcestershire home.
Much of the rural shires he knew was swallowed by the big smoke and coal lights of Birmingham.
Just 10 years after his books were published his childhood home and inspiration was unrecognisable.
Although Hobbiton a Kiwi attraction, with international appeal, Tolkien would have been pleasantly surprised to find a corner of this Waikato field that is forever his lost England.
Hobbiton runs a free bus transferfrom the Matamata i-SITE.
A return bus transfer is available from Fenton St, Rotorua at $35pp. Parking at The Shires Rest is free.
Entry costs $84 for adults, $42 for children ages 9-16, free forthose under 9.