I have had many amazing travel experiences that will forever live in my mind as among some of my most memorable days. But, few have meant so much to me on a personal level as visiting the Hobbiton film set in New Zealand earlier this year. Honestly, it probably trumps even my wedding day (sorry, Scott) for BEST DAY EVER.
And here’s why.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
I have been a fan of the The Lord of the Rings films since Day One. From 2001 until 2003, me, my mum, dad, and younger sister unfailingly went to see each of the three installments for our Christmas family cinema outings. Each of the films enthralled and delighted us, and made us long for the following year so we could see the next one. For me, there had never been a movie franchise that had so captured my imagination. I was obsessed with everything from the cinematography to the soundtrack, and I actually discovered the books thanks to the films. I was in my final year of high school for the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, while the release of The Two Towers, the second film, coincided with me living in Spain for a year before going to university. Still, though, I made sure to see it with my family during my return home over the Christmas holidays. Back in Spain in January, however, homesick after the yuletide festivities, I went to see it again, alone, and even though I missed being with my mum, dad, and sister in the cinema, watching that film made me feel somehow closer to them. The characters I was watching were almost like family themselves so the homesickness didn’t feel as bad.
Once I was at university in Sheffield in 2003, the films were still a big deal, with the final film, The Return of the King, released during the Christmas break. I formed many university friendships, both short and longlasting, based on a shared love of the films. When people discovered that Worcestershire, the county where I lived, was a supposed inspiration for The Shire, it inevitably became known as such, and every time I went home people asked me how The Shire was. During the unavoidably difficult times that everyone has in their first year of university, I knew The Shire was not far away, waiting for me to return home to familiar people and things, much like the Hobbits eventually manage to do in The Return of the King.
That’s what The Lord of the Rings films, and the notion of The Shire especially, meant and still mean to me today – family, home, and safety, even during difficult or challenging times.
The hobbits return
I, like many fans around the world, was delighted to get the chance to return to Middle Earth with the arrival of The Hobbit trilogy. The mere chance to spend time with characters that felt like old friends, in a world that we knew so well, was just too good to be true. And even though I didn’t love the Hobbit movies in quite the same way as the original trilogy, the first film in particular still holds a special place in my heart.
Of course, I went to see it with my family at Christmas – it was the tradition for Gandalf’s sake! – but it coincided with the quite enormous and life-changing decision I had made to move to China the following March. The film’s theme of taking chances and facing adventures head on resonated so much with me as I contemplated what I was going to and what I was leaving behind. To stop the panic from setting it, I had to be like Bilbo and imagine that The Shire was always going to be there, no matter how far I roamed. Incidentally, I watched the next two films aactually in China, having taken those important first steps out of my front door to head off on my adventure.
A wish fulfilled – visiting New Zealand
One of the many wonderful things about The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films is the stunning landscapes of Middle Earth, filmed, as most people know by now, in New Zealand. Back in 2001, very much pre-Google Images, I remember being absolutely blown away by the fact that what I was watching wasn’t actually a made-up, computer-created world, but a real-life country, and I vowed one day to visit New Zealand and go in search of hobbits. And in February this year, for the Chinese New Year holidays, I got my chance!
Now, I could write endless posts (I should, I really should) about how great New Zealand is and what an amazing time we had there, but I really only want to focus on one place here: HOBBITON!
Nestled in the endless golden pasture lands in the middle of the North Island, is the small town of Hinuera and outside it, in the rolling hills, is the location and set for Hobbiton, home of hobbits Frodo, Bilbo and the rest. While there are filming locations scattered across New Zealand, none of the sets are actually there anymore as they were all taken down after the filming of the two trilogies. Only natural landmarks, such as Mount Tongariro, which doubled as Mount Doom, remain, which is a bit of a shame. All except Hobbiton, complete with river, The Shire’s Rest pub and, of course, Bilbo’s famous house Bag End. So while many people thought The Hobbit films were unnecessary, it is because of them that Hobbiton was rebuilt for filming, following the exact specifications from the original movies. It was then decided to leave the set in place for members of the public to visit in which to have fangirl emotional breakdowns, like me!
Geeking out, big style
I’m not even sure how to describe the wonderment of actually being able to wander around Hobbiton, except to say that the tour, which takes place in a group on foot, was two hours of uninhibited joy for me as a fan of the movies.
Far from being a fake-looking movie set, the place is a working mini-village, with real vegetable gardens surrounding the famous round hobbit hole doors and chimneys, complete with real smoke, that are scattered across the hills.
Dotted everywhere are props like tiny wheelbarrows, miniature beehives, perfectly-scaled-down clothes, and incredibly cute children’s toys. The attention to detail is just stunning and had me running around like a complete lunatic as I took in everything I could, while answering all The Lord of the Rings movie trivia questions our guide asked during the tour. SUPER GEEK!
I loved hearing behind-the-scenes stories about filming the movie here (I won’t reveal any spoilers) and what was particularly impressive was that the doors to the hobbit holes were made to different scales so that during filming they could make actors playing short hobbits and tall wizards look the correct size without computer trickery. So clever!
One of my favourite parts was the pub The Green Dragon, which you could actually go into to enjoy a drink and some food (and you can hire it and surrounding buildings out for weddings. Damn it, why didn’t I know that before?!) Even though it was summer in New Zealand, they had a fire going and the interior was dark and cozy. It was so like many actual real pubs in the UK, and Worcestershire in particular, that I felt myself feeling quite homesick.
After the tour was over (sad times), on the coach back up to the visitors’ centre, they played the scene from The Return of the King where Sam is trying to comfort Frodo and keep him going towards the end of their quest to destroy the Ring:
Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields… and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?
Well, it was either the free cider that I had enjoyed at The Green Dragon (almost certainly!) or my deep feelings for The Shire that did it, but I ended up blubbing on that coach as we made our way back to the real world. But, you know what?! I didn’t care. It can’t be a BEST DAY EVER without booze and happy tears, can it?!
So, here’s to The Shire, both the fictional one and my own personal Worcester-Shire, that are both forever in my heart and have, in the words of Frodo, made my wanderings more bearable, knowing that they lie behind me, safe and comfortable, and waiting for my return.