“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?”
—Sam, The Lord of the Rings
Perhaps there is nowhere on earth—or at least on Middle-earth—that is more beautiful than the Shire. A visit to Hobbiton, a pastoral paradise in a bucolic corner of New Zealand, makes Sam and Frodo’s yearning for their hobbit home very easy to understand. A place this beautiful could be a film set. Oh, but wait—it is.
The Hobbiton, built on a 1,250-acre working sheep farm near Matamata, New Zealand, was home to Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, and Samwise Gamgee in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. There, fans can visit hobbit holes, enjoy the glorious gardens and trees, and relax with a mug of ale at the hobbits’ favorite drinking spot, the Green Dragon Inn, where Bilbo Baggins meets Thorin Oakenshield before they head off on their great adventure to reclaim the Ring. It’s even possible to tour the charming cozy cottages of the Shire and, if you book ahead, enjoy an evening banquet with “traditional Hobbit fayre.”
“Peter Jackson is a New Zealander, and we’re known here for our vastly different landscapes,” says Shayne Forrest, spokesperson for Hobbiton. “Jackson was scouting locations, and he saw the tree, the lake, and the large house on the Alexander family farm. He said, ‘Yep, this is how it was described in the books,’ and he knocked on the door.” The rest is (hobbit) history. As Jackson has said, “I knew Hobbiton needed to be warm, comfortable, and feel lived in. By letting the weeds grow through the cracks and establishing hedges and little gardens a year before filming, we ended up with an incredibly real place, not just a film set.” According to set designer Alan Lee, “It was satisfying to see that it had taken on something of the look of the Devonshire countryside I’d lived in for the past twenty-five years.”
The twelve-acre Hobbiton attracts 500,000 visitors annually—not bad for a patch of farmland that’s forty-five minutes from the nearest city, and two hours from Auckland. The farm is home to 13,000 sheep and 300 Angus beef cattle, and the land is still farmed today. Most guests come from New Zealand, Australia, China, and the U.S., and the only way to access Hobbiton is through a guided tour—“it’s a movie-set experience,” says Forrest—where guests learn how the movies were filmed and put together. The set for The Lord of the Rings was built and torn down, but then the film crew came back and rebuilt it for The Hobbit, and that became Hobbiton, which is permanent.
Jackson and his crew filmed in more than 158 locations around New Zealand for The Lord of the Rings, and covered forty-eight or forty-nine for The Hobbit. They scoured the countryside for the most hauntingly beautiful spots in which to create Middle-earth, knowing that the land is so diverse, topographically, that in one to two hours you can be in a completely different ravishing environment. Tolkien described the roaring rivers, mythical forests, and jagged mountain ranges so perfectly—and Jackson knew New Zealand so well that he was able to lovingly re-create those landscapes with different parts of the country.
Matamata became Hobbiton because of its rolling green hills, which was how the Shire was described in Tolkien’s books. The volcanic region of Mount Ruapehu turned into the fiery Mount Doom, and Queenstown, New Zealand’s adventure-sports capital, was the setting for shoots that included the Eregion Hills, and the Pillars of Argonath. The epic scene where the dwarves plummet down the river in barrels was shot at Pelorus River, Marlborough. Turoa on Mount Ruapehu was the entrance to the lonely mountain in the Desolation of Smaug. And Arcadia Station, Paradise Valley; Lake Pukaki; and Mount Cook were also featured prominently. Hobbiton is the only location set built for filming that remains.
“We don’t add things for the sake of tourism, we want to keep it as authentic as it was for the filming,” says Forrest. “We turn away a few hundred people a day to make sure it doesn’t feel crowded.” Indeed, Hobbiton is no Disneyland, and you won’t find yourself shoulder to shoulder, trapped in a heaving mass of humans.
“It is a magical feeling—you feel transported to Middle-earth,” says Forrest. “It feels like you could see a hobbit walk around the corner at any moment.” Who knows? At Hobbiton, it feels like anything is possible.
Shaun Jeffers, Photographer
Shaun Jeffers was a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings ever since he was a child growing up in Liverpool, England. The twenty-seven-year-old photographer, who says he was “obsessed,” came to New Zealand to visit Middle-earth five years ago. He emailed the folks at Hobbiton and asked if he could take some pictures there. “We looked at his photos, thought they looked really cool, and he became our official photographer,” says Forrest. Jeffers has shot Hobbiton every which way, at all hours, and his rich, saturated images have earned him the moniker “the Hobbit Guy” on Instagram. Now based in Auckland, Jeffers returns to Hobbiton every six weeks to shoot new images for different events at all times of the day, but one thing stays the same: His pictures are transporting, stunningly beautiful, and well worthy of the hobbits.