About two and a half hours driving south of Auckland will take you to another world. Much has been said before about the hidden world spread across New Zealand, but until you actually find yourself in Middle Earth, it’s hard to appreciate how well Aotearoa fits J.R.R Tolkien’s literary universe. We had three weeks to spend in the country, and chose to drive from Auckland to Christchurch with a detour to Queenstown for some time in the snow. The whole adventure was amazing, but one of the most satisfying elements of the trip was the opportunity to immerse myself in Peter Jackson’s recreation of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
I’ve read and re-read The Lord of the Rings more times than I care to admit as someone who professes to be widely read, and I’ve watched Peter Jackson’s films enough to be able to remember more lines than I should. It should come as no surprise, then, that filming locations from the seminal fantasy series should appear on our itinerary for the country that has become known as Middle Earth (Link to our New Zealand itinerary here). Our significant stop in New Zealand after arriving in Auckland was –perhaps – the most recognisable location in the story – Hobbiton.
About 25 minutes along the winding road from Cambridge, and through countless green rolling fields, we arrived at Shire’s Rest, about 15 minutes from Matamata. The car park was full, and busses proclaiming our destination in large type arrived and departed every other moment. We joined the bustle at the café and gift shop to collect our tickets, and were relieved that we had booked ahead for our 4pm tour time as the day’s tours were filled by the time we arrived. We took our place in the queue and boarded the bus with about 40 others for the 10-minute drive on to the property that remains one of the most iconic locations in fantasy
The Matamata countryside certainly lends itself to Tolkien’s description of The Shire, with rolling hills, forested dales and terraced fields. The driver outlined set locations as we drove to the Hobbiton town site, including the housing for livestock and extras alike. The farm, it was explained to us, was found through an aerial reconnaissance mission and was selected thanks to the existence of an appropriate party tree in proximity to a small lake.
We alighted from our short bus ride and – as a group of 40 – began our meandering walk through Hobbiton. I was immediately struck by two things; firstly, Hobbiton looks fantastic! Secondly, if you have any hopes of slipping away from the group to enjoy this excellent set – good luck! We tried to slip off (only a short way) to take a photo at an uncrowded site, and were immediately redirected to our group – politely, but firmly. We resigned ourselves to walking through Hobbiton as a mob of longshanks, but that is the price you pay to visit one of New Zealand’s biggest attractions (well, that and $80 per person).
We dropped to the back of the herd in an attempt to enjoy Hobbiton at our own pace and enjoyed some success, although the tour after us was never far behind. Once we reached Bag End, however we took the obligatory front gate photo and snatched the opportunity to press ahead and do some real exploring. As we wandered around the clearing under the Party Tree, opening doors and using the props that are littered around the village, I started to feel as though Middle Earth was really a place – and that we were there.
Before long, the time came for us to follow the signposts around the lake to The Shire’s own Green Dragon, where we were treated to a frothing pint of South Farthing Ale, which is fitting considering New Zealand’s history of excellent craft brewing. We had about 20 minutes to bask in the warmth of the hearth and enjoy the atmosphere of the Green Dragon before we were herded back onto the bus to return to Shire’s Rest and the gift shop (where I was parted with some gold for a memento or two), to continue our tour of New Zealand.
Over the course of our three weeks in the country, we visited many other Middle Earth locations, both knowingly and unknowingly including Lothlorien, Orthanc, The River Anduin and Gondor, but Hobbiton was the only time (apart from our Weta Workshop tour) where we saw actual constructed sets from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movies.