Hobbiton: An unexpected journey

A hobbit hole in Hobbiton.
Shaun Jeffers/Supplied

A hobbit hole in Hobbiton.

A fantail flutters past a picket fence, which surrounds a perfectly tended flower garden. Little round doors, painted in the bright colours of boiled sweets, pop out from the hillside. On top of the hill stands an oak tree, still brilliantly green though it's the middle of winter.

I am in Hobbiton, the home of Bilbo, Frodo, 13,000 Romney sheep and 300 Angus cattle.

The story of how the Alexander family farm, located near Matamata, was transformed into one of literature's most iconic fantasy settings is almost as well-known as J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved tales.

Sheep at the Alexander family farm, where Hobbiton is located.
Britt Mann

Sheep at the Alexander family farm, where Hobbiton is located.

In 1998, a location scout knocked on the door. He said he was working for Peter Jackson, and thought the farm would be perfect for The Lord of the Rings.

Owner Ian Alexander had never heard of Jackson, or The Lord of the Rings. But he obliged.

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Hobbiton visitor Britt Mann poses for a photo outside a hobbit hole.
Siobhan Downes

Hobbiton visitor Britt Mann poses for a photo outside a hobbit hole.

It took nine months to build the hobbit village for the first films, and was mostly dismantled at the end of the three-month shoot. The Alexanders started conducting guided tours around the remaining holes, using storyboards to fill in the gaps.

When the set was rebuilt in 2011 for The Hobbit, it was done so on the condition that it would be permanent. This time it took two years to construct, for just 12 days of filming.

Hobbiton Movie Set is now one of New Zealand's top tourist attractions - and probably the country's most-visited farm.

The hills are alive with hobbits.
Siobhan Downes

The hills are alive with hobbits.

I have a confession to make - like Alexander, I'm not exactly a Lord of the Rings fan.

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But wandering around the Shire, it's impossible not to get caught up in the magic of the whole thing, even if you can't tell your Gollum from your Smeagol.

The attention to detail is mind-boggling. Our guide tells us how in Tolkien's books, there is a reference to hobbits sitting under plum trees. In New Zealand, plum trees grow too big to be the right scale for a hobbit - so Jackson got apple and pear trees, stripped them of their fruit and replaced them with fake plums.

As for the oak tree on the hill? Also fake, with 376,000 artificial leaves imported from Taiwan and wired onto the tree. When the leaves faded in the sun, someone was employed to repaint them, one by one.

It was another guy's job to collect all of the frogs from the pond each morning because they were croaking so loud the actors couldn't hear each other. Someone else was hired to walk out to the washing lines every day, creating paths in the grass.

In between film trivia, there is plenty of time to appreciate the 44 immaculate hobbit houses, playing the "which one would you live in" game.

Each is meant to reflect the personality or occupation of its inhabitant. I feel a certain affinity with the breadmaker hobbit hole, with its basket of freshly baked loaves outside the door.

Our journey concludes at the Green Dragon Inn, where you can guzzle special locally-made hobbit brews before heading off on your merry way. A complimentary beverage is included as part of the tour - a nice touch, considering an adult ticket costs $79.

But how can you tell Hobbiton has really won you over?

When you get home and feel the urge to set aside almost four hours to watch the extended edition of the first movie. Then you start thinking, I might just pop to the library to borrow the books...

The writer visited Hobbiton Movie Set at her own expense.

 - Stuff

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