Cambridge, NZ

Day 3

On November 1st, 2023, we had booked an Evening Banquet Tour at Hobbiton. This special tour is so in-demand that the first slots available were five months in the future, so five months in the future is what we were forced to book. With that peg planted, we then based our travels in New Zealand around it, hoping that we could head south, get our fill of the South Island, and then as we returned north, loop back through Hobbiton on schedule. So April 3rd has stood tall as a beacon, a target for us throughout most of our time in this country. And today we would finally be hitting that target!

For Pam & Bob, this was an even more monumental day than it was for us, so spending time with them only enhanced our own excitement and anticipation. In “preparation”, we all finished watching the second half of “The Two Towers” (the one film of the trilogy that doesn’t feature the Shire, d’oh!) in the holiday park TV lounge between breakfast and lunch.

In the afternoon the girls got dressed and made-up, and then we piled into Bob & Pam’s rental car and Bob made short work of what would have been half-a-day’s bike ride to the Shire’s Rest (the launching point for the bus rides to Hobbiton-proper). We arrived with plenty of time for everyone to shop the gift shop (all the same LotR merchandise that was at the Weta Workshop), and then get a drink on the terrace with a view to the tree-dotted hills of Hobbiton hidden across the highway. Since ours was the final tour of the day, we could feel the site settling down into the quiet hours, eventually leaving just the 48 of us dyed-in-the-wool fans (some in elf/hobbit ears, a couple others in Shire-folk dress) waiting to board the buses.

Rett at The Shire’s Rest, with the hills of Hobbiton in the distance behind her.

On the ten-minute ride across the hills of what is still a working sheep farm, our entertaining guide played a video (featuring Peter Jackson, and the landowner, Russell Alexander), the existence of which indicates how much the average tourist to Hobbiton (who likely hasn’t even read the books) requires entertainment beyond the gorgeous drive. We were not the average tourists!

Rett and Pam, fully prepared to enter Hobbiton.

We unloaded, walked a path sunken between the stone walls of “Gandalf’s Cutting”, and emerged into Hobbiton as quickly as tears emerged from my eyes. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies look good, but there is always an awareness that the scenes they present (like any movie) are an artificial creation. Whether it’s simply camera angles and set-decoration, or green-screens and CGI, every filmmaker is inevitably creating a place that doesn’t actually exist. But here we were, transported to this world that was even more real than the movies! Because when watching the movies you can’t smell the flowers blooming in the hobbit-gardens, you can’t settle your hand into the cool rough-mowed grass covering a hobbit hole, and you certainly can’t look around with 360 degrees of freedom and know that there are no matte paintings filling in the background. Rett and I have visited a lot of filming locations together (and not just from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies), and you always need to make mental modifications to the current reality of the location to make it match what the filmmaker put on-screen. This is literally the only location I can remember where such modifications are completely unnecessary. We were simply, thoroughly, and inexplicably, strolling through Hobbiton, and it was incredible.

Hobbiton. Like, really Hobbiton!
Neil and Rett, whose wedding theme was “Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings go to the Renaissance Faire”, are in Hobbiton!

And the emotion has roots that were planted far before the movies. The words Tolkien used to describe Hobbiton captured the imagination of 12-year-old me when I first read them. Turning Tolkien’s imagination into this physical reality required an unlikely sequence of events over the ensuing thirty years, a sequence that that 12-year-old never would have…imagined, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have imagined it in New Zealand, and he wouldn’t have imagined ever traveling to the bottom side of the world to see it. But that 12-year-old is here today!

However, I most marvel at J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination. He first described Hobbiton nearly 100 years ago. Within his legendarium, he designed it to represent the safe place, the comfortable place, the place where the troubles of the wider world cannot enter. To embody that symbolic role, he invented a neighborhood of well-appointed holes built into green rolling hills. Yes, it sounds idyllic, and had some basis in his native English landscapes, but it was largely a fantasy. How could he (or anyone) know what it would truly feel like to wander through the footpaths of such a neighborhood?

While it may not have been intended as such, the creation of this movie set was essentially the first full-scale test of Tolkien’s 100-year-old hypothesis. And it turns out that he fucking nailed it. Aided by the warm glow of sunset, I was suffused with a nearly overwhelming desire to live out the rest of my days here, puttering around my small front garden, tending to honeybees, pumpkins, and a bit of fence-mending, and then retiring into a warmly-lit home under the hillside to cook a meal, do some reading, and crawl into a quiet bed with my wife. I don’t even fully understand what cultural or genetic factors the environment was triggering in my subconscious, but I can firmly say that a purer incarnation of the word “idyllic” is not possible.

How much would you need to sell us this hobbit hole to live in? NZ$2M? Deal! We’ll even keep up the gardening!

For Rett, an additional layer of emotion came from what was missing. Her mom (and sister) were to have joined us here for this section of New Zealand, in a replay-comparison of their tear-inducing visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter some years ago. But her mom is now gone for more than two years, so of course there is no comparison. Although I did notice an encouraging evolution in Rett to a new version of grief. There was a mother and daughter on the tour with us, who could have been Sue and Rett ten years earlier. They were both folk-dressed, delighting in the experience, and clearly very close. Six months ago, jealous anger is the only emotion that the pair would have brought forth in Rett. But now, while the anger was not completely gone, much of it had transformed into a more-positive wistful envy. And really, they were another hypothesis turned into physical form in this New Zealand farmland: rather than only imagining how much Sue would have enjoyed this experience with her daughter, we could see a reflection of her spirit here, just embodied in an alternate version.

Rett deserves to be visiting this place with more family than just me, but at least we formed a wonderful temporary family for our time here.

We were surely far from the only ones feeling emotions coming from beyond this place, with elements from the broader stories of our lives channeled through these green lanes because Tolkien’s creation is so tied into who we are. Pam and her husband came to New Zealand because Bob told her that they could go anywhere she wanted when her cancer was fought into submission. Of course Pam chose the land that contains the round green door that is literally a part of both of them. So their presence in this country is the culmination of a journey upwards from suffering and distress, through an unasked-for battle that was brought to their doorstep. And their visit to Hobbiton is the culmination of that culmination. We’re grateful to them for the ride here, even more for the friendship, but perhaps most for letting us share in a small part of their emotional story, a Tolkien-like story where good triumphs over evil, but not without being transformed in the fight.

The iconic round green door of Bag End, Bilbo’s (and then Frodo’s) home. And while the door is ajar, that’s as “inside” as it goes.
“Not Today / Today, We Fight!” Pam designed the tattoo, and now stands victorious in this safe place many leagues from her battles.
Pam & Bob together in front of Bag End. And while the emotion in this moment was the story, I can’t help but also point out how perfectly the tattoo matches the real thing!
Our story here isn’t the same stuff of legends, but since the sign reads “No admittance except on party business”, I think we should all be allowed in, because we’re all ready for some party business!

When I visited the Wizarding World with Rett a couple years ago, entering Hogsmeade Village brought tears to my eyes too, and I’m not even much of a Harry Potter fan. But being inside that similarly built-from-text environment was unavoidably evocative, and my emotions were almost a sympathetic reaction fed by others who have a deeper connection to those stories. But, with apologies to Universal Studios, Hobbiton takes placemaking to an entirely new level.

A large part of that is because it’s genuinely on a piece of middle-of-nowhere land that could be the Shire. At any other fictional-world-turned-real, as much as they try to obscure it, there is always a curtain. “Don’t look behind it!”, or you’ll shatter the illusion for yourself, when you see the refrigerator trucks for food services, the neon hotels across the road, or simply the buzz of the modern city in which the attraction is sited. At Hobbiton, there is no curtain. You are in a rural, pastoral setting stretching as far as the eye can see, one that existed long before Peter Jackson “discovered” it. In the lesser places, even if you can resist peeking behind the curtain, you’re still aware of the curtain itself. Eliminating the curtain entirely creates a whole new level of immersion.

The view from Bag End, high enough to look down on The Party Tree, and even further down to the Green Dragon Inn across the lake, and certainly high enough to see anything behind the curtain, but the only thing there is sheep!
A wider shot, and still the only possible out-of-place element visible in the frame, shattering the Shire’s idyllic illusion. might be a Nazgul on his black horse, silhouetted against the dimming sky on one of those distant hilltops.
Our first view of the Green Dragon reminds us that our experience here is just getting started!

By being a unique combination of two of our favorite things (“location a movie was filmed” (e.g., Mount Sunday/Edoras, or Indian Beach/La Push), and “built-environment to transport you to a fantasy world” (e.g., the Wizarding World, or Renaissance Faires)), really nowhere else stands a chance.

Using some extremely-subtle and tricky practical effects to show a hobbit and human in the same scene.
Some of the hobbit holes were built to make humans look hobbit-sized, and some (like this one) to make humans look human-sized!

And what tremendous luck for us that Jackson and his location scouts set down their helicopter on this particular farmer’s land. Many farmers might have agreed to let the film production use their land, a handful might have then developed it into a tourist attraction after the movies were a success, but I doubt that any would have run the operation with anywhere near the level of care, attention to detail, and respect for Tolkien and his fans that the Alexanders have.

It would be so easy to half-ass this thing, and still make a Smaug-hoard’s worth of money. I mean, thousands of LotR fans were coming to this farm when there wasn’t even a damn thing here but hills and sheep! (the original film sets were temporary, and removed; it was only when ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy was filmed in 2009 that the Alexanders made a deal with the filmmakers to rebuild the sets in permanent form the second time around.) But rather than do the bare minimum to drain fans’ wallets, the Alexanders are whole-assing it, doing the absolute maximum.

The tour guides they hire are enthused, engaging, and deftly manage a large group that has far more freedom to roam the open-world than in any other similar built environment (the trust to give us free rein is another contributor to the magic here). Another landowner might decide “eh, keeping 6 hobbit holes is enough” (and it probably would be!) But there are more than 40 here, some of which you don’t even get close to, yet surely have all the detail of those you can run your hands over. The upkeep is literally unbelievable; maintaining flowering gardens that look rough and ramshackle takes so much talent and attention that one of our guides said that they occasionally will get visitors who know nothing of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but are there simply to see the gardening (true hobbits, without even knowing it!)

That orange pumpkin in the background was sitting on top of an actual pumpkin vine, but looked to be about 150 lbs of perfect Shireness, so obviously that part is fake. “No, that’s a real pumpkin” reports the guide on hearing my scepticism!!
Look at all the elements in this scene. This comprises less than 1/100th of the “stuff” at Hobbiton. It seems like it could have only been built and maintained by a village full of hobbits that have lived here for hundreds of years!
Yellow flowers even brighter than the yellow door of Master Samwise’s home.
Rett, as Rosie Cotton-Gamgee, discovering that her husband has returned from the Grey Havens, to home.

Most amazing of all, the Alexanders continue to improve the experience, even though they were never lacking visitors. Originally (and even up through when we bought our tickets), all of the hobbit holes were simply facades. But four months ago, they completed a major construction project, and now the tour takes you inside a hobbit hole!

Rett hanging her shawl at the entry to the hobbit hole home.

The home is human-scaled; avoiding frequent head injuries, or simply not forcing people to crouch, was probably the right choice. And it doesn’t match Bag End (the only hobbit home we really see the inside of in the movies), but that almost makes it better, because it expands the universe by revealing a yet-unseen portion of the Shire. I expected there to be about two rooms that we’d quickly pass through, but no. There must have been a dozen different rooms built under the hillside! Of course I shouldn’t have been surprised; why would they suddenly start half-assing things now? (though I don’t think anyone would have complained if it had been only two rooms!) And the freedom and trust they lend to us is carried through inside the hole as well: everything is free to be examined and interacted with, and again, it’s curtainless: it’s not like there is a little plexiglass sign marking the “interactive” element of each room like you’d see in a museum. It’s just like, a normal person’s house (well, an extremely knick-knack-filled slightly-odd normal person’s house), and you can poke and prod everywhere like a meddling Sackville-Baggins.

Rett in the library-corner.
There’s me on the toilet. While I didn’t actually try it out, the plumbing on all the sinks was functional!
Rett has fallen into the bathtub! Now, is the bathtub hobbit-scaled, or is it simply small because hobbits have proportionally smaller tubs than modern humans?
Inside this hobbit hole, is a hobbit hole dollhouse!
A mirror in the main bedroom of the hobbit hole produces a magical photo of Rett.
Rett gazing out the hobbit-round window of the expansive dining room.
Oh wait, is she gazing out the window, or at the food that is secreted everywhere?
Here’s me inside a hobbit hole, thinking of what to write in this journal entry.

There is so much to see inside the hobbit hole that it’s actual my sole complaint about the tour: they don’t allocate enough time to absorb it all! We were racing from room to room, shouting out wonderful discoveries to each other, but all too soon we had to move on. It’s a pretty dumb complaint to have about a four-and-a-half hour experience, since they can’t really allow more time than they already do, so really the complaint is that they made the hobbit hole too expansive, too detailed! They should have just kept it to two rooms! Ok, that’s an even dumber complaint.

Looking back up to Bag End from the party lawn.

With the sun now fully behind the hills, it was time for phase three, perhaps the most-Hobbit-ish of them all: eating and drinking! We descended down to the lake, crossed the bridge to the mill, and entered the Green Dragon Inn to fill our mugs with ale.

Looking back to across the lake from the Green Dragon, to the Party Tree and some lakefront properties.
Closer in to the lakefront properties.
I wonder what’s inside this building? (we didn’t get to go in).
An example of just one bit of detail on the Green Dragon. The scent of wood and ale and roasting meat was absolutely perfect.

While our meal was being prepared for us, we had time to wander about and mingle outside, just like you would actually do on a perfect night like this at a country pub, or at a wedding reception. Aside: thank Manwë that this random picked-5-months-ahead date in New Zealand autumn ended up with such perfect weather!

We were lucky to have Bill join us to add still more depth to what many would think is nothing more than just a shallow tourist attraction. Bill (who had lived a portion of his life nicknamed “Bilbo”) is a man who has no time in his remaining life for banalities. He is incisive and insightful, and a welcome reminder that even in our nomad-life of frequently-fleeting connections, it’s still possible to make those connections meaningful. He was almost embarrassingly impressed by the adventuring path we’ve chosen in life (the embarrassment being ours!), and also shared a view of Rett and I as a couple that I rarely even see myself; I guess Frodo and Sam did not generally perceive themselves to be world-saving heroes, so it’s good to occasionally have a Gandalf to hold up a mirror to reveal what qualities they had inside that they didn’t even perceive themselves.

Bill is right, we sometimes are a pretty awesome couple! Several times throughout the tour, other members of the group offered to take our photo, and not when we were obviously trying to take a selfie or something; this is unusual for us, but I guess the setting just makes everyone photogenic! (and the tour was filled with generous and thoughtful people).
Bob, Pam, Neil, Rett, and Bill, on a meaningful night for all of us, made more meaningful by all of us.

The five of us went inside, ordered more beers (1st was free, rest were a surprisingly-reasonable NZ$8), then grabbed an end of one of the huge tables, and watched in amazement as it was piled high with a feast fit for a hobbit.

I was essentially expecting elevated theme-park food, but, surprised again, it was perhaps the best meal we’ve had in New Zealand! All of the many dishes were higher quality than many fine restaurants would be able to achieve. Again, it was stupid of me to be surprised; I really should have learned by this point that they don’t half-ass anything here!

Of course it’s impossible to fully disentangle the objective quality of the food from the experience of sharing it inside the Green Dragon Inn with 47 fellow Shirefolk stand-ins. It was unexpectedly my favorite part of the entire experience; standing and reaching across the table to grab a sausage, slopping out ladles of mashed potatoes as people passed their plates, or shouting a request for a bit more roast chicken, I truly felt like a hairy-footed resident of Hobbiton, indulging with chaotic joy in a wonderful celebratory pub meal shared with wonderful celebrating people. Somehow the setting had guided us (without our hosts saying a word) into a session of live-action role-playing, where the role was “hobbit” and the action was “eating”!

(One section of) our Hobbit feast laid across the table in the Green Dragon Inn.

We took another round outside, now with hobbit holes warmly glowing as the only lights in the night, while the innkeepers changed over to dessert. After that also-excellent course, and appropriately overstuffed (Bill said he hadn’t eaten for a day, in preparation), we made our final departure, taking lanterns to light our way back through the hobbit village.

Hobbit holes shining across the lake at night.
Getting a bit of the perfect evening air outside the Green Dragon between dinner and dessert.
A great tree of Hobbiton in the very last of the light.

Our guides led us on a thoughtful moment of reflection under the Party Tree, and then our line of swinging lights retraced our entrance through Gandalf’s Cutting, finally bringing an end to our fantasy at the return to the tour buses (our guides also drive the buses, and hop in and out to open/close the sheep gates ahead/behind as we drive out, highlighting what a small-time operation this whole magnificent place still is).

But of course we’re still in New Zealand, which is Middle Earth, so the fantasy doesn’t really end for us. Pam, Bob, and Bill were all much nearer to the completion of their New Zealand travels than we are, and oddly, we felt slightly-envious of their timing. Not because we’ve had our fill of this country, but because even if we stayed another year, we’d be unlikely to find a night that topped this one. Five months (nay, more like five years!) of anticipation had snowballed into completely-unfair expectations, but those expectations were exceeded at every turn. That is a truly rare result. So it would be certainly be very Bilbo-like to “go out with a bang”, and depart Hobbiton (and Middle Earth) before any post-climax chapters could dilute our story of this “night to remember”.

On the other hand, the post-climax chapters in “The Return of the King” are what elevates Tolkien’s tale from “very good” to “life-changing” for me, so perhaps remaining on this side of the sea a bit longer will have some value too…

A final farewell to Bag End, and to its heroic owners who have long since sailed across the sea to gain some measure of well-deserved peace in Valinor.


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