Continued from Wednesday's post.
As the last strains of a pan flute solo faded away, we pulled up to the Shire’s Rest, the departure point for all Hobbiton tours. The small, two-story building — consisting of a conference room, small gift shop, café, and toilets — sits right next to a shearing shed on the edge of a shallow, fenced-in valley dotted with sheep and twisted pine trees. The Shire’s Rest represents the perfect marriage of modern and rustic design, with the café and conference room portion of the building looking polished and new, while the toilets are made to look like a colorful hobbit hole, right down to the doorknobs in the middle of the doors.
Inside the second-story gift shop, we met Alec, our farm guide for the morning. Dressed in a long black Hobbiton coat and a black Hobbiton cap that only partially kept his flyaway grey hair at bay, Alec was the epitome of a rural New Zealand man. His skin was permanently tanned and leathery, he spoke in a low, mumbling drawl, and I’m not 100 percent certain that he had all of his teeth.
After passing out brochures and repeating the history of Hobbiton that Vic had shared with us on the drive in, Alec joined us in the van and we headed for the set. Getting to the location required driving deeper into the farm, with frequent stops to unlatch and re-latch rickety gates to keep the farm’s four-legged inhabitants contained. One or two brave sheep approached the van curiously as we stopped, only to scatter nervously as we rolled on by.
“I’m doing this the right way,” Josh, our Californicated classmate, announced in the midst of peeling off one of his socks five minutes later, after we hopped out of the van. He straightened, socks in hand, and tossed his California-sun-bleached hair, flashing a straight-toothed smile. Vic just chuckled, eyeing Josh’s bare feet.
“Your feet don’t have enough hair,” Melinda observed, pointing at one of Josh’s relatively hair-free feet and referring to the oversized, unnaturally hairy feet that hobbits are known for.
“He may after today,” Vic said, chuckling again as he zipped his coat up to his chin, making him look rather like a turtle peeking out of its shell. I didn’t blame him. Already, the biting wind was tearing straight through my scarf and jacket. Looking around at the other girls as they shrunk down in their winter coats and donned their wooly gloves, I could tell they were feeling the same way.
After ensuring that we were all bundled up accordingly, we began following Vic and Alec down the slick side of a hill, trying our best not to slip. Josh squished along through the mud and sheep droppings alike, perhaps slightly more at risk than the rest of us as the glop oozed up between his toes.
Thanks to a downed tree, our entrance into Hobbiton took place from above, rather than from below, as is usually the case. We were all slightly taken aback when, suddenly, we crested the hill to find Hobbiton sprawled out at our feet.
Tucked into the hillsides below us were seventeen white-washed facades with perfectly round holes cut into them where windows and doors would have been on normal house fronts. They would have undoubtedly looked curious to someone unfamiliar with Frodo and his quest to destroy the One Ring, but the six of us at the top of the hill, steeped in Tolkien lore as we were, knew exactly what they were: hobbit holes.
Beyond the hobbit holes, 1,250 acres of rolling farmland stretched as far as the eye could see, dotted here and there with gnarled, non-native pines and waddling wooly sheep.
Despite Alec’s urging for us to hurry down the hill so we could start our tour at the bottom, our progress was sluggish due to the amount of photos being taken. Una, with her bulky camera slung around her neck and her fiery-red hair whipping around in the brisk wind, was moving two steps per minute, at most. The rest of the Hobbiton first-timers weren’t much further ahead of her.
I sidled up alongside Denise once we had made our way halfway down the hill. She was crouched down in the muck, framing a photo of Bag End — Bilbo and Frodo’s home — as it loomed above us from its perch on the highest point of the hill.
“What do you think?”
“There are, basically, no words,” she said in her characteristic Valley-Girl-from-Vermont vernacular. She stood to examine the digital picture she’d just snapped, grinning, her cheeks and ears rosy from the wind. “I’m so jazzed right now; I kind of can’t believe I’m here!”
We followed Vic and Alec down the winding gravel path that led through the center of Hobbiton, pausing to peer into a darkened doorway every now and then. The doors don’t actually lead anywhere — the hobbit holes are nothing more than flat wooden facades pressed into the grass, after all — but that didn’t stop us from imagining round hallways with soft dirt floors leading off under the hills.
Alec stopped us halfway down the gravel walkway in front of a small, bare hill.
“You may not be able to recognize it now,” he said, indicating the hill in front of us, “but this is where Sam and Rosie’s hole sat at the end of ‘Return of the King.’ It was the last hobbit hole you saw in the trilogy.” A few people snapped photos. Later, I found myself wondering if they would feel silly explaining those photos of a bare hill to family and friends back home. But, in that moment, taking a photo of a bare hill seemed to make perfect sense.
“That’s what it looked like during filming,” Alec said, pointing to a photo board standing conveniently behind us. On it was a large picture of the hobbit hole complete with red door, garden and grassy roof — an image familiar to every one of us. The picture, we were told, along with about a dozen others, was given to the Alexanders by New Line as a gift after filming. During principal filming, cameras (other than the cinematic sort, of course) were forbidden on the property. Consequently, these behind-the-scenes photos are some of the only ones in existence that fans ever get the chance to see. Again, flashes went off.
“The owners are actually petitioning New Line to allow us to rebuild this hobbit hole, since they let us refurbish all the others,” Alec continued, referring to the new white-washed wood adorning all seventeen hobbit holes. “Though, if the rumors are true, they may be back here rebuilding it themselves soon enough.” He didn’t say any more, but six sets of eyes glanced over at Vic and six sets of lips curved up in knowing smiles. WE all knew that the rumors were, in fact, true, and that hobbits would be returning to the Shire soon enough for the making of “The Hobbit.”
We continued down the path until we stood beneath a towering pine tree on the edge of a small pond. The tree, tall and old with branches placed just right to form a rounded outline, commanded our full attention. Its needles rustled faintly as a particularly cold blast of wind whipped against our cheeks and foreheads.
“I probably don’t have to tell you where you are right now, eh?” Alec said as he gestured to the scene before us. And, indeed, he didn’t.
“The Party Field!” four of us said at once.
Before Alec could rattle off how many hobbit ears or bottles of specially-brewed hobbit ale were used to film the party scene in “Fellowship of the Ring,” the six of us were grasping hands in a circle on the field beneath the Party Tree. The tree, a non-native pine, is roughly 120 years old, and was standing at its post beside the pond long before the Alexanders bought the farm in 1978, and longer still before it became famous in Tolkien circles as the Party Tree. But, regardless of where it came from and when, it will have only one identity from now on: the centerpiece of New Zealand’s Shire.
“Are you ready?” Josh asked the group as a whole with a toss of his hair. We nodded, bending our knees and shifting our weight in preparation.
“One, two, three, frolic!” Jen called out, tugging us all in a clockwise direction.
There were no further words or dancing instructions — just broad smiles and gleeful laughter. We spun until we were dizzy and out of breath, then took a break and did it again. We frolicked into a soggy patch of field, splashing cool mud up our jeans, and, in Josh’s case, legs. But it didn’t really seem to matter. In that moment, we weren’t exchange students; we weren’t tourists; we weren’t even strangers. We were simply frolicking.
A brief rain shower, borne in on the brisk wind, interrupted us, and we took refuge under the large, gnarled boughs of the Party Tree. The tree’s long needles were fairly unsuccessful in protecting us from the cold, stinging rain, but we didn’t care.
“My face hurts from smiling so much,” Jen whispered to me as we all caught our breaths.
“Are you sure it’s not the wind?” I joked, knowing full well that it wasn’t — at least not entirely.
“Yeah, I’d say I’m about 99 percent sure.” She shot me a full-toothed grin before recruiting Josh to take a picture of her hanging off one of the tree’s thick branches.
Once the shower passed, the clouds parted to allow an unhindered sun to illuminate the close-cropped grass and white hobbit holes once more. The bright sun lent the whole area an after-rain sheen that made it even more breathtaking than before. The grass was somehow greener, and the air somehow fresher. Even the blue in the sky seemed half a shade brighter.
Despite it being my second trip to Hobbiton, it was like I was seeing it for the first time. I wondered if that feeling had worn off yet for Vic, who makes this day-trip to Hobbiton three or four times a week.
“You know,” he said as we climbed up the hill to Bag End, “this is one of the sites I never tire of visiting, no matter how many times I’m here.”
Looking out over the lush green fields of Middle-Earth, it wasn’t hard to understand why.
I soon found myself standing on the stone doorstep of Bilbo’s home, looking out over the sprawling farm as the wind whistled past my ears and lifted my hair off the back of my neck. It was easy to see why this place was chosen as Hobbiton. From that elevated vantage point, there’s nothing but green as far as the eye can see; no skyscrapers or paved roads interrupt the view — it’s just grass and sheep for miles.
“Over 165,000 people have seen this here view,” Alec said.
He allowed us to stand in silence for another moment, and then motioned for us to pile into Bag End. While the other sixteen hobbit holes on the property are simply wooden fronts, the Bag End exterior actually extends roughly five feet into the hill behind it. The floor — smoother and cleaner than I remembered it from three years before — and the wooden walls were illuminated by a bare bulb hanging above our heads.
“They of course didn’t film the inside of this,” Alec said. “All of that was done inside a studio in Wellington.”
“But at least now we can say we’ve been inside Bag End,” Josh said, stooping to peer out one of the small, rounded windows. Denise leaned over his shoulder, poising her camera to snap a picture of the Party Tree, using the round window as a frame.
“It’s like a postcard,” she said, reviewing the photo she’d just taken on her digital camera. “Only better.”
We were all slightly reluctant to go back to the van. But the quickly-gathering rain clouds in the distance and our grumbling stomachs urged us on.
“Better try to wipe those off before you get back in,” Vic said as we reached the van, motioning to Josh’s brown feet. “I don’t want to find any surprises on my floor mats.”
We returned to the Shire’s Rest just as the clouds opened up in a proper downpour, which we watched from the cozy interior where we had a hobbit-inspired meal: sandwich triangles, miniature oranges, and small meat pies. There was even SobeRing Thought beer for sale, the nearly non-alcoholic beer brewed specifically by Harrington’s Breweries in Christchurch for the films. For the party scene in Hobbiton in “Fellowship of the Ring,” the production crew needed an authentic-looking beer that wouldn’t get the actors drunk after multiple takes. The result was SobeRing Thought (a clever — or perhaps painful — pun by the manufacturer), which is made with only 1 percent alcohol. Today, it’s predominantly a novelty beer that only a fan of the trilogy would be likely to seek out.
“How is it?” Josh asked, turning a bottle of the brew in his hands and glancing skeptically over at Vic.
“Not bad,” Vic said. “Though, coming from a Kiwi, I’m not sure how much weight that holds with you Americans.”
Josh decided against the $3 hobbit beer, and replaced it in the cooler he’d plucked it from. As he returned to his seat, Jen cleared her throat.
“I propose a toast,” Jen announced, holding up her small water glass. “To new friends and great adventures. To our fellowship.”
The ride back to Auckland that afternoon was quiet and sleepy, with many of us dozing off periodically in the back of the van. I, too, felt my eyelids growing heavy, and had to fight to keep them open as we cruised through the sea of green hills on our way back to the city. Grey-white clouds slunk back into the sky as we put distance between ourselves and the Shire. By the time the Auckland Sky Tower came back into view through our windshield, thin, wraith-like clouds threatened to shroud its top.
I shivered involuntarily as I climbed out of the van fifteen minutes later. Without the sun, there was a chill in the evening air, and I wasn’t wearing enough layers. I gave Vic a big hug after he finished unloading our bags from the back of the van.
“Thanks for everything, Vic,” I said. “It was just as great the second time around.”
“No worries; anytime,” he said, hugging me back. “Hopefully we’ll see you again soon.”
I hoped so, too. Because, looking up at the dreary sky, and down congested Queen Street, I found myself already missing the Shire. Standing on the gum-stained pavement in the fading light, we seemed so far from the pristine green of Middle-Earth.
For the time being, at least, we were back to reality.
This was my first time throwing real travel writing at you. What did you think? Would you like to see more?