Gardens and Hobbits

I planned it. I can still remember the conversation with the Assistant Director of the BU program. We were coming back from the Bay of Islands and I mentioned Hobbiton. Somehow that exchange ended up with me agreeing to research and plan a group trip to the Middle Earth set.

After the small headache that was coordinating a list of names and going back and forth with the tour company, here I was, six weeks later, standing on the curb in the early morning sun with 20 other people waiting for the tour bus. It was 15 minutes late.

The bus eventually pulled up to the sidewalk, out jumped this man with a white five o’clock shadow and a Pokémon hat. He apologized in a strong London accent and explained why he was late. You see, I booked the Hobbiton day trip without the customary morning stop at Hamilton Gardens. (It was the only way they could give me a discount.) However, our driver was now informing me that we would have to go to Hamilton Gardens anyway because they couldn’t get us in to Hobbiton at an earlier time. Having no idea why they couldn’t work this out sooner or at least delay the departure time to adjust for the later entry slot, I said nothing, nodded, and got in to the bus with everyone else. There wasn’t much I could do at that point but look out the window and watch as Auckland receded into the sunlight.

With the A/C and random music blasting we trundled through the country side to Hamilton Gardens. There was a reason why I decided not to include the gardens on the trip (besides the money). I had of course looked it up while planning the tour and learned about the attraction’s various gardens able “transport” visitors to dozens of places around the world. But why would I want to go around the world when I am already in New Zealand? I want to see New Zealand that’s why I’m here. I knew others felt the same way, so that was why I didn’t feel bad leaving the gardens off the trip.

But here we were anyway. We were lucky it was a nice day. I don’t think we would’ve been all that happy if it wasn’t. And so we split up and aimlessly wondered around the shrubs and trees and flowers. The sunlight filtered through the leaves as we were indeed transported to China, Japan, Italy, India, England, California, and Maori New Zealand. It was a bit surreal to be honest. I would walk through these gates and there I was, suddenly on the west coast of the US with a picture of Marilyn Monroe overlooking a pool shaded by American oaks. I would then walk down a different path and I was unexpectedly in the Forbidden City, bamboo shielding me from the outside world.

It got me thinking about the different identities imposed upon the New Zealand landscape: how the sloping pastures we passed on the way there weren’t natural, that the English had burned down the forests and planted grass to reshape this country into an idyllic “Little Britain.” These gardens were just a miniature example of the transformations that took place on this land. And then I thought about where we were going and how we were all excited for another imposed identity, the equally fictional Middle Earth….I knew then that I had taken too many social science classes and I was thinking too hard and that I should just enjoy the sunlight.

We wandered about the gardens long enough to get bored, unable to really appreciate things in our excitement for Hobbiton. We stopped in Cambridge for a cheap meat pie for lunch (the irony wasn’t lost on me) before driving a little farther to our goal.

Dozens of buses and hundreds of people crowded The Shire’s Rest outside of Hobbiton. The nearby sheep-covered green hills stood against the blue sky, creating such a perfect picture that it didn’t seem quite real. Because we were with a tour company, we could go down to The Shire™ on our own bus with our own tour guide instead of on a huge, official Hobbiton group with 50+ other random strangers.

Once our time slot rolled around, we hopped back on to our bus, picked up our guide, and trundled through more sheep-covered hills to reach The Shire™. Our guide explained how and why the location scout picked this place to be the heart of Middle Earth while we all squealed at the cuteness of the lambs.

We hopped off the bus at the entrance, filed through some hedges and entered another world…well at least an artificial filmic world: Bright flowers and round doorways, miniature front lawns and dozens of gapping tourists. With the sun and without the tourists one could almost imagine they were in the actual film. It was meant to be like that. Everything before us was reconstructed for the Hobbit trilogy (and later tourism) as the original Hobbiton was built out of plastic and foam and carted away after filming was done.

Our guide quickly gathered in front of a hobbit hole, before turning to us and asking, “How many have seen at least part of the Lord of the Rings series? How ‘bout the Hobbit trilogy?”

Most of us raised our hands.

“That’s pretty good. Here at Hobbiton, we estimate that about 30-40% of our visitors have never seen a single one of the movies.”

Now that fact boggled the mind. I mean, I knew why. Hobbiton has become so iconic that it’s like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Still, if you knew you were going to New Zealand, a place once jokingly called “Middle Zealand,” then wouldn’t you want to take the time to watch at least one of the films? And if you didn’t know anything, wouldn’t you find this place a little boring?

It was a fairly small location, with most of the 40+ hobbit holes only reaching most of people’s chests. In fact, many of them didn’t even end up on camera, just stood off in the distance in case the shot ever veered in that direction. Even so, if you looked closely, each hobbit hole was meticulously and uniquely decorated with carved wood trimmings, painted mail boxes, and props of everyday life. There was nothing behind the doors however, our guide explained, opening up one and revealing a dirt and plaster lined crawl space to prove to us. Nevertheless, we all stopped to pose for pictures in the doorway.

Our guide did her job of guiding us through the set, spouting out along the way stories from behind the scenes and tales of tourist stealing things and dropping their bags. She reminded us that we were lucky to be here today. For the last week, and the projected week ahead, rain was in the forecast.

We eventually made it to the top of the highest hill which overlooked the blooming gardens, vibrant grass, and hobbit doors to nowhere. And there was the main attraction: Bag End. Sitting in the shadow of a fake tree (Weta Workshop’s handy work again), the house’s exterior looked like it had sprung out of a postcard. Decorated with a “no admittance except on party business” sign, the gate kept the tourists from the iconic green door. That didn’t stop us from taking dozens of pictures as our guide continued to reveal various truths behind the movie magic. (Like how Bag End, like the rest of the hobbit holes, doesn’t have an interior and that all the scenes inside actually took place in two studios in Wellington: one for the hobbits and another for Gandalf.)

After stopping at a few more hobbit holes, we headed down the hill and out towards the Green Dragon for our complimentary micro-brewed pint. Construction was going on behind the pub—an expansion our guide explained. The building is an event center, and during the summer, she told us, every night there is something going on in the there.

She left us then, to relax in the comfortable darkness of the pub before showing up 30 minutes later to escort us back to the bus. Our driver greeted with a smile and greasy chip breath, and we piled on once again for the long ride back to Auckland. Everyone fell asleep in content silence and I knew, despite the hiccups, my plan had panned out well.

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