It’s late 2001, and Christmas is around the corner. I’m eight years old, shuffling my way through a busy, vibrant crowd in London’s ODEON cinema, holding on to my Dads hand, along with my older brother, Andrew. A month earlier, the first instalment in the Harry Potter franchise was released on the big screen, setting the world into a fantasy-frenzy. For my brothers and I, and almost everyone else my age, the wizarding world that we had all already fallen in love with through the novels had been brought to life with so much character and charm, and it was all we talked about. Preluding that unforgettable cinema experience that brought the limitless paperback world of Harry Potter to living colour, another fantasy world shot into life within the trailers. Wizards, orcs, glowing swords and an ominous golden ring at the centre of it all. I see my Dad’s face; grinning ear to ear, eyes glowing with excitement. He leans across us - “This is my Harry Potter, boys!” A month passes, the curtains spread, the lights dim and the phenomenal score of the Fellowship of the Ring begins.
Over the next three and a half hours, I was transported into a fantasy world so different from the warm and unblemished universe of Harry Potter. I found myself terrified of Uruk-Hai, totally in awe of Aragorn, devastated at Gandalf’s apparent demise… and completely in love with the Shire. Our Dad, over the moon that his young boys fully appreciated something he adored growing up, talked assiduously with us about the story, and details we may have missed. This cinema experience was the beginning of a very long adoration of a world that begun construction in the 1930s. And so, the opportunity to visit Hobbiton was something I just couldn’t pass on.
Many years later, I find myself making a slow decent from Auckland, down both islands of New Zealand, a gorgeous country with more stunning and diverse greenery than any other place I’d previously visited. I wanted to take every day as it came, but there was one thing soon approaching at the forefront of my mind: Hobbiton. A place I’d been excited to visit since I heard of its existence, many years ago. Whilst double the price of the standard ticket, my friend Dilan and I opted for the Evening Banquet Tour, which promised Hobbiton at sunset and a feast worthy of thirteen hungry, uninvited dwarves. It turned out be so much more. The big green tour bus picked us up from the Shire’s Rest Cafe at 4:30pm, starting our experience with a video message from Peter Jackson and the LOTR design team, welcoming us into the real world they so brilliantly adapted from page to screen. Already, seeing this backstage footage of the Shire being brought to life felt special. Our guides were full of film facts, and terrible Lord of the Rings jokes. They led us through a cobblestone pass and into Bag-End, the setting sun fighting away any remnants of grey cloud. We started off with a patient walk, from Hobbit hole to Hobbit hole, accompanied by some wonderful behind-the-scenes stories from the set. Eventually we arrived at the top, to the hole on the hill, the iconic home of Bilbo. At this point, the sun was low enough that all of Hobbiton was covered in its glow. We looked across the river at The Green Dragon, hearing lively music inviting us over. What was so special about this place was the attention to detail. The pipe left on the table, next to a pot of Old Toby. The basket of freshly picked fruit from the garden. Real, worn suede jackets on the coat hangers, chess games half finished, a spinning mill wheel in full motion. The set was alive, as if it really existed. We walked over a bridge leading to the Green Dragon and, after retrieving our Shire brewed mug of cider, found our way back out there to watch the incredible sunset, which set the Shire ablaze in beautiful orange and gold.
After the sun had made its decent we were taken into a hall and a countdown began before two big mahogany doors were pushed open, revealing a feast unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Long tables were covered in colourful, aromatic dishes; three or four slow cooked meats, covered in gravy. They had Samwise’s potatoes; boiled, mashed, stuck in a stew! Sweet potato, roasted aubergine, parsnips and carrots with crushed chestnuts and a honey glaze. Stuffing, sausages, caramelised onions. Some dishes I couldn’t even pronounce. No photos were taken over the next few hours as we dug in to this glorious meal, taken straight out of a movie scene. We haven’t even reached dessert yet, but my stomach is beginning to rumble, so I’m inclined to move on.
After a feast I will never forget, we were led back into the hall and each provided lanterns. We made our way once more through the Shire at night, which felt completely different, a sort of new magic ran through it. The colourful lit-up Hobbit-holes reflected in the lake, which was full of colour amidst the blackness. We found ourselves gathered in the big space where Bilbo’s one-hundred-and-eleventh birthday is set and stood in a big circle. Our guide asked us all to close our lamplights and close our eyes. He asked us to reflect on the day and all the small Hobbit-holes we had passed, and to pick one. “Imagine for a moment, now,” He said, “that you lived at that Hobbit-hole, here in the Shire. Picture yourself sitting, right now on your rocking chair. The warm summer breeze making its way down your street.” The music from The Green Dragon still floated around in the distance, and I could hear the lake beside us. An overly-sentimental moment, sure. But I loved it. I thoroughly enjoyed the enthusiasm of the guides and the fact they appreciated the love people have for this fantasy world. It was a perfect way to end an amazing night, escaping into a world I’ve adored from behind a screen, or in pages, for so long. Now, I can live happily ever after, until the end of my days.