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Last week, Telegraph readers named New Zealand as their favourite country in the world. Royd Tolkien, great-grandson of the writer, is equally besotted. Here he explains why .
When I was eight I fell in love for the first time. Miss Arnell was a supply teacher who stepped in to replace the grumpy, crabby Mrs Rogers.
I didn’t know it was love back then; I was just eight and keen on Action Man and climbing trees. What I do know is that I couldn’t wait to see her, and when I did my heart would skip a beat. She was a breath of fresh air and every time I went home I longed to see her again. I relished every moment with her and craved her attention. I couldn’t stop thinking about her and still do.
That is what New Zealand is to me. It’s my supply teacher/super model/A-list-star all rolled into one – the beautiful, breathless, love of my life.
My eyes were opened for the first time in 2003. New Line Cinema invited me to the final bits of filming on The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. I was given a small role [as a Gondorian ranger]. I was beyond excited just to go on set and see behind the scenes. To watch how such a colossal film is so intricately crafted and pieced together was inspirational and planted a seed in me that has since grown into a love of film production and a desire to reach the heights scaled by Peter Jackson (the director of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films). It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
I’d met people at the premieres of the first two films but had never asked to go to New Zealand because, even though I’m related to J R R Tolkien, I didn’t expect any special treatment. But then I kept seeing reports that filming for the Return of the King was coming to an end and I thought, “If I don’t ask, I’ll never know.” So I sent an email, and within a couple of weeks I was in New Zealand.
As soon as I landed, Sir Christopher Lee wanted to have a cup of tea with me as he’d met my great-grandfather in Oxford in the Sixties. So I went from not expecting anything to drinking tea with Sir Christopher, literally within hours of arriving. It was wonderful.
When it came to film my part, I arrived at the Wellington Stone Street Studios and joined scores of people dressed as Orcs, Gondorian rangers and knights. There were horses everywhere. That was the beginning of my wonderful relationship with New Zealand.
My passion for the country is shared by some of the stars I’ve met, such as Sir Christopher, Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom. They have a clear love of New Zealand – and of the friendly, family atmosphere on set that Peter creates.
My great-grandfather’s books feel so rich because of the very real and visual landscape in which he set them. He coloured it with deep tones of language and a rainbow of characters.
Everyone has his own view and opinions on the books, and of course certain things have to be adapted to make them work on film. Personally, I always try to keep a separation in my mind between the books and the films. I watch the films for what they are, and what Peter Jackson and all the cast and production team have done with them. Without doubt, though, New Zealand is the canvas upon which Peter and his team brilliantly manage to create, in a different medium, the effect achieved by my great-grandfather.
I confess that I’d watched the first two Lord of the Rings films and had an impression of the country but thought they had jazzed it up for the screen. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
For a land that’s only a fraction larger than the United Kingdom, it is unequalled for its variety in climate and landscapes and lends itself perfectly to Middle-earth. Be it the luscious emerald green sweeping countryside of The Shire, the barren volcanic terrain used for Mordor, the mountainous alpine regions where Edoras was filmed or the vast glacial range that became the Misty Mountains, it’s as though New Zealand had been lifted straight from the pages of the books.
There are areas that also remind me of home in Wales, which adds to the comfort of being there.
That first trip sparked my crush and I’ve been obsessed ever since. I’ve been back six times and on one occasion I was lucky enough to live there for three months while doing post-production work on a film of mine at Park Road – Peter Jackson’s insanely wonderful film centre in Wellington where editing, sound and effects are added. That gave me the chance to plant my feet and have more than a holiday romance.
Every weekend I made a point of exploring – either by hopping on the plane for the 20-minute flight from Wellington to Blenheim, at the top of the South Island, or by driving around the North Island. With a fishing rod in the boot, a flask of coffee, a pile of food and no map, I’d go on mini adventures and explore the country’s diverse and spectacular landscape.
On my most recent trip to New Zealand, I was asked by Air New Zealand to play a cameo in its slick Hobbit-themed safety video ( youtube.com/airnewzealand ), after which I discovered one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited.
Getting there involved a scenic two-hour drive south of Auckland and then being transported to somewhere that has to be seen to be believed: Hobbiton – the same Hobbiton you see on screen and the same Hobbiton I see when I read my great-grandfather’s books. I could write 1,000 words and show you a million pictures, but standing there is simply the most magical experience I’ve ever had.
The buildings at Hobbiton, set in the unspoilt rolling countryside on the Alexander family farm on the outskirts of Matamata, were erected 10 years ago for the filming of the Lord of the Rings but were only intended as temporary structures. For the filming of The Hobbit trilogy they have been made more permanent.
The Hobbit homeland is set within 10 acres of gorgeous, pristine, green countryside, and the cute little gates are now open, so everyone can share in its treasures: you can walk around, touch it, smell it and roll in the grass. This ain’t no ordinary film set, mate, it’s real, and you don’t even have to be a fan of the Hobbit films to see its appeal.
There’s one thing I’ve not mentioned in all of this, actually more than four million things. The best bit of all: the Kiwis. I love ’em!
It’s as though they have collected all the best nuggets of character from around the world. They have a lovely warm friendliness, a can-do attitude, they’re easy-going, loyal, straight to the point, have a great sense of humour, an adventurous outlook on life, they go out of their way to help people, they love good food and drink and they have buckets of ingenuity.
There are lots of fantastic places in which to eat in New Zealand, too, but if I had to recommend one it would be the Chocolate Fish Café in Shelly Bay, a 10-minute drive south along the coast road out of Wellington.
Here’s where you go for a great selection of fresh barbecued seafood and impossibly good coffee. It’s my first stop after landing at the airport and a great start to my trip. It may be 12,000 miles from Britain, but I would encourage everybody to visit this heavenly place.
Explore and enjoy New Zealand’s vibrant cities, fish in its isolated streams, bungee-jump off a bridge, ride a jet boat down a river, sunbathe on its beautiful beaches or head for its glorious mountains. Gorge on the superb food and wash it all down with a glass or two of the perfect wine.
Do it all – because if you don’t, you’ll be missing out on the best love affair of your life.
Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.co.uk) flies daily from London Heathrow to New Zealand. Return fares in economy are currently on offer from £1,061 (part code share services via Shanghai) or via Hong Kong from £1,195. An upgrade to premium economy costs from £325 per sector. Business-class fares start at £4,115 return.
For a list of recommended independent operators specialising in Australasian holidays, visit aito.co.uk (click on holiday destinations).
J R R Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
Ian Brodie, The Lord of the Rings: Location Guidebook