Thirty minutes into a tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set, most of the tourists in my group were cooing over the tiny houses or Peter Jackson’s terrifying attention-to-detail on the New Zealand farm property.
But after stumbling into the (out-of-bounds) vegetable patch, I was transfixed by one thought: this is a miniature village I can get behind. Never mind million-dollar mortgages and Ikea kitchens: give me a Hobbit hole and I’ll be happy.
My reasoning wasn’t just because the Matamata farm film set boasts probably my favourite pub in the world, The Green Dragon, but because of the humble, quietly sustainable feel to the village. Big lollipop doors were surrounded by flower boxes, trailing mint, rosemary, strawberries and nasturtiums. In front of each hole, tiny vegetable patches were packed with bounty, even wrapped under the mists of winter. Props artfully laid beside each house suggested what each hobbit contributed to the community: whether fisherman, woodcutter, artist or town drunk. Each hobbit was clearly a master in their trade, quietly adding to the prosperity of the utopian village.
“What happens to the vegetables?” I call out to my tour guide, eyeing up some enormous Hobbiton pumpkins.
“The gardeners take them home,” she says, after telling me off for wandering from the group.
An hour later, nursing a Hobbiton stout in front of The Green Dragon, I sat watching the same gardeners wheel dirt up and down the hillside, while ducks flew low over the foggy artificial lake.
‘If only Hobbiton were real!’ I wished for the hundredth time.
And then I began to think practically. If the goal isn’t to work slavishly for decades to pay off a million-dollar mortgage in the inner suburbs, then what is it? Is the simple and sustainable life of Hobbiton actually obtainable, or just another (more extreme) romanticisation of country living?
So I began to investigate.
A Simpler Way
Over 2,500 kilometres away in the Gunai district of Gippsland in regional Victoria, there’s some real-life magic happening. Six tiny houses, one on wheels, dot the bucolic woods and waters of Wurruk’an ecovillage and permaculture farm. Sure, the houses aren’t burrowed into any hillsides, but they’re striking enough as is.
Established two years ago as a demonstration site for simpler living in the face of global crises, the small Wurruk’an community was also filmed for a documentary released last month, A Simpler Way: Crisis As Opportunity (watch it free here). In addition to the tiny homes and yurt currently on the property, the community also runs workshops in alternative house-building: from Superadobe (sand bags stuffed with dirt) to Earthships (off-grid recycled houses) and cob cabins (mud huts).
While Wurruk’an is experimenting with modern alternative technologies and renewable energy, their desire for simple living is by no means a new one, as anyone who has watched The Good Life or the very excellent River Cottage will know. Unique to Wurruk’an, however, is an emphasis on proving that “flourishing lives don’t have to cost the Earth”. Bring in the tiny houses.
Wurruk’an and Simplicity Institute co-founder Dr. Samuel Alexander, who also works as a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, says the tiny house movement is a good example of creative thinking provoked by global crises – in this case, the housing problem.
“I love the idea of people reinventing the nomad lifestyle in such a way that they don’t have to get locked into a mortgage,” says Alexander, whose research examines degrowth and post-growth economics, sustainable consumption and transition strategies. “They don’t [even] necessarily have to get locked into place: depending on their time in life, and where the work is and where their passions lie, they can move around as need be.”
Tiny houses can be built for anything from $400 to over $15,000, depending on how many amenities or solar panels you require, but Alexander says even the more expensive ones “are a hell of a lot cheaper than the $600,000 [needed] to buy a crappy villa in the suburbs of Melbourne”.
For those who don’t fancy retreating to the countryside, the tiny house movement demonstrates how a nourishing lifestyle doesn’t need to come from money – it can come from within.
“If you forever increase your material living standards and expectations, you will never be able to work less,” explains Alexander. “But if you minimise your material living standards, you will liberate yourself from that work-spend cycle. And if you get to a certain level when you think your basic material needs are satisfied, you can then pursue the good life in non-material sources of meaning and well-being and satisfaction.”
So the appeal of Hobbiton isn’t so far off the mark. But like the community at Wurruk’an, others have found more practical ways of downsizing to live a good life.
Raglan: A Growing Alternative Community
On the cliffs of New Zealand’s west coast, a whole community is working together to create a simpler, more enriching and less wasteful life. The small North Island beach town of Raglan isn’t just a surfing destination; it’s a fast-growing environmentally conscious community that gets together to swap produce, sew reusable bags, train visitors in permaculture and recycle pretty much everything.
Overlooking the crashing surf is eco-retreat Solscape, which offers upcycled contemporary accommodation as well as training and workshops in sustainability, permaculture and well-being. Visitors can pick from a range of eco-lodging, which includes tipis, railway cabooses and earth domes (which, incidentally, have also been compared to hobbit holes). Solscape hopes that, by experiencing models of sustainable living for themselves, visitors will be inspired by them too.
Solscape’s Ems Sandford-May says to grow anything in Raglan – a windy, hilly place known more for surfing than agriculture – requires the kind of creative thinking and problem solving so vital to permaculture and sustainable lifestyle solutions.
“Most people that come here are after an alternative lifestyle, not focused on money or ambition,” she says of the growing community.
Fleeing The Rat Race
Perched on another hill, an hour-and-a-half out of Melbourne, is the Daylesford Longhouse: a 110-metre-long fiberglass tube built by one couple swapping their day jobs for the good life.
Fabio Ongarato Design co-founder Ronnen Goren and hairdresser Trace Streeter created the Longhouse to fuse two of their passions: cooking and agriculture. The Timothy Hill-designed building (which features next year in Grand Designs) works not only as a functioning greenhouse and water collector, but also houses the couple’s living quarters, guest accommodation, barnyard, vegetable gardens, and, starting next year, a cooking school.
“It’s quite a beautiful journey I think,” says Goren, who is still commuting from Melbourne as work on the Longhouse continues. He says the challenges of work on the farm – and the endless projects this work requires – are just as rewarding as the results.
“You realise that you can do a lot with not so much. We’ve got just under twenty acres, and there’s a lot we still haven’t utilised. It makes you realise […] you actually don’t need that much to become self-sufficient.”
You don’t need that much to start living differently, either.
Alexander says more people are turning towards alternative lifestyles as the glossy pages of consumption fall apart.
“We’re bombarded thousands of times every day with advertisements and more subtle institutional messages telling us that the good life consists in ever more stuff, and I think that story is beginning to fray – badly.”
Maybe seeking alternative solutions, even fantastical ones stolen from the pages of J. R. R. Tolkien, is at least a step towards a more fulfilling, sustainable lifestyle.
In the words of Bilbo Baggins: “it is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life”.