From Hogwarts to Christ Church: Britain's best Harry Potter experiences
It’s hard to believe the boy wizard is no longer young, but it’s now more than 20 years since the publication of the first in JK Rowling’s beloved series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Over 500 million book sales and a record-breaking film franchise later, and Pottermania is a world-wide phenomenon, driven by fans eager to connect with the wizard’s wonderful world.
West End wizardry
London's theatre hub, the West End, has seen many blockbuster plays and shows over the years and one of the more recent additions has been the wildly-popular Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts I & II. On at the Palace Theatre, the plays take up the wizard’s later life as an ‘overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children’. Tickets aren’t easy to come by but it’s worth checking the website for future releases, and returned and cancelled tickets also frequently come back up for sale.
Hunting out Hogwarts in London
London plays a large role in the novels and as such it’s also base camp when it comes to Potter film locations.
The King’s Cross area alone boasts two mandatory stops on any Potter pilgrimage. King’s Cross Station, an atmospheric wrought-iron grand dame of Victorian architecture, is the site of platform 9¾, mythical departure point of the Hogwart’s Express. A luggage trolley ‘disappearing’ into the brick wall beneath the platform sign makes for perfect photo opportunities. Be warned, the queue to take this shot can be long: things are quieter later in the evening. And there’s no need to bring your own wand or Gryffindor house scarf, the adjacent Harry Potter Shop – a wood-panelled cornucopia of wizarding necessities modelled on Ollivander’s Wand Emporium – has you covered.
Step out from King’s Cross onto Euston Rd, walk a few steps west, look up and you’ll find yourself gawping at the looming Neo-Gothic façade of St Pancras International Station, another Victorian masterpiece, and the immediately-recognisable exterior of ‘King’s Cross’ in the film versions of The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets. A hotel (the St Pancras Renaissance) now occupies the front of the station, but you’ll probably spot some Potterheads trying to get selfies against the ornate red-brick backdrop, or find the exact spot Harry and Ron parked their Ford Anglia in The Chamber of Secrets.
Where the magic comes to life
Every Harry Potter film was shot at Warner Bros' vast Leavesden studio complex, which sits on a former airfield near Watford – accessible by train from Euston, a short walk from St Pancras. In 2012, part of the complex was turned into The Making of Harry Potter, five warehouses packed with sets and props used in the making of the films, and one of the UK's biggest attractions.
You'll find everything from the Great Hall to Dumbledore's office here, alongside Dobby, sickly-sweet butterbeer and a gasp-inducing scale model of Hogwarts that was used for exterior shots. Unsurprisingly, it's regularly booked out for weeks in advance so plan your dates early.
A wizarding bank and a secret well
The grand Edwardian interior of Australia House on the Strand is equally recognisable as the goblin-run Gringotts Wizarding Bank. Adding real interest to the site was the discovery of a 900-year old sacred well in the basement, still drawing potable water from an underground river. As it’s the office of the Australian High Commission in the UK, you’re more likely to find no-nonsense security guards than goblins attending to your needs, but you can duck your head in during business hours if you have identification on you.
Diagon Alley and Leadenhall Market
Like most London Potter locations, Diagon Alley is a composite: while its fictional location is off Charing Cross Rd, the filmic equivalent is set in the elaborate wrought-iron interior of Leadenhall Market, a covered Victorian market towards the eastern end of the City, London’s historic heart and now its financial district. Once inside, hunt for the blue door in Bull’s Head Passage, used in the films as the entrance to wizards’ watering hole The Leaky Cauldron.
The best of the rest in London
A number of other London landmarks feature in the films, including Tower Bridge, Lambeth Bridge and Westminster Station in The Order of the Phoenix. The Millennium Bridge was destroyed by Fenrir Greyback and a group of Death Eaters in The Half-Blood Prince, while Piccadilly Circus can be seen in The Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
These are easy to take in if you’re doing a bit of sightseeing already, but if you’re keen to dig deeper it’s worth checking out walking tours such as the popular Tour for Muggles and the Brit Movie Tours Harry Potter Walk. You can also download a free pdf to follow a route written up by Londoner Richard Jones.
Another spot for a classic Potter fan shot is the reptile house at London Zoo, the world’s oldest scientific zoo (founded in 1828). Sprawling across the northern end of lovely Regent’s Park, it’s here that Harry first discovers his talents as a ‘Parselmouth’, when a python strikes up a conversation with him.
Books, ferrets and 13 prime ministers in Oxford
Centred on one of the world’s oldest universities and studded with historical and architectural riches, gorgeous Oxford is also rich with Potter locations.
Perhaps the one most appreciated by Potterheads is venerable Christ Church college, founded in the time of Henry VIII and alma mater to no fewer than 13 British Prime Ministers. The college’s grand staircase features in both The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, while its cloisters also pop up in The Philosopher’s Stone, and the magnificent Great Hall directly inspired the Great Hall of Hogwarts.
More rich associations can be found in the 17th-century Bodleian Library, home to the second-largest book collection in the country (after the British Library). The delicately-vaulted interior of its Divinity School, the oldest extant teaching room in the world, crops up as the Hogwarts infirmary in four separate films, while Duke Humfrey’s Library proved the ideal double for the School of Wizardry’s own library in The Philosopher’s Stone.
Lastly, there are the Cloisters of New College, where 'Mad-Eye' Moody turns Malfoy into a ferret in The Goblet of Fire. Its name is misleading – it was founded in 1379.
Visiting the real Hogwarts
But no single place can so proudly claim to ‘be’ Hogwarts as Alnwick Castle, in the Northumbrian town of the same name. This splendid and much-filmed pile began life in the late 11th century and has been repeatedly extended over the years. The ancestral home of the dukes of Northumberland, it plays a starring role in both The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets.
Knowledgeable Potterheads can point out the place where Harry took his first Quidditch lesson, or where he and Ron crash-landed their flying Ford Anglia. Alnwick makes much of its credentials, with behind-the-scenes tours, Potter-inspired characters in full costume and broom-flying lessons, as well as occasional special events that you can plan your visit around.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct
Further north, the last place on a truly dedicated fan’s UK itinerary should be the splendid railway viaduct at Glenfinnan, near Loch Shiel in Scotland. Part of the iconic West Highland line, this impossibly photogenic late-Victorian viaduct forms a towering curve above the River Finnan, and has been used in no fewer than four Potter films. It also overlooks the place where, in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard in defiance of the British crown, and the Jacobite Rising began.
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