“Harry wished he had eight more eyes… There were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments Harry had never seen before, windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels’ eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills, and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon….“
I was nine years old when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. It had just been awarded the Smarties prize when, as a treat, my teacher began reading it aloud to us at the end of a long day. By the time my mum came to pick me up I was completely hooked. We hadn’t even got very far through, but I didn’t need to hear much to feel sure somewhere deep in my gut that this story was special. I pleaded, using all the superlatives I could muster, that we should take a detour via the local bookshop on the way home, so I could continue to read it in my own time.
Later that evening, the bricks at the Leaky Cauldron rearranged themselves and melted away to reveal the cobbled high street that marked Harry’s first insight into his new life, I knew my instinct had been correct.
“After all this time?” “Always,” said Snape.
Fifteen years later, I found myself standing outside Flourish and Blotts recalling this. Even though my eleventh birthday had come and gone with no summons to Hogwarts, I had finally made it to Diagon Alley. I couldn’t help thinking that it was a lot narrower than I’d imagined it, and even narrower than it seemed in the film.
It’s all a trick, you see. But then again, perspective and camera work is magic of a different kind — a magic that makes you appreciate the true scope of muggle artistic endeavour. We may be limited in our ability to speak Parseltongue and banish Dementors, but as a result our creative problem solving is refined and our ability to charm not at all diminished by lack of ‘real’ magic.
Realising this was a relief in all honesty. One of my concerns about the Warner Bros. Studio Tour was that seeing behind the scenes might sap the magic from the films. But rest assured, fellow fan*, that is not the case at all.
What it will do is make you understand the enormous amount of work it takes to produce eight fantasy films on such a massive scale and appreciate the creativity and attention to detail all the more. Plus you get to go to Hogwarts. FINALLY.
“And now Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”
Let the photo tour begin. (Contains spoilers.)
On arrival you’ll queue with your fellow tour mates. It’s an unremarkable part of the day, except… what’s that! Only the cupboard under the stairs where Harry spent the first eleven years of his life!
Enter a dark room clad in large LCD panels and watch a short film which explains the worldwide Harry hype (just in case you weren’t aware).
Move along, move along! Into the cinema we go. No, we’re not going to watch all eight films back to back, jokes the compere (while I make a mental note to set aside a weekend sometime soon to do just that). Instead we hear from Watson, Grint and Radcliffe about what it was like growing up on set – all fun and formative and family friendly, it seems (what pay disputes? What hissy fits? What latent alcoholism?).
“I open at the close.”
The preamble ends and we are told it is time to start our tour. But where do we go? There is no exit to this room! Someone must have muttered alohomora, for suddenly the cinema screen — bearing the image of the doors to Great Hall — starts to rise, revealing behind it the actual doors to the Great Hall. Everyone gasps and the doors swing open. Oh, oh, oh, it’s magic, y’know?
If you need me to explain the significance of the Great Hall to you, then I can probably point you to other blog posts more relevant to your interests. Robes from each of the houses, along with those of Moaning Myrtle and the Grey Lady are on display, alongside the costume Daniel Radcliffe wore in the first film.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
My nerdy Potter needs were catered for by an abundance of Hogwarts sets: the boy’s dormitory, the Gryffindor common room, the potions dungeon and my personal favourite, Dumbledore’s office. Frustratingly, you can’t actually explore them. It’s understandable that they want to preserve them and allow people to take tourist-free photos, but the desire to hop the fence and dunk my face in the pensieve was almost overwhelming.
Hogwarts sets aren’t the only ones on display though, there’s also the opportunity to see inside The Burrow, as well as the Ministry of Magic.
There are tons of significant props around. I especially enjoyed looking at the horcruxes, the designs of which are all based on artefacts from the V&A museum.
One highlight for me was learning about the training of the owls, dogs and cats that star in the films. Mainly it made me wish I did animal training as my job.
We solemnly swear we are up to no good.
I can’t show you any pictures of me riding a broomstick (no cameras allowed) but I promise you, I totally did. Through London, through the countryside and then over Hogwarts. I can show you a picture of me and my fellow Potter pals in the Weasley’s flying Ford though. It’s worth visiting the green-screen area even if you don’t plan on forking out for the extortionate souvenir photographs, because it’s hilarious watching your friends pretending to fly on a broom.
There are only two places in the world that sell official butterbeer and WB Studios, Leavesden is one of them. It received mixed reviews among our little group of three. I liked it, the others didn’t. It was very sweet — almost like a coke float, but without the distinctive coke taste. The cream was reminiscent of the layer that forms on top of ice cream sodas, but with more structural integrity. I’m sad to admit this, but it was slightly disappointing. It seems to have been tailored towards an American sweet tooth, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.
Head outside and you’ll find some of the bigger props and buildings from the set. There’s the Knight Bus, Hagrid’s motorbike, the old Ford and the giant wizard chess pieces, along with Privet Drive, the Potter’s Cottage in Godric’s Hollow and Tom Riddle’s Grave. Let’s not forget the rickety Hogwarts bridge, upon which my friends saw fit to re-enact a touching scene between Harry and Hermione.
“For in dreams, we enter a world that’s entirely our own.”
Then for my two favourite parts of the day. The Diagon Alley chapter in the first book is my favourite chapter in any of the Potter chronicles, so obviously I was completely enchanted to be able to wander down the cobbles myself. If only I could have gone into the shops to explore properly, Ironbridge style.
Concept art, from which the sets, costumes and overall aesthetics of the films were designed, led the way to handmade paper maquettes of the sets and Hogwarts itself. Nothing though could have prepared me for what was coming next.
I don’t know how long I spent with the huge scale model of Hogwarts in all, but I examined it from every angle and watched the lighting swizzle through its day-to-night cycle many times over. I think I must have fallen into a Hogwarts-induced daze, and I can promise you the many many pictures I took of it definitley don’t do it justice. Go. See.
“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
So there you have it: a highly recommended, utterly magical day out for Potter geeks of all ages. If it were within my capabilities to conjure a cheering charm, I most definitely would. We muggles may never get to visit the real Hogwarts, but there’s plenty here to make you feel like you get to share in the magic a little, albeit briefly.
If, like me, you don’t manage to avoid the Confundo curse lingering in the gift shop, you might just be compelled to hand over vast swathes of money and take a little of that magic home with you too.
Here’s an idea of what costs might be involved if you visited on a day trip from London:
Train from London to Watford (with YP railcard) — £6.40
Return bus from Watford to the attraction — £2
Entrance (adult) — £29
Butterbeer (small) — £3
Souvenir photographs — £12 (for one), £16 (for two), £21 (for three)
Gryffindor scarf — £25
Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans — £9
Chocolate Frog — £8
*A note to non-Potter fans: you will probably not enjoy this tour. If your children are not in the throes of Pottermania, they will probably not enjoy it either. It’s not a theme park like Disneyland where you can turn up and it doesn’t matter if they haven’t actually seen all the movies. It’s a place for purists, so think on that before splashing out on tickets.