Pottering around Harry's Britain

By Jim Eagles

Britain is bursting with Harry Potter location sites. Jim Eagles, a one-time neighbour of the boy wizard, takes a tour.

Life gets more menacing for Hermione, Harry and Ron in 'The Prisoner of Azkaban'. Photo / Supplied
Life gets more menacing for Hermione, Harry and Ron in 'The Prisoner of Azkaban'. Photo / Supplied

I was once a neighbour of Harry Potter. Of course, I didn't know it at the time, although I do recall thinking there were a lot of owls in the district, and I seem to remember one that appeared to be carrying an envelope in its claw.

Harry's home in Privet Drive - or to be more precise the home of his appalling Muggle relations the Dursleys - is set in Picket Post Close, Martins Heron, Bracknell, not far from London.

For a few months some years ago, I worked for the Dursleys' local paper, the Bracknell News, and boarded with a couple who lived quite close to Martins Heron. Back then it was a quiet area with pretensions to being a refined old town rather than a vulgar new town.

But these days it is probably thronged with the tourists who are flocking to anywhere the boy wizard has ever been sighted.

So great is the Pottermania that every possible place where scenes from the films have been shot has been carefully tracked, documented and placed on a tour itinerary for fans from around the world.

Small wonder that British Tourism last year awarded the Harry Potter books and films its English tourism Oscar - previous recipients include the Queen and Manchester United.

But if you want the real Harry Potter tour of Britain then clearly someone who has not only read all the books, seen all the films and scoured all the fan websites but also been a sort of neighbour of the young man is the perfect guide.

So come with me on a mystical journey to some of the most marvellous and historic places in Britain, which have gained new lustre through their association with the magic of J.K. Rowling's stories.

Our journey should probably begin in the ancient Saxon village of Lacock, in northwest Wiltshire, which has few buildings later than 1800 and still exudes a medieval atmosphere.

Lacock was apparently the basis of Godric's Hollow, where Harry lived with his parents before they were killed by You-Know-Who.

Then we move to Bracknell, in Berkshire, for many years a peaceful rural community, but opened up for people such as the Dursleys when the Muggle planners chose it as one of a ring of new towns to be developed around London.

It was there the orphaned Harry was raised until his magical powers began to develop as his 11th birthday approached.

Off, then, to London Zoo in Regent's Park which, in its secret life as Little Whinging Zoo, was where Harry discovered the ability to communicate with the snakes in the Reptile House.

After that came the invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You can meet some relations of the owls that tried to deliver that fateful message at London Zoo but an even better place to see them perform is the National Bird of Prey Centre in Gloucester.

Then, of course, we have to follow Harry to Diagon Alley, in London, to buy the supplies he needs for wizard school.

Gringott's Bank is the secret identity of Australia House, in the Strand, home of the Australian High Commission - an appropriate choice, you might think, for a place run by goblins - although the vast marble floor where the film scenes were shot is a secure area opened to the public only once a year on a special open day.

The alley where the wizard shops were found is a mixture of Bull's Head Passage in Leadenhall Market and London's famous Charing Cross Rd and well worth the effort for even Muggles to go looking for goodies.

After the hard work of shopping you probably feel like a magically reviving ale so let's repair to the Leaky Cauldron Pub, a combination of two adjacent hostelries in London's Market Borough, the Wheatsheaf and the Market Porter.

Refreshed and laden with owl, wand and magical sweets, we should head for the station to catch the Hogwarts Express.

Platform 9 3/4 from which the express departs is, in ordinary life, Platform 4 at London's King's Cross Station but many of the exterior station shots used in the films were of St Pancras Station across the city.

The express runs mainly on the West Highlands Railway Line in Scotland - from Craigendoran (near Glasgow) to Fort William, passing under the shadow of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain - but it also uses the Waterloo and City underground lines.

The train is actually locomotive 5972, Olton Hall, owned by the West Coast Railway Company, a private firm based in Carnforth, Lancashire, which runs charter passenger steam trains.

The Hogwarts Express does not do regular trips but it will be on display at Britain's National Railway Museum in York later this year and the train will make a special run this month.

Hogsmeade Station is Goathland Station, in the moorlands of Esk Valley, North Yorkshire, part of a line owned by the North York Moors Historical Railway Trust, which runs passenger services with steam and diesel locomotives.

When Harry disembarks at Hogsmeade the imposing exterior of Hogwarts School that greets him is mostly that of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, for 700 years home of the Percys, Dukes and Earls of Northumberland, and the second-largest inhabited castle in England.

The castle's central courtyard is where Harry got his broomstick flying lessons and was one of the main venues for games of Quidditch.

Alnwick Castle is open daily from April 1 to October 29 so we can follow Harry's footsteps around the ancient building and its beautiful grounds.

The rest of Hogwarts comes from many places. The entrance hall of venerable Christ Church College, Oxford, with its 16th-century staircase and magnificent vaulted roof, was Hogwarts' entrance hall, where Professor Minerva McGonagall greeted Harry and the other newcomers. Christ Church's Great Hall formed the basis of the school dining hall, and its cloisters provided the Hogwarts trophy room where Harry was shown the trophy his father won as a Quidditch seeker.

The college, founded in 1524, is open daily for tours which cover its extraordinary history and remarkable architecture to Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland.

The Hogwarts library, with its ancient and sometimes sinister volumes, was a combination of the Duke Humfrey's Library, in the Bodleian Library, also in Oxford, the library at snooty Harrow School, northwest London, and Alnwick Castle's guest hall.

The school sanatorium, where Harry recovered after his battles, was the Divinity School, Bodleian Library. Some classroom scenes were at Durham Cathedral, while others were at historic Lacock Abbey, adjacent to the village we visited earlier. Founded in 1232, Lacock Abbey is now run by Britain's National Trust and is open daily.

The abbey is also the home of a photographic museum which commemorates the work of a former resident, William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the negative/positive photographic process.

Many of the films' ghostly events were shot at Gloucester Cathedral, notably Moaning Myrtle, many of the talking pictures and the mysterious red writing on the wall.

It's hardly surprising if ghosts are there because the cathedral dates back 1300 years and over the centuries has seen kings crowned and buried.

The Dean is excited about its involvement and proudly advises in the cathedral website that, "The best shot of the cloisters is from the girls' lavatory door in the troll scene".

Other interesting places we can pop in on include the rambling Weasley home, the Burrow, which was built in Gypsy Lane, Hunton Bridge, by the village of Watford in southwest Hertfordshire.

Hagrid's Hut in the Forbidden Forest was in Black Park, Iver, Buckinghamshire, just outside London. The terrible prison of Azkaban is believed to have been on remote, windswept, uninhabited Huskeiran Isle, off the coast of the Monach Islands, part of the Outer Hebrides.

Harry's terrifying flight in the Weasley's Ford Anglia mainly happened around the Glenfinnan Viaduct, near Mallaig, in the Highlands, and it ended with a crash landing in the inner bailey of Alnwick Castle.

So, a Harry Potter tour is an excuse to visit many of the most fascinating places in Britain but many of the tours go even further. Some offer the chance to play a kind of Muggle Quidditch (one version is advertised as "designed by the National Governing Body for the Olympic Sport of Team Handball in the US").

You can go to a special Harry Potter weekend hosted by Percy Weasley (actor Chris Rankin).

Tri-wizard tournaments, treasure hunts and magical banquets are also on offer.

But, just to be sure patrons don't get too excited, one tour operator carries the disclaimer, "Please be advised that Harry Potter is a fictional character and that you will not actually be seeing Harry on the tour".

Well, that's what they say. But between you and me I'm sure Harry was the wee lad with glasses and tousled hair I saw float on to a rooftop in the old Bracknell High St as I walked home from the Red Lion one evening.

The following is a small selection of the scores of Harry Potter tours on offer:

* British Tours offers a 10-hour tour of Oxford and Gloucester.

* Lynott Tours has two six-day self-drive tours, one in Scotland and the North of England, the other in the south of England.

* London Taxi Tours offers a variety of tours in a London taxi, including a 10-hour trip around London and Oxford.

Other links can be reached through visitbritain.com.

Among the many Harry Potter fan sites on the internet which keep close track of places associated with the young wizard are: danradcliffe.co.uk, the Harry Potter Automatic News Aggregator, FictionAlley, mugglenet.com, ukharrypotter.com, the Harry Potter Lexicon, Dark Mark, diagon.org, Wizard News and the self-proclaimed Official Harry Potter site.

- NZ Herald

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