I was nine years old when I picked up my first JK Rowling novel and was taken into the enchanting world of Harry Potter. Growing up on tales of magic faraway trees, princesses, Narnia, hobbits and spells, there could not have been a more perfect series to capture my imagination at that exact time. Rowling weaved an intricate web of characters, places, events and times reminiscent of so many great fantasy authors before her. For me, Harry Potter was always about the literature, but when I heard the studios were being turned into a tourist attraction just outside of London I knew I could not miss a chance to visit.
If you are in London and in any way a fan, I would recommend a visit to the studios. Entry is about $50AUD and gives you a self-guided tour of the magical place where the eight films were shot. The recommended time to complete the tour is three hours and although we did it in half that, I can see how easily you could spend a whole day admiring the set up.
The films were such a large-scale production and there are literally thousands upon thousands of props, costumes, sets and designs to feast your eyes on. If you’re not a huge fan, the sheer magnitude of the studio is enough to impress, but if you’re a bit of a diehard freak fan like myself you will start to annoy yourself with the amount of times you say ‘oh my god’. From the Great Hall to the Gryffindor common room to the Weasley’s burrow to Hagrid’s cottage – there is so much detail and work in every last piece. Staff are on hand to share amusing anecdotes and little-known facts about the production and the cast. One of the guides I spoke to had been an extra on two of the films and I don’t think they could have hired a more enthusiastic guy to introduce the tour if they tried. I mean, he really loved his job.
When you first arrive you watch a bit of a film about the history of Harry Potter, from JK Rowling first starting writing on the train to the publishing of the books, the idea for the films and the ensuing Potter-mania that followed. From there you are let into the Great Hall with the same ‘welcome to Hogwarts’ that Harry first heard when he arrived and even minus the enchanted ceiling the site is no less impressive. You are given time to explore each section before you move on and believe me, there is a lot to take in. The next room is made up of different parts of sets that were used for particular films, like the Yule Ball sets and my favorite of costumes – Fleur Delacour’s uniform. You are then free to roam from the entrance to Dumbledore’s office to the Chamber of Secrets to the Ministry of Magic as you please. Some of the sets are whole while others are only pieces of what would have been completed and enhanced by CGI.
Outside on the back lot you are greeted by the three-level Knight Bus, the Weasley’s blue car from the Chamber of Secrets, Hagrid’s bike, Number 4 Privet Drive and Godric’s Hollow where the Potters were killed. There is even a chance to taste some Butterbeer, which at first I was a bit hesitant about because I actually hate beer, but once I saw some tiny children drinking it I realised it was basically a ginger beer spider and so I happily sipped away.
Although the sets were impressive, the costumes magnificent and the scale truly mind-blowing, the last part of the tour was where I was really impressed. After walking through Diagon Alley, which made me feel like I should be shopping for my wand and school books before setting off to Hogwarts, you got to enter another part of the production. It was all the ‘behind the scenes’ fun, from the artists’ studios to the creature workshop to the absolutely indescribable scale model of Hogwarts that has been used to shoot exterior shots for every film. It took my breath away with its extravagance.
Of course the tour finished with a stop to the overpriced gift shop, but since I had travelled that far I couldn’t leave without stocking up on chocolate frogs and Gryffindor merchandise for myself and friends back home. When I say overpriced though, I mean extremely overpriced. I would hate to be on the tour with small children, because I know even I wanted about 10 things for myself and I can imagine it would be hard for parents to justify more than $100 for a jumper, $60 for a tshirt and $15 for a single chocolate frog. But then again, how often are you at the famous school for witchcraft and wizardry?