In 1997, when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released, my dear mother heard the words “witch” and “dark magic” and vowed her children would never read such horrible books. Thus, I grew up away from the fandom which gripped an era soon to be dubbed The Millennials. By high school, I had heard enough praise of J. K. Rowling’s actual writing ability (rather than the stories themselves) to spark my interest, as an aspiring writer, to at least read the novels. Yet, I didn’t.
So it was that I approached college without ever having read or watched Harry Potter in any form. I take that back – there was a puppet theatre YouTube video that I had been made to watch one time, prior to taking the role of Dumbledore in a reenactment.
Turns out, my first college roommate was a major Potterhead. She quickly rectified the situation by making me watch all the movies. I enjoyed them and promptly shared them with my younger siblings, but that was pretty much where it ended.
Until Iceland. Duh, duh, duuuuuuuuuuh. Let the tour begin!
Okay, so don’t take me too seriously here. Obviously, there’s nothing specifically related to the Harry Potter franchise in Iceland. However, it was on a bookshelf in my host home in the small town of Hvolsvollur that I found books 3-7 in English. That’s right – I started right in with The Prisoner of Azkaban and still haven’t actually read the first two books. So sad.
If it hadn’t been for reading these books in Iceland, my following trip to the United Kingdom probably would have had a lot less focus on finding Potter-themed sights. I really don’t like to call myself a “fan” of anything, since it calls to mind those lunatics dressing up for conventions and plastering their walls with posters (some of whom are my bestest friends – love you all!). However, I was enthralled by the depth of Rowling’s characters and plot, and I had to admit that I greatly admired her writing skills.
And so, I set out for Edinburgh with a far greater interest in a certain list of places than I had expected.
Apparently, J. K. Rowling is from Edinburgh. Got to be honest – I didn’t even know she was Scottish prior to arriving there. If you want to explore the Potter side of this beautiful and hilly city, there are four things you’ll not want to miss.
The first is The Elephant House, a small, previously-insignificant café where Rowling spent much time writing (due to a cup of coffee being cheaper than her heating bill, from what I’ve been told). The proprietors have clearly used her fame to their advantage, claiming that they are the “Birthplace of Harry Potter,” but I beg to differ. Characters are born in the author’s imagination, not a latte.
According to other people’s reviews, there are signatures from both Rowling and a few other famous authors on the back walls, and the line to get in is usually quite long. I was there in the middle of July (isn’t that the height of tourist season?), and there was no line out the door, so I wouldn’t worry about that too much. Unfortunately, I had just eaten, so I couldn’t justify buying more food just to see the back room. But hey, there it is: a writer’s beginning.
The next stop isn’t too far away: look for the Greyfriar’s Bobby statue and pub, and you’ll be close to it. With a view of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (that means a graveyard, if you didn’t know) from Elephant House, Rowling is said to have used it as inspiration for the graveyard scene during the Triwizard Tournament in Book 4. She also found a lot of character names on the graves themselves, including Tom Riddle. Prepare for quite a search if you want to locate You-Know-Who’s grave (or his father’s grave?) – it’s not exactly huge and intimidating.
Nearby, you can find George Heriot’s School. This is said to have been Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts due to its four turrets. I’d like that one confirmed though, cause from what I saw of it, there was little-to-no resemblance. I couldn’t even see any towers. I saw a lot of castles in Northern Scotland that were a far better match for the stately wizard school.
The last Potter stop in Edinburgh is the Balmoral Hotel. This is a gorgeous building, but it doesn’t have much relation to the wizarding world. Distracted at home, Rowling booked a room in this hotel when writing the final book and is said to have finished it here. They also say she carved her name into a piece of furniture in the room, though that could be total speculation.
You can take Harry Potter-themed walking tours of Edinburgh, if you are into that sort of thing (I am not), but none of these places are difficult to find on your own. And my favorite Scottish-Potter-sight is the one that is actually in the movies – the Glenfinnian Viaduct.
Between the towns of Fort William and Mallaig, on the west coast of Northern Scotland, there runs a train line. Mostly just a completely normal train line for everyday transportation. However, this track runs over a bridge between two mountains which is called The Glenfinnian Viaduct and apparently took 100 years to build. Or to put it in more recognizable terms: it’s the track to Hogwarts!
The Jacobite train is an old steamer that looks a lot like the Hogwarts Express. (Whether they actually used this train for filming, I’m not sure – the inside looks nothing like what you see in the movies.) You can pay to take this steam train from Fort William to Mallaig and back, with a two-hour layover between (or one-way if you prefer – you can take the ferry from Mallaig to Skye instead of returning to Fort William). On the way, you get to stop at a little museum right after the viaduct and a café inside an old train car.
Naturally, as the train crosses the viaduct, everyone goes running to the windows to take as many pictures as their camera will allow. It’s not the greatest view through the glass though. I got super lucky – I was on the seat right by the platform between cars, and no sooner had we begun to cross, then I feel a tap on my shoulder. One of the conductors motioned for me to follow him. He took me between the two cars, where a larger window in the door allows you to lean your whole body out of the train and get way better photos. Not only was it an amazing view, but the feeling of the wind and being that far from the ground was breathtaking. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my entire four months abroad.
Before long, I was on a bus to London, far more invested in seeing anything related to the franchise. Unfortunately, tickets to the new stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, are sold out until… well, seemingly forever, so I settled for purchasing the script in Glasgow and reading it on the ten-hour bus trip.
Though a bridge collapsing is only briefly mentioned in the book, the sixth movie has a whole scene showing the Death Eaters destroying a rather new-age bridge across the Thames. That would be the Millennium Bridge, which creates a footpath between St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tate Modern Art Museum. No sign of Death Eaters when I crossed.
London has a lot of beautiful and fun markets and arcades where you can shop and eat to your heart’s content. Leadenhall Market, in the downtown Bank district, is small compared to many of the others and doesn’t have a lot of stores (though there are some good restaurants). However, you don’t want to miss it if you’re a Potter fan – it is said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley, and you can tell when you see the narrow, covered, cobblestone streets. Whether it inspired the author or the movie-makers, I’m not sure, but it certainly has a magical feel.
Then, of course, there’s the thing every Potterhead wants to see in London: Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station. So naturally, I went. During the day, there will be a long line of fans waiting to take their picture with the disappearing trolley (which is actually located next to the Harry Potter store right now, rather than between platforms 9 and 10). You can have a friend snap a photo, or you can buy a professional one taken by the super-experienced, extremely-bored teens working there. Or… you can wait until night when the store is closed and there isn’t a person around, bring your own scarf and wand, and take all the pictures you want.
The store is definitely worth stopping in as well. Get all your themed merchandise, from Quidditch uniforms to Potter glasses to realistic copies of your favorite character’s wand!
Bonus Sights (AKA things I didn’t see)
Now I’m sure that all great fans know this (since I was informed by a great fan/my former roommate), but if you’re wondering why King’s Cross Station doesn’t look anything like the scenes in the movies, it’s because Rowling seems to have described Charing Cross Station and simply confused the names when she first wrote about it. I mean, she was all the way up in Edinburgh, so… it happens. The movie location scouts chose to stay true to her description and film the scenes at Charing Cross, but knowing that all the tourists would come running to King’s Cross, the platform, trolley, and store were set up there. Though I came in and out of the Charing Cross Underground Station many times, I never actually wandered into the train station.
I had decided ahead of time that I didn’t want to do any traveling outside of London, letting the focus remain on the endless list of things to do within the city instead. However, a short way beyond London, you can find the Warner Brothers Studio Harry Potter Tour. If you want a backstage look at sets, props, and costumes from the movies, go check it out! It’s definitely on my list for another visit.
And there you have my journey through the United Kingdom, from a half-hearted interest in the Harry Potter franchise to an undeniable fandom. I may since have joined Pottermore. And been sorted into Ravenclaw. And been assigned a flexible, 12.5-inch, poplar wand with a dragon heartstring core. Oh well, I already have wizard friends from my year in Orlando, so might as well dive in headfirst.