In case you hadn’t noticed already I’m a bit obsessed with books. From a quote from Lord of the Rings tattooed on my back, to more than 500 books sitting on the shelves at home, or the fact that my Kindle is one of my most precious travel essentials, it’s pretty obvious that reading is a big part of my life.
Of course like any self respecting book worm a lot of my travel plans are inspired by, and centre around books.
In the next year of travel I’m planning a huge detour from Greece to London for the Harry Potter Play, a train ride on the Hogwarts Express, a visit to Norway to see the Northern Lights (because who doesn’t love Phillip Pullman), a tour of the Scottish Highlands inspired by my love of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and a trip to Romania and Bulgaria to travel the route taken by the protagonist in one of my favourite books; the Historian.
But my first super nerd moment of this trip was visiting the Harry Potter Studios at Watford Junction, just outside of London.
To be perfectly honest I wasn’t the greatest fan of the film adaptions. I’m one of those people that gets extremely pissed off when movies break cannon (like seriously James Potter was a Chaser, why the hell are they wearing Muggle clothes in the third film and who thought it would be a great idea to take the final battle between Harry and Voldemort outside of the Great Hall?).
That said I was extremely sad to finish the last film because it seemed like the end of an era (at least until JK surprised us with a play!). And like any Harry Potter fanatic the idea of embracing the magic that is Harry Potter Studios was a bucket list item despite my far from glowing reviews of the film.
In order to control the crowds there are only a select amount of tickets to Harry Potter Studios available and in busy times they sell out fast. I was only able to get a ticket for the 5th of January because that was when school holidays finished so there was availability two weeks before. But if you are planning on heading to London in the summer I’d think about booking tickets now.
You get allotted a particular time slot and my number one piece of advice is to pick the 9.30am one. The reason for this is that even though they control the amount of people going in, once inside you can spend as much time as you want. Hence the crowd is always smaller if you go in the first one or two time slots as only a small amount of the daily crowd has entered the building.
More importantly, it also gives you the full day to engage in Harry Potter madness. I wouldn’t plan on doing anything else in London this day, as if you are as Harry Potter obsessed as me than you aren’t going to return to London until at least 3pm.
Beginning the Harry Potter Studios Tour
The first thing you do when you finally enter the studio is watch a film that has been put together on the studios and the making of Harry Potter. It’s narrated by none other than our Harry Potter favourites; Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint and it gives you some insight into the family that was the Harry potter cast and crew during the ten years that they filmed here.
The Great Hall
After the film you are ushered into what is for many, the highlight of the whole tour of the studios and that is the Great Hall. It was particularly special when I went because it was decked out for winter and the short time I spent in the Hall made me massively regret not being fast enough to get tickets to the Christmas Dinner in the Great Hall event.
It’s smaller than it appears on the screen, especially when you imagine it packed full of all of the Hogwarts student extras and the camera crew. This is the only part of the studios that is actually ‘guided’ which was great because our guide gave us some information about how they made Hagrid so large (basically a stunt double), how they made the ceiling in the Great Hall and whether or not the food was real (hint it wasn’t).
But I felt like our time in the Great Hall was a little rushed, I would have liked some more time to really look at all of the pieces of the set rather than being rushed through after taking a couple of photos.
That’s why the rest of the studio is brilliant because you can explore at your leisure.
It’s only when touring the studios that you realise how much of an operation creating the Harry Potter films was. And the way they are set out in their respective fields of work makes this very obvious.
The first stop is the costume, hair and makeup departments. You get to see original costume designs and some very familiar wigs such as Bellatrix’s hair and even Hagrid’s beard. What was most interesting about this section was how different sets of the same costume had to be made for different scenes; such as a fresh clean jacket for Harry, and than the exact same jacket with burn marks for after a battle.
Exploring the Film Sets
But while costume design is interesting, the next part of the tour was even more exciting. Whilst during the films sets were always changing; getting pulled down, rebuilt, redressed, for the studio tour they have left some of the more familiar sets there for us to see. The Gryffindor Boy’s Dormitory, the Gryffindor Common Room, the Burrow, the Potions Classroom, Dumbledore’s Office and Hagrid’s Hut are some of the most popular sets that you’ll find.
But rather than just let you look at the familiar sets, at the Studio you’ll find lots of explanations about how different scenes were made. I especially loved the information videos along the way that gave a unique insight into the making of the film.
For example, hardly any of the outside scenes were shot on location; instead a separate team would go and shot the surroundings (in Scotland for example) while at the studio the actors would complete the scene on the green stage. The visual effects team would then put it all together to get what we see on the screen.
The Props Team
The props team are incredible. Every single item you see in the films was either bought or even made by the prop team. They went shopping all over London for things like the cat plates in Umbridge’s Office, but then handmade props such as the Triwizard Cup.
It’s something I never thought about when watching the films but every painting on the walls of Hogwarts was hand painted by artists, the sculptures in the Ministry of Magic were designed and made by a sculpture and the walls of the Ministry of Magic were painstakingly painted and lacquered by the set team to get that awesome finish (it’s one of my favourite sets). It’s easy when watching the films to forget how much detail goes into producing a film set.
Platform 9 3/4
After wandering through some of the sets I arrived at Platform 9 ¾ where of course I found the Hogwarts Express. As you have probably noticed I tend to avoid taking photos of myself when travelling (as I seriously just ruin a good photo by being in it) but I was so excited about the Hogwarts express that I quickly asked someone to snap a photo of me.
After you leave Platform 9 ¾ you arrive at the café where you can sample the famous Butterbeer. Most of my friends had warned me about the Butterbeer, labelling it sickly sweet and disgusting. I actually found it pretty delicious, and it was my only “meal” of the day!
The café is meant to mark the halfway point of the tour but the section after the café is definitely shorter. The café leads right out to the backlot, the outdoor area that was used for filming when an outdoor setting or just more space was needed.
The backlot is home to many familiar props and sets including 4 Privet Drive, the Knight’s Bus, Sirius’ Motorcycle and the Hogwarts Bridge. I didn’t linger too long as it was a cold day in London.
The Creature Shop
Once I headed back into the warmth I found myself in the creature shop, where some of our favourite magical creatures came to life. Visual effects were obviously used, but all of the creatures were first created in physical form by the creature shop.
Buckbeak for example was completely designed by the creature shop and even equipped with mechanical controls to get some of the movements used in the film. Whilst Dobby was almost completely computer engineered.
One of the highlights of the whole tour for me was being able to walk down Diagon Alley. It was another time that called for a selfie where I usually wouldn’t take them.
Of course Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes was my favourite! All of the stores are unique in their own way and the attention to detail that went in to designing and creating them is obvious when you are this close.
The Art Department and Hogwarts Castle
After leaving Diagon Alley you find yourself in the Art Department. The Art Department is where everything started. They were the first to design the sets, the props and even the costumes. They were basically the architects of the Harry Potter film franchise- everything began with them. The talent of these artists is evident from some of the incredible art that is hung on the wall.
But the most formidable example of their work is the Hogwarts Castle. It’s amazing what camera angles and camera work can do. From the films it is easy to imagine a giant Hogwarts Castle built in the middle of nowhere which was used for filming.
But instead, Hogwarts Castle was actually a paper design that was less than two metres high and fit into a studio. All of the scenes where you see the outside of Hogwarts were filmed using this model. It’s crazy!!
The studio finishes with one of the greatest displays of the magic of the Harry Potter Film team and that’s the hundreds of individual wand boxes that were handmade by the art and prop department!
Of course the very last stop of the tour was the merchandise shop. I usually don’t buy souvenirs, not having the room for them in my bag. But I threw that out the window this time and bought myself a Gryffindor hoodie. It was totally justifiable, as I’d just lost my other one the week before!
If I had the money, what I would really love to buy is some of the art work and designs by the graphics department that are sold in the store. Who wouldn’t want a print of the Quibbler decorating your home office? It’s definitely something I’ll be looking into when I finally have a place of my own, and maybe a full time job!
Harry Potter Studios is located just outside of London. It’s relatively easy to reach Watford Junction station in less than an hour and you can use your Oyster Card. The return journey will cost you £16.60 during peak hour or £10.60 off peak. You can then jump on the Harry Potter Shuttle Bus that leaves from just outside the station for an additional £3 return.
Tickets for the Studios cost £35 and sell out quickly so be sure to book well in advance. You can book them here.