Go potty for Harry

This month, it will be 20 years since Harry Pot­ter And The Philoso­pher’s Stone by JK Rowling was first pub­lished. In hon­our of the mag­i­cal an­niver­sary, Ella Walker em­barks on a be­witch­ing tour of the UK’s Pot­ter film­ing lo­ca­tions

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - TRAVEL -

I’m be­ing bowed to by an an­i­ma­tronic hip­pogriff. And not just any old hip­pogriff, but Buck­beak — Ha­grid’s Buck­beak. He twitches and tilts his head at me, be­fore stretch­ing his neck mag­is­te­ri­ally to­wards the floor, the thou­sands of in­di­vid­u­ally hand-glued feath­ers cov­er­ing his mech­a­nised body as mal­leable and shim­mer­ing as iri­des­cent rain­bow streaks in an oily pud­dle.

Aged 28 and stand­ing in the oth­er­worldly twi­light of the Warner Bros. Stu­dio Tour’s ‘Mak­ing of Harry Pot­ter’ For­bid­den For­est, flanked by 12-foot-wide faux-mossy tree trunks, it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be mes­merised by the horse-sized robot.

But my 8-year-old self ? She would have lost her mind. From 1997 on­wards, I did all of my grow­ing up with Harry, Ron and Hermione, sur­viv­ing a not-so mag­i­cal com­pre­hen­sive while they went to Hog­warts School of Witchcraft And Wizardry, and saved us mug­gles from the wrath of Volde­mort.

On Mon­day, it will be 20 years since Harry Pot­ter And The Philoso­pher’s Stone orig­i­nally hit book shelves, so I’m on a Pot­ter pil­grim­age to dis­cover the lo­ca­tions that ap­peared in the sub­se­quent film adap­ta­tions. Leaves­den stu­dios, just a 15-minute (Knight) bus ride from Wat­ford sta­tion, is the Hol­ly­wood ren­der­ing of Rowling’s daz­zling imag­i­na­tion, a store­house of trin­kets, wigs, sets and arte­facts from all eight films (2001-2011).

Three hulk­ing, malev­o­lent wizard chess­men (com­peti­tors in Ron’s deadly match in the first movie) stand guard in the car park. Drip­ping rust; the knight lug­ging a spiked ball and chain, poised to let it fly as vis­i­tors — light­ning bolts scrawled on their fore­heads to match Harry’s Volde­mort in­flicted scar — pose gid­dily be­neath.

In­side is as crammed and hig­gledy-pig­gledy as the Weasley’s Bur­row, which — in this col­lapsed and con­found­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal remap­ping of the wizard­ing world — is found next to the potions room, where drifts of cloudy bell jars swim with du­bi­ous, tan­gled sub­stances. How­ever en­chant­ing and im­pres­sive it is to see ‘be­hind the scenes’, it does some­what dampen the magic to be con­stantly re­minded of the dis­tinct, gras­pable line be­tween fic­tion and re­al­ity.

Look up from Pro­fes­sor Snape’s robes, which hang up­set­tingly mo­tion­less be­side Pro­fes­sor Dum­ble­dore’s in the over­whelm­ing ex­panse of the Great Hall, and an ex­posed ribcage of a ceil­ing, spiked through with scaf­fold­ing, gapes wide where Rowling’s en­chanted sky ought to be.

A se­ries of beau­ti­ful ar­chi­tec­tural blue­prints and model sets — in­clud­ing an in­tri­cate match­stick dummy of the owlery, where itty-bitty il­lus­trated owls sit, ready and wait­ing to de­liver wizard­ing mail — re­veal the films’ skele­tal frames, while the hun­dreds of peel­ing wand boxes that but­tress the win­dows of Ol­li­van­ders store, we’re told, were each painstak­ingly hand la­belled by set dressers (not wand-mak­ers).

At Al­nwick Cas­tle, an hour’s drive north of New­cas­tle — its bulky Nor­man walls the scuffed gold-black of an old pound coin — the line be­tween liv­ing the magic and just look­ing, is bril­liantly dis­guised.

In­stead of obey­ing ‘Keep off the grass’ signs, bud­ding Quid­ditch play­ers (ahem, me in­cluded) run amok on the frog-green lawns (broom­stick train­ing ses­sions are free, but it’s wise to book in ad­vance), mim­ick­ing Harry’s fate­ful first fly­ing les­son, which was filmed in the cas­tle’s outer bai­ley. The blocky in­ner bai­ley is also where, in The Cham­ber Of Se­crets, Harry and Ron crash Mr Weasley’s cerulean flight-en­abled Ford An­glia.

There’s no stately stuffi­ness at Al­nwick, partly be­cause it’s still a home. Owner Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northum­ber­land, lives here with his fam­ily (Oc­to­ber to March — for the hunt­ing sea­son), and the ev­i­dence is ev­ery­where.

Furry bean bags for the dogs fan out in front of an in­con­gru­ently huge flat screen TV in the or­nate, gilded li­brary, while in the draw­ing room, cast your eyes up and away from two wildly valu­able 17 th cen­tury Cucci Cab­i­nets that once stood in the Palace of Ver­sailles. Fol­low­ing a break­fast of eggs and ba­con that Hog­warts’ house-elves would be proud of at the Hog’s Head Inn, Al­nwick, the fourth wall slips even fur­ther in Durham City.

We turn the cor­ner on cob­bled Owen­gate and the thick­set Nor­man Cathe­dral surges into view. It’s bulky and deeply rooted, its bricks stacked, crenel­lated and crinkly.

When de­vel­op­ing how the ‘Hol­ly­wood’ Hog­warts would look, the de­sign­ers sim­ply copied and pasted Durham Cathe­dral’s main tower, but it’s the 15th cen­tury clois­ters that make you feel as though you’re re­ally walk­ing the wizard­ing school’s cor­ri­dors. What be­came, on cel­lu­loid, a snowy quad­rant where Harry re­leases his owl Hed­wig, on a blus­tery Northum­ber­land morn­ing is a lush square, ablaze with sun­light, en­closed by flag­stones and the ghosts of the Bene­dic­tine monks.

I swoosh up and down, my imag­i­nary robes whirling as I turn each cor­ner of the square — all that’s miss­ing is the scratch of a striped Gryffindor scarf around my neck.

On the North York­shire Moors Rail­way, dreams of at­tend­ing Hog­warts are closer still.

Goath­land Sta­tion, a 20-minute drive from Whitby, dou­bled as Hogsmeade — the wizard­ing vil­lage where the Hog­warts Ex­press pulls in — in the early Harry Pot­ter films. And al­though there is no burly Ha­grid to greet us, snag­ging a turquoise ticket the size and shape of a domi­noes tile, re­quires its own kind of sor­cery.

There’s a knack to hunch­ing down and peer­ing through a strange, per­spec­tive-dis­tort­ing win­dow that makes the vol­un­teer ticket of­fi­cer on the other side — one of the many who help run the rail­way — ap­pear as though he’s sev­eral miles away. You get the sen­sa­tion you’re in a tun­nel, or trav­el­ling by floo pow­der.

It seems apt to end our trip by rail. Af­ter all, JK Rowling had the ini­tial idea for Pot­ter in 1990 while on a train to King’s Cross.

Aboard the rhubarb-and-cus­tard-coloured LNER B1 No 61264 lo­co­mo­tive, which be­gan its chug-life in 1947, I screech as sharply as the loco grind­ing to a halt when I spot a tawny owl.

Flesh and blood, it’s as still as Snape’s robes, perched in a pine tree over­look­ing the rail­way line, with not a hon­eyed feather ruf­fled as we chug slowly past.

My 28, and 8-year-old self, mag­i­cally agree: it must be on owl post de­liv­ery du­ties.

SIGHTS: clock­wise from main, Al­nwick Cas­tle, Clois­ters at Durham Cathe­dral and Goath­land Sta­tion

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