A month long road trip through Universal Studios and the UK
In the summer of 2013, my girlfriend and I decided to do a month long pilgrimage into the world of Harry Potter. We started at Universal Studios Florida for total immersion into the magic fantasy world and then we headed to the UK and visited every single Harry Potter Filming Location from all the movies.
Starting the Harry Potter Super Trip off in Orlando was a great idea. Hanging out in Hogwarts and Hogsmeade for three days was a blast and really got us into the magical mood! We rode all the rides many times, we visited all the shops everyday and indulged in Butterbeer, Pumpkin juice, rock cakes, treacle fudge, cauldron cakes, Bertie Botts’ Every Flavor Beans, Chocolate Frogs, and Hogsmeade Beer! Yummmmm!
My favorite ride was the Forbidden Journey. The line took you all through Hogwarts castle. It starts at the front gate and takes you around to the green house. You enter the castle through the back and you go past a few statues of Hogwarts founders. You get to see the entrance to Dumbledore’s office, the mirror of Erised, and the counter for the House Points. The you get to walk through Dumbledore’s office and see all the shelves of knick-knacks that he’s got in there including the pensieve. Dumbledore speaks to you from up on his balcony as an animated projection.
It’s really awesome when you go past the paintings because they move and talk just like in the movie. You get to hear the fat lady at the entrance to Gryffindor and the four founders talk to each other.
Eventually you enter Prof. Binn’s History of Magic class and Harry, Hermione, and Ron appear from under the invisibility cloak (as projections) and start to set up the context of the ride. The last thing that happens before you get on the ride is the sorting hat talks to you. It’s really impressive how much detail was put in to the whole experience.
The whole village was amazingly detailed and you could tell that the creators did their homework when designing this. I look forward to coming back in 2014 when they finish the DiagonAlly expansion. I read that you will be able to ride the Hogwart’s Express from DiagonAlly to Hogsmeade! Wow.
2014 update: We went back to Universal Studio’s in 2014 after DiagonAlly opened and it was absolutely incredible. This time we went in full costume and spent a whole weekend in The Wizarding World. Now that the space is so big you can really immerse yourself and forget you’re even in a theme park. The DiagonAlly expansion is so vast and incredible and the addition of being able to interact with things in both parks with the wands is really fun and gives you so much to do. I highly recommend Universal Studio’s Florida for any Harry Potter fan. Go in full costume, you wont regret it.
London has been so amazing. We started out with the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. We got in at one of the earliest slots for the tour and we really used our time well. We spent 6 hours going from exhibit to exhibit. It’s absolutely incredible. They put so much effort into the presentation and the quality of information. You get to see TONS of awesome stuff including most of the major rooms such as the Great Hall, Harry’s Dorm room, the Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore’s office, and best of all, the entire set of DiagonAlly! It was awesome to see this right after The Wizarding World in Orlando. You can tell that the designers at Universal Studios were working closely with the design team from the movie to get all the details right.
They also have some awesome behind-the-scenes stuff in terms of the effects. They show how they did some of the green screen effects with the brooms and other flying stuff. They go into great detail about the creature effects and the graphic design. It’s really satisfying for the super fan.
One of the most fun things was the room where you get in front of the green screen and they put you on the broom or in the flying car and on the screen it looks like you are flying through the movie sets!
Another great thing was getting to have butter beer again. In my opinion it tasted slightly better in London versus Florida. Also the gift shop here was the most extensive Harry Potter shop that I’ve seen so far
The next few days in London, we ventured all around the city and have seen absolutely EVERYTHING there is to see that I know of. We did a “MuggleTour” through the city. This was fun. A super-fan/guide took us around the city and showed us some sites. during the two hour tour we got to see the 2nd entrance to The Leaky Cauldron, the spot where the guest entrance phone booth to the Ministry of Magic was, some of the bridges that were shown in the movies, and the exact underground train entrance where Mr. Weasley got stuck. We also got to see a lot of the places that inspired JK Rowling and the directors in writing the books and movies. We saw the “real” DiagonAlly and the inspiration of NocturnAlly. Cool! A great tour that I would recommend to any fan
Then we did our own tour to see everything else. Starting with King’s Cross Station, we went to Platform 9 ¾. It exists! When you get to the train turnstile look to the right and you will see a Harry Potter gift shop and next to it on the wall is the special sign and also there is a luggage trolley that is halfway through the wall. If you stand in line you can take your picture holding on to the trolley cart so it looks like your about to walk through the wall. Fun! They have a professional photographer but they don’t mind at all if you take your own pics. They even have props and help you pose.
Next we went to place where they filmed the original entrance to the Leaky Cauldron. It’s in a fancy sort of market with expensive pubs. From there we went to the Australia house where they filmed the interior shots for Gringott’s Bank. You can’t go in all the way but you can look in the glass doors and see the very recognizable chandeliers and swirly marble floors. We took a secret photo!
Our time through London has been great. We have done some non Harry Potter stuff too. Good restaurants, pubs, shopping, exploring ancient history and modern innovations, free museums and more.
In our final day of London we squeezed more Harry Potter in. We visited Kew gardens which is an amazingly huge piece of land containing many gardens and greenhouses. One of which was an inspiration to JK Rowling in the creation of the Hogwart’s Greenhouse. One final candy shop and then we rented a car and left the hustle and bustle of London.
Our first stops were Salisbury and Winchester, home to HUGE cathedrals and also a recreation of King Arthur’s round table. The cathedrals are so amazing. The scale is basically incomprehensible and the ornate decorations are simply splendid. I didn’t have much luck with finding Couchsurfing hosts for the cities we are in so we quickly figured out how to comfortably sleep in the car. It’s really not bad. After our first car slumber, we woke up and headed to our first Harry Potter city. We got a quick sneak peak of our solstice destination as we drove by Stonehenge. Even just a momentary view from the car is awe inspiring.
We arrived in the tiny old town of Lacock. There were a few Harry Potter locations here, one we hadn’t even known about. Lacock Abbey is an interesting complex. One part of it is a 500 year old nuns abbey still in the condition it was built in. Other parts of the building have been lived in, mansion-style, until recently and we got to take a tour of how it was decorated in the early 1900′s. A journey through many histories! The Abbey was very recognizable as a setting in the first two Harry Potter movies. Snape and Quirrell’s classrooms and a hallway and courtyard that are sprinkled throughout the movie. There was even a black cauldron in one of the rooms that had been sitting there since the 1500′s! When we left the Abbey, we found the most perfect book in the gift shop: A Harry Potter filming locations guide. I snatched it up and we only had to walk for 5 minutes with the help of the book before we found the house that Slughorn was living in at the beginning of Half Blood Prince.
We then walked through Lacock village which is a real life version of Godric’s Hollow. Another serious time trip. All the houses are old and crooked. It was so surreal. It seemed like a movie set but people were living in them! At this point we were running a bit behind schedule and everything basically closes at 5 or 6pm in England so we made quick stops in Bath and Wells. I had a few flashback moments in Bath from my first trip to England in 2007. This was the first time I had returned to any cities from that first experience and I awakened some new memories!
We arrived in Glastonbury as the sun was setting, which was 10:30 pm! We found a quiet country spot to park the car and made it comfortable for the night. We woke up to a magnificent site of the Glastonbury Tor (hill) and the tower that sits on top. There is nothing Harry Potter related but it was on our road trip route so we thought we’d insert a little real life magic into the Harry Potter adventure.
Nothing could have prepared us for this town. It’s a New Age Mecca. There are at least a dozen new age shops, tons of crystal shops, metaphysical book stores, steam punk and fairy costume stores and health food stores. Plus, it was market day so there were many vendors selling wares on the street. Overwhelming is an understatement! After a few hours of browsing the shops and getting high on crystal vibrations I pressed us on to see the sites.
It takes about half an hour to walk to the base of the Tor which was known in ancient times as the Isle of Avalon because the base of the hill used to be surrounded by water making it an island. On the way we stopped at a man made brick cave containing a natural Well spring. It’s called the White Spring and its pretty amazing. It’s cold and dark, only lit by candle light. There is a giant pool in the middle that spring water flows into. You can submerge yourself into it as its known to have healing powers. I put my feet into because that’s all I could stand; the water is ice cold! We stayed in there for a long time, singing and praying to the water spirits.
After we left the White Spring temple we started the long trek to the top of the Tor. Once up there you have a beautiful 360 degree view of Glastonbury. It was beautiful and we sat up there for a while just soaking in the view and having a little picnic with the other people and dogs up there. When we got to the bottom we went to the other spring that the town is known for; the Red Spring or the Blood Spring. The spring has a strong iron content when causes it to stain the rocks red as it passes over them. This spring was outdoors and set in a large and beautiful sanctuary of plants, fountains, trails, and a healing pool. We spent time with our feet in the pool and then took a few sips from the lion head fountain. Both the White and Red spring have places to drink from so you can ingest some of the legendary healing power. We drank from both. Neither tastes very good due to the high mineral content but let’s hope it imbues me with strength and long life!
We left Glastonbury with a lot of driving ahead of us. We visited the southern coast and had a picnic lunch on a hill overlooking the English Channel. Then we took the long way to Cornwall which took us through Dartmoor national park. Most of Dartmoor looks exactly like the rest England but eventually it got steeply hilly and we started to see animal crossing signs. And then the animals! Sheep, goats, horses and pretty ponies suddenly appeared in the landscape and the road. They were grazing everywhere and we had to stop a few times to watch them. So cute!
When we descended, we were in Cornwall, the region in the southeastern most tip of the island. Cornwall has a distinctly different vibe than the places we’ve been so far. Even before talking to anyone I could tell. It has an almost isolated mysteriousness to it. It feels older. The villages are smaller and more spread out. The countryside looks different. It definitely has its own character.
After a series of tiny roads we found ourselves at a church on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. There were two churches actually. One large and old and made of stone. The other was like a one room modern wood thing that was much more utilitarian. And a tiny little sign: St. Cleran’s, 1 mile. We walked around these churches through some chest high tall grass. We went through a “kissing gate” which are so common in England and start our trek through the wilderness.
After a miles walk through a very pretty trail we arrived at our destination. St Cleran’s Well and Church. There is a natural spring here and since Celtic times people have been visiting the spot. There is an ancient church there and a well that is said to have healing powers. The elderly and sick use to come here to drink from it. At this point it didn’t look very clean so we merely touched it.
In the town of Bocastle, there is a Museum of Witchcraft that we visited. It’s three stories and we spent at least an hour checking out all the interesting stuff. We learned about witchcraft throughout history. There were tons of artifacts and relics and a few modern witches complete collections of tools. There was was small Harry Potter connection: the hand of glory. They had a real one in the witchcraft museum which is supposed to be the withered hand of a thief whose been hanged. In Harry Potter, we see one in NocturnAlly which grabs Harry’s hand when he gets too close.
After our side jaunt into Cornwall, we continued north. The night of the Summer Solstice was here so we had a plan to meet up with some people for a special ceremony at Avebury which is the largest stone circle in the UK.
On the Solstice I woke up near the Avebury stone circle at 4 am. After a few delays and jump starting a van, I headed out with a group of energy healers. We drove through the early morning fog to a small stone circle know as The Sanctuary in Avebury. It’s part of a larger group of four sacred spots “the serpent” or “dragon.” It’s said that every seven years on the Solstice the dragon awakes to eat prana energy on behalf of Mother Earth. It sends the prana down the Earth’s Kundalini channel. We all went and meditated as it rained on us and the solstice sun rose in front of us.
That night we drove to Gloucester so we’d be there in the morning. Gloucester was a bit disappointing after so many days in small villages. It’s big and crowded and expensive and kind of ugly and slummy. The old parts are really nice but they are few and far between.
The cathedral that we went to see there was awesome and completely satisfying. It’s huge and beautiful and old. We browsed around the cathedral and did a tour of the crypt under the cathedral. The tour guide was so nice and she could tell we were really interested in the history of the building so she took us all around and told us all this stuff we wouldn’t have known otherwise. Then she took us into the cloisters and gave us a personal tour of all the Harry Potter sites that were filmed there. There were many! The hallway with the writing in blood on the wall from Chamber of Secrets, the hall were the Troll was in Philosopher’s Stone, the place where Moaning Myrtle flooded the bathrooms, and more. The spots were awesome and really recognizable.
Then we jumped in the car and drove to Oxford. It happened to be graduation day so the streets were crazy and full of people. We eventually made our way to a parking garage and headed to a few spots that were closing soon.
We got to see the room where they filmed the Hogwart’s hospital scenes. That was fun. Then we went across town and saw the stairs where the students waited in Philosopher’s Stone before the sorting ceremony. This was cool because the stairs led up to a room that looked just like the Great Hall in Hogwarts. It was actually the inspiration for the Hall!
After this, everything was closing so we went to go meet up with our Couchsurfing host. This was the first night of the trip that we had a host to stay with, so we were excited. Her name was Kate and she was a police officer. She was really awesome. Kate and her roommate made us fondue because it was “like a potion” and it was delicious. Then they took us to a house party where we proceeded to get drunk with a gun that shoots alcohol shots into your mouth. Then we discovered the cupboard under the stairs and you know I had to get in it! After the house we went dancing at a club which was great fun. We danced for hours into the night.
We had a day to adventure into Wales before we headed up to Scotland. We were heading toward the capital, Cardiff, still trying to figure out the best city to visit when the answer jumped out of a book at me.
I brought a coffee table style book called Sacred Britain with me for moments like this. It had big color photos and a map of many of Britain’s sacred sites and stone circles. I found one that was close to Cardiff and started reading about it. It’s called Tinkinswood burial mound and it’s 6000 years old. The picture made it seem cool but the legend made it seem even better. According to local tales, Druids put a curse on the burial mound. If you sleep on the mound on Mid-Summers Eve or St Johns Day you would either go mad, die, or become a poet. I looked at Wikipedia and looked at the calendar and discovered that it WAS St. John’s Day!! What an amazing synchronicity! We knew we HAD to go there.
We got to Cardiff around 5 pm so everything was starting to close up. We walked around the city enter and saw the castle and some parks. We found a few good groceries and stocked up on food. Then we headed about 10 miles out of town to the burial mound.
We got there and the sun was still shining despite the time. We parked the car in a lay-by and put everything in the trunk so it looked empty. We took our bags and tent and hiked back a ways. The burial mound was next to a farm so we said hi to some sheep on the way. When we get there it was even better than the photos. A big mound with a half circle of forest around it. In the front was a very large stone monument. Like a little stone room with a large roof. The capstone is supposed to weigh as much a 22 double decker busses. An amazing feat to put it up on the 4 foot tall room. We sat up the tent and then sat inside the muddy monument for a bit, acknowledging the spirits of the ancestors that rested there.
We got in the tent and got settled for bed. The whole thing was definitely spooky and we were a bit excited to be there. We fell asleep but we both awoke in the middle or the night needing to pee. We didn’t want to get out of the tent because everything felt so spooky. After some convincing, we both got out and it wasn’t scary at all. No ghosts or anything flying around.
In the morning we got up and packed up our things and left. We then drove through Wales as much as we could before hitting Manchester.
We visited Manchester and stayed with a weirdly spiritual couch surfer. We drove north and sat in a stone circle in the Lake District. We drove much further north and went to Edinburgh. We took a Harry Potter walking tour and ate good food. We got to visit the coffee shop where JK Rowling wrote part of the original book.
From Edinburgh, we headed southeast. We got to see two Harry Potter filming locations in one day. The first was Alnwick Castle where they filmed several scenes including the broomstick lesson in Philosopher’s Stone. It’s very recognizable because the castle has metal men on top that look like guards and you can remember when Harry was learning about Quidditch and the bludger went through the arms of one of these men. They also have a fun thing they do called “broomstick lessons” where people in Harry Potter costumes come out with all these miniature brooms and play games with anyone that’s interested.
After Alnwick, we headed to Durham and saw the cathedral which was really cool. Very Harry. It has a lot of very recognizable places in Hogwarts including one of the hallways and a grassy courtyard which was snowy with Harry sat with Hedwig. Another familiar room in Durham cathedral is Prof McGonnegall’s classroom, which was set up for class portraits on the day we were there.
On our way back to London, we visited Whitby, “England’s Spookiest Town” where Dracula was written. We ate fish and chips while looking at the English Channel. There was again a small Harry Potter connection when we found another Hand of Glory in the Whitby Museum.
Next we visited Goathland train station which served as the arrival and departure point of Hogsmeade Station in the first movie. Also the last shot of Philosopher’s Stone takes place here when they fly up over the red walkway bride and you see Hogwart’s in the background.
Just outside of London, we find Harry’s Privet Drive house from the first few movies. In real life it’s in the suburb of Berkshire and recently sold for £475,000. The luxury cars in the drive kind of tipped us off!
Finally as we were getting back into London proper, we got to visit our last two locations. The first was the Forbidden Forest. There are a couple of very recognizable spots from the movies such as where they rode the Thestral pulled carriages from the train. The forest is near Pinewood Studios where they did a lot of the effects for the Harry Potter movies.
As we get towards the end of the trip, our chronology get’s towards the end of the series. Here we are in the London train stop called Surbiton which is were Harry flirted with the cafe girl before Dumbledore takes him to visit Slughorn.
And then finally we wanted to find the secret location of the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix and Sirius Black’s family home. While the facade we see in the movie is not a real building, it’s based on a few squares in London and we thought this one looked almost exactly perfect and it even had a fenced park across the street from it.
It was a great trip and one that I won’t quickly forget. Now every time I watch the first couple of movie’s I can easily recognize every spot they filmed at and when they run through the castle corridors, it’s like they’re running across the whole Island of Britain as they do it. If anyone want’s to follow in my footsteps and make this journey themselves, I recommend the book we found “Harry Potter on Location.” Also check out the extensive itinerary with budget estimations that I prepared for the trip here.