Note: This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on December 14, 2017
To celebrate the series’ 20th anniversary, take a journey through places where the books were set and the movies were filmed.
LONDON—To take a trip back 20 years with Harry Potter, be open to magic and board a train. After all, a delayed train to London is where writer J.K. Rowling dreamed up the story of a boy wizard that led to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997.
It’s fitting trains are involved in tracking Rowling’s inspirations for seven Harry Potter books and the eight films made from them, taking us to London, Oxford, Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands to mark the book’s anniversary.
Pause first to wonder where two decades went, then head to London’s King’s Cross station, where excited kids pose for photos in striped Hogwarts scarves while pushing a luggage trolley prop into the wall at Platform 9¾.
The station is near the curved neo-Gothic building housing the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London, the backdrop to part of Ron and Harry’s onscreen flight in the Weasley’s Ford Anglia.
Next up, a visit to the candy-floss pink House of MinaLima in Soho, London, where graphic designers Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima showcase the huge range of printed materials they created for the Harry Potter films. The notes magically delivered to Harry at 4 Privet Drive, editions of the Daily Prophet, labels, posters and proclamations are on display over four higgledy-piggledy floors. (Toronto shop Curiosa: Purveyors of Extraordinary Things on Queen St. W. carries MinaLima prints.)
Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library until Feb. 28, 2018, marks the book’s 20th with a journey through real-life history, including items on loan from Rowling’s archives, including her hand-drawn map of Hogwarts.
Follow the flying books downstairs to rooms themed on eight subjects taught at Hogwarts and find real magical treasures. There’s a six-metre-long 16th-century scroll detailing how to make a philosopher’s stone, a wizened “mermaid,” a 400-year-old celestial globe and even a (blessedly silent) mandrake root.
The next morning, we took the train from London Euston station to nearby Watford Junction for the immersive behind-the-scenes Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter.
We walked through sets including Hogwarts’ Great Hall and gawked at the detail in Dumbledore’s rooms before taking a stroll in the creature-filled Forbidden Forest and up a twisting Diagon Alley. Guide Poppy Rogers said visitors love the insider’s look at how the films were made. Hands-on stops include a wand choreography lesson. It came in handy when a group of kids had to protect Hogwarts from menacing Dementors.
There was also a chance to board the gleaming red Hogwarts Express train used for the films.
We spent three hours there and could have extended the visit, which wraps up with a room-sized replica of Hogwarts that had some fans shedding emotional tears.
“We grew up with Harry Potter. It’s part of my life,” explained Judith Gallesos, 25, of Virginia.
The next day, we travelled just over an hour by train from London Paddington station to historic Oxford.
Blue Badge guide Linda Gelens (Blue Badges are professional U.K. guides) took us into some of the 38 Oxford colleges, showing us where Harry Potter set designers found inspiration in historic rooms, corridors and Gothic buildings.
The Tudor Great Dining Hall in Christ Church College is a ringer for Hogwarts’ spectacular dining hall — minus the floating candles. The grand staircase leading to it and the entry was used in several of the movies.
Scenes were also filmed in the Divinity School’s Bodleian Library, with its magnificently carved vaulted ceiling.
In a yard framed by the stone arches of the New College cloisters, Gelens led us to an ancient tree. She proceeded to act out the scene from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (her Maggie Smith/Prof. McGonagall was especially good) where Harry stands up to a taunting Draco Malfoy, with a then-unknown Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory.
“It took three days to film that scene and three weeks to prepare the site and when they made it this tree, which is a home oak we think is about 450 years old, was better known than Robert Pattison when filmed that scene.”
Next we travel to Edinburgh, where Rowling wrote her books and still makes her home, and then north to the spectacular Highlands, where she set Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
I picked up a 20th anniversary copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at the King’s Cross Harry Potter shop to read on the four-hour journey, before boarding the train at the same station where Harry and his friends caught the Hogwarts Express.
It was easy to slip back into the story over cups of tea. Soon we were crossing into Scotland, past the “woods, twisting rovers and dark green hills” Rowling describes in the book.
This trip was on a modern train but we had a Hogwarts Express-style journey from Fort William, not far from the spectacular Three Sisters peaks at Glencoe that served as the backdrop for Hagrid’s CGI-created hut.
The restored locomotive of the Jacobite Steam Train is a sister to the one used in the films and chugs across the same dramatic 21 arches of the Glenfinnan Viaduct as the Potter crew did.
Near the end of the journey, it swings past Loch Shiel, stand-in for Black Lake onscreen. You can imagine Hogwarts rising on its castle rock beside the lake, another bit of Harry Potter magic delivered by train.
Linda Barnard was hosted by VisitBritain, which did not review or approve this story.
When you go
Get there: I flew to direct to London on Air Canada.
Get around: A BritRail pass makes for easy train travel. Dedicated shuttle buses operate from Watford Junction station to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. To get to the Highlands, you’ll need to rent a car or book a driver. The Scottish Tourist Guide Association can make recommendations.
Stay: In London, I stayed at St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London and Mondrian London at Sea Containers. In Scotland, I was at the Principal Edinburgh on George Street and Isles of Glencoe Hotel in the Highlands, where Daniel Radcliffe and the cast stayed during filming.
Eat: The Wolseley near Piccadilly Circus, London serves excellent steak-frites in an art deco setting. A doorman in a bowler hat greets you. Dine on fresh local fish and game at the foot of Edinburgh Castle at Cannonball Restaurant and Bar.