Towns / Cities Visited: 85
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 12,652
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,738,875
Today was going to be a big day, a very big day, and you know what that means; up and at ’em. Picking up our rental car at 9am, we were soon on our way to the first of our two massive attractions we’d decided to cram into today; Hampton Court Palace. A quick history for those of you who don’t know, Hampton Court Palace was originally built in 1515 by Cardinal Wolsey, who gave it to King Henry VIII in 1529 to help improve his crumbling status at court. Henry enlarged it, and in the the 1600’s it was enlarged further by King William III. It was lived in by the royal family up to and including during the rule of King George II in the 1700’s. Considering the span of time over which it was added to, it is unsurprising to note that it combines both Tudor and Baroque styles of architecture.
As we hopped out of the car, and made our way through the beautifully manicured garden we soon found ourselves at the entrance to this massive red brick beauty. Crossing the imposing stone bridge over the dry moat, topped with its huge carved animals, we soon found ourselves in the first courtyard. The first thing that strikes you is the somehow pleasing nature of its asymmetry, and its stunning golden clock perched in the face of the central bell tower. The visitor route takes you first, not to the royal apartments, but to my favourite place in any medieval castle; the kitchen. As you walk through the first section, which consists of a small kitchen, and the office of the head cook, and all those in charge of keeping tabs on food costs, you start to wonder how such a small space could feed an entire royal court. It is of course at this point that you make your way down a small lane, and find yourself in a truly massive kitchen. We’re talking a fireplace big enough to spit roast an entire stag and still have room to spare. Its decked out with faux food, and replica kitchen equipment, which really helped give a sense of the scale of the operation, as well as examples of the types of extravagant menus and the quantities of food required to cater to a royal event. There was even a few men building an actual fire in one of the fireplaces, and preparing a table in which to skewer a suckling pig. Unfortunately we were in a bit of a hurry and would not have the chance to see what became of their endeavour.
Passing the silver stores and the wine cellar, we made our through the rooms set aside for the King’s personal chocolatier, and out of the culinary world of the castle. Walking through the inner courtyard with its aging, circular, medieval paintings, we headed inside to meander up a grand staircase, encircled by massive Roman mythology based murals and frescoes, and into the spectacular state rooms and royal apartments. From a room filled with the most spectacularly displayed array of medieval weapons; to wood panelled, portrait and tapestry filled state rooms; the antler filled, medieval great hall; the luxury of the private study of the king and the royal bedchamber, complete with velvet upholstered toilet; the marble statue filled corridor of the private floor of the king, and his small dining room filled with portraits of the most beautiful women of England at the time, in which he used to entertain his most intimate male friends; it was everything you’d expect Henry XIII and his sucessors to demand. There is also plenty of information about Henry himself, and the tragic fates of the women who dared to be his wives.
Heading back into the final courtyard we we delighted to see the massive gold astrological clock which adorns the wall, while a group of children joined in dancing with some of the medieval entertainers employed for the school holiday season. We then headed out the the rear of the palace to explore the equally as impressive gardens. I don’t know how many full time gardeners it must take to maintain this place, but kudos to them. From the massive sprawling display garden complete with a fountain in the centre, and four sets of gilded wrought iron gates at the far end, dedicated to England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales respectively; to more intimate smaller gardens for the king and queen to wander in peace; to a hedge maze, a kitchen garden, and a rose garden, there’s a bit of everything. The grounds here are also home to the world’s largest and oldest grape vine. This 240 year old wonder still bears almost 300kg of fruit every year. All in all the palace is an incredible place to visit, both inside and out.
A quick late lunch at the palace’s cafe, and we were soon in the car and on to our other attraction for the day, one we had been looking forward to for over a year, and one we had a timed entry for at 4pm; Harry Potter World at Warner Bros. Studios. Now I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that this place was absolutely wall to wall with fans, a reality we expected due to the fact that we had to book the tickets six months in advance just to get a time slot. Our group was gathered into a room where we were shown a quick introductory video about the studios, before the doors to the Great Hall were opened and the geeking out began. Stepping through the door and onto a set we both knew so well was like a dream come true for someone like me who grew up reading the books as they came out, and hoping to get my letter in the mail. At this point I will admit that I have not read the last two books, as when it came out a ‘friend’ at school bought it straight away, read it in a couple of days, then came to school and literally spoilt it for all of us; I’m talking telling us that Snape was the Half Blood Prince, and that Dumbledore dies. After that I just couldn’t bring myself to read it as the wonder and mystery of it was gone. Now that I am an adult, and I’ve seen all of the movies, I intend on finally going back and reading them, but that is the story of how I learnt how important it is not to spoil stories or shows for fans, especially just after they are first released.
Anyway, moving on. We gawked our way up to the front of the room, overwhelmingly impressed by the sheer detail of the sets; things that you don’t even really notice particularly in the movie, but if they weren’t there the place would appear unfinished, from the crests over the fireplace, to the carved animals holding the lights. Now, we were most fortunate to be visiting while they had a special ‘Goblet of Fire’ exhibition on, and thus at the front of the room, in front of the teachers table, complete with mannequins donned in the actual costumes from the films, sat the goblet itself. Our guide told us about the room, and the goblet, before showing us how the mechanism spat out the names. Somehow, as luck would have it, my partner happened to be the one that caught the scrap of paper penned with Harry’s name; a memento we shall keep forever.
From here we were left to our own devices to explore the rest of the studios at our leisure. I was pleased to discover that the entire exhibition is not centred merely on the actors and the sets, but mainly on the incredible people behind the scenes. The entire first section, although it is filled with props, costumes, and wigs from the films, is set out to display information on the people that made these things a reality; including the talented propmakers, costume designers, and hair stylists, it was refreshing to see them being given pride of place. The detail they put into each and every piece is truly breathtaking, from the small scale ceiling used for the shots of the great halls trick ceiling, to the incredible chocolate work used to adorn the dining tables during the Easter feast, to the flawless costumes and wigs which made the beloved characters come to life. On top of this there was displays showing videos of the amazing work done by the camera people and the sound team. By the time we reached the end of that aisle we were inspired to say the least.
The rest of this part of the studio is set out with different sets from the films, and some of the most recognisable, from the cupboard under the stairs, to the Leaky Cauldron, the Gryffindor Common Room, Dumbledore’s Office, Hagrid’s Hut, and the Potions Classroom. There are also displayed some of the most famous outfits worn by the main characters, and some of the most memorable props, like the golden eggs and the cup from the Triwizard Tournament, the Mirror of Erised, the Pensieve, and the portraits which adorn the walls of the school (although none of them move here, but some of them are depictions of some of the crew, funnily enough). It was a Harry Potter fans dreamworld spotting everything we’d only ever seen on a screen.
The next section shows many of the moving props, and how the animatronics team rigged them up to move on their own, with everything from Professor Lupin’s self packing trunk, to the doors in Gringotts and the Chamber of Secrets, and all of the props in The Burrow, which make it seem as though they have been charmed to complete housework on their own. There was also the flying car, Hagrid’s motorbike, and plenty of the sets from the later movies, like Tom Riddle’s grave, and the Dolores Umbridge’s office and the massive ‘Magic Is Might’ statue from the Ministry of Magic. There is also a display on the large number of amazing trained animals used during filming, including Hedwig, Fang, Crookshanks, and Mrs. Norris.
The next part on the tour takes you through a mock up set of the Forbidden Forest, complete with thunder and lightening, the full size and functioning Buckbeak, and a good handful of giant, moving, animatronic spiders, including the one and only, Aragog. We were surrounded by more than a few screaming girls at this point, and I did have to wonder why they didn’t just go through the non spider filled shortcut. There was also a fascinating display showing the stages it took to make the trees in the forest look so realistic. Again, kudos to the artists who put their time and talent into the fine details of these sets.
From here, naturally, we stepped out onto Platform 9 ¾. Here there is, of course, a small gift shop, although we would buy all of our souvenirs at the end, and alongside it stood none other than the Hogwart’s express itself. We lined up, and made our way through the carriage, passing each compartment which had been decked out in the style of each of the films. Something which I think was a very clever way of presenting it, as it made for a much more interesting visit than if they had all been left empty. There was also the costumes used in the final scene when Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny are all grown up standing on the platform.
By this point it was well and truly dinner time, and we just happened to have arrived at the restaurant that sits at the centre of the tour. For a place pumping out food to an endless stream of tourists, the burger and salad we had were pretty damn good; and, of course, what Harry Potter World visit would be complete without a cup of butterbeer, and a butterbeer flavoured soft serve. It tasted exactly as I expected it to; like butterscotch flavoured soft drink topped with cream, and I can confirm that it is delicious, despite the fact it is not alcoholic.
As you go outside for the next part, you are given the opportunity to hop aboard the Knight Bus, step inside 4 Privet Drive, walk along the Hogwart’s bridge, meander past the Potter’s house in Godric’s Hollow, and face up to the famous giant Wizard’s chess pieces from the very first film.
From here you go inside the magical world of the special effects department. The rooms here are filled with an array of silicone masks of the Gringotts Goblins; an uncannily realistic robotic Hagrid’s head used for long shots where camera angle tricks couldn’t be used to purvey the height difference; the moving model of Fawkes, the snapping ‘Monster Book Of Monsters’, the writhing baby Voldemort, a bowing Buckbeak, and the incredibly detailed animatronic of Dobby, just to name a few examples.
Out past the huge wall of hats used for the movies, and you find yourself in one of the most memorable sets in the entire series; Diagon Alley. I’m talking full scale street, with double storey shop fronts dressed exactly as they were for the film, and Gringotts Bank sitting pride of place at the end. The detail in the shop windows is truly mind-boggling, and we spent a fair amount of time poring over each one.
As you walk into the next corridor, you are taken past a large array of concept art, and small scale models used to design the sets, props, and costumes for the production. This is, of course, all leading up to the final major display; the perfectly scaled down model of Hogwarts, used for all of the long shots of the school. It is to technically perfect, that its hard to tell it is a model at all in the films. It took more than 80 workers, a total of 74 years worth of man hours to build it. It even includes 2500 fibre optic lights to allow for that perfect night shot when they first arrive at the school by boat as first years. From the lights, to the intricate snow covered pines surrounding it, you could literally spend hours looking at it and keep finding something new at every turn.
Our tour was finally at an end, and we walked through the wand filled walls of the Ollivander’s set, each box of which now displays a name of one of the thousands of people who worked on the films, and tumbled into the gift shop. Now, obviously we couldn’t leave without buying ourselves something to remember it all by, but I will say that it took a good half an hour or so to stop ourselves buying everything, and narrowed it down to one wand each, and some of the wizarding worlds famous candies. That being said we bypassed the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Trust me, I’ve tried them before and some of the flavours are truly vile. You think vomit would be the worst, but the sausage one made be gag.
Armed with a wand and a large helping of self control we finally exited, going past the small costume display from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; my personal favourite of all of J.K. Rowling’s creations.
The drive home was filled with much discussion about all we had seen, and it wasn’t long after our arrival home that we found ourselves tumbling into bed. As I reflected on the magical world we had just pulled ourselves away from, my thoughts drifted back to the incredible talent of all of those behind the scenes who make this, and every other, magical world come to life on our screens. Every time my partner and I finish watching a film, whether it be at the cinema or at home, we always take the time to watch the credits in their entirety, and it pains me to see how many people leave immediately, or after watching just the casts names whiz by. Granted we do also take much amusement from some of the rather offbeat names which pop up from time to time; our personal favourites at the moment are; Tip Tipping, and Pants McFadden. But in the end I think its important to take time to at least acknowledge the little people that make the big budget productions a reality; every gaffer, every assistant make up artist, every dolly grip, every second assistant to the main actors, every person who’s job doesn’t have an Academy Award category, every person who makes fantasy a reality and makes but a fraction of the money the actors make for wearing the costumes, and saying the words made and written by others. Just as very little praise actually makes it to the chefs who slave over your meals, very little praise makes it down to those names shown in the last few minutes of the credits. I implore you, next time you see a movie that successfully takes you off to another time and place, if only for a couple of hours, take a moment to acknowledge the names of those wizards and witches who worked such magic as to make you forget your troubles and transport you to another world entirely. To all of you off screen, we say thank you.