When? Saturday 29th April
Nominated by: Stacey
Stacey’s first #ChallengeKate sadly failed to get off the ground; we had hoped to see the exhibition of Harry Potter artworks at the House of MinaLina gallery in Soho, but the queues on the day we pitched up were ridiculously long and neither of us fancied the wait outside on one of the coldest days of the year. But Part Two of Stacey’s Challenge was to do London Walk’s Harry Potter on Location tour, which promised ‘the Westminster locations that riveted you in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’.
I’ll be honest: while I enjoyed the walk, it was light on the HP film locations and heavy on general London sights, monuments and historical points of interest of which our city is so rich. How much of this was down to the fact the (extremely knowledgeable) London Guide leading this tour was filling in for the unwell Potter expert who usually leads this walk, and how much was due to the fact there aren’t actually that many locations in this part of London is hard to know. Suffice to say the tour didn’t start blindingly well: the guide didn’t even get the name of The Order of the Phoenix’s headquarters wrong, calling it Grimmauld Lane rather than Grimmauld Place.
The walk kicked off at Embankment, evoking memories of how members of the Order of the Phoenix, in the eponymous book, had swooped above the Thames on their broomsticks on their way to London for Harry’s disciplinary hearing at the Ministry of Magic. We were then led along the Embankment, with various little (non-Harry Potter-related) architectural details being pointed out. Interesting, but far from relevant.
Our first ‘proper’ stop looked promising: a mysterious little door set into the side of Westminster bridge. I didn’t recognise it but, in my defence, while I’ve read the Harry Potter series a couple of times, I’ve only ever seen the films once; most of my knowledge of how sets look comes from visits to the Warner Bros film studios at Leavesden near Watford and the Wizarding World in Universal Orlando, neither of which is particularly heavy on London locations (although there is a Knight Bus parked outside Leicester Square Tube in the latter’s reconstruction of London).
What could this door be? I wracked my brains trying to remember its purpose. Our guide magicked up all sorts of suggestions as to the wizarding connection this door might have… before concluding it wasn’t actually in any of the HP films. But it did feature in a James Bond movie. Oh.
We fought our way down into Westminster Tube. This was used in the scene during which Mr Weasely is bringing Harry to the Ministry of Magic to face charges of performing underage magic and the Patronas charm. You might remember the scene: people are streaming through the ticket barriers, opening the gates with their tickets; Mr Weasely ignorantly copies the commuters and simply waves his hand at the spot where the ticket should be inserted but, of course, the gate doesn’t open and it’s left to Harry to explain the Muggle method of accessing the Underground platforms.
Interesting fact alert: we were told the station was closed for three days (!) while this scene was filmed. I’m sure it wasn’t. I can’t believe TFL would permit a major Tube station such as this to be closed for three whole days. I could believe it was shut for a period of time on three different days for filming purposes. I’m sure that’s what she meant.
We then thrust our way through the hoards of tourists to a viewpoint of Big Ben (cue lengthly history lecture about the naming of the bell and tower). It almost a felt a bit forced the way our guide tried to make a connection between the Houses of Lord and Commons to the four Houses at Hogwarts.
Next – and probably the most interesting – HP stop was Scotland Place, just off Whitehall, the location of the Ministry of Magic. Sadly the phone box Mr Weasely uses to gain access to the Ministry was a prop brought in for the filming and long since removed. But at least the building is recognisable.
We then pushed our way up to Trafalgar Square, over which, we were reminded, Death Eaters launched a destructive air attack on London (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince opens with them swooping down over Trafalgar Square). We missed out on exit one of Leicester Square, which appeared in the same sequence, and the relevance of Charing Cross Road, down which the Death Eaters then headed, leaving a trail of death and destruction. Neither did we get as far as Piccadilly Circus, to which Harry and Hermione apparated when the Death Eaters launched an attack on Bill and Fleur’s wedding in Deathly Hallows Part One. Harry, Hermione and Ron had then headed off up Shaftesbury Avenue. Our tour didn’t. And although we virtually walked past Hardy’s Sweet Store on Charing Cross Road, no mention was made of the fact it’s reminiscent of Hogwart students’ favourite, Honeyduke’s, nor of the fact it sells an assortment of Harry Potter-themed sweets, including every flavour beans and chocolate frogs. Hmm.
We wound up at Cecil Court, easily believed to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley thanks in part to its curious mix of bookshops, antique shops and even nods to the occult. Clearly one shopkeeper is confident the link is true, as the window display features a selection of ‘Magic Money’ – novelty Galleon notes featuring Harry Potter and other characters from the franchise.
And here the tour ended. Along the way there had been vague references to inspiration JK Rowling had possibly drawn from various aspects of the city but I didn’t feel I’d learnt anything new about Harry Potter, let alone the filming of it in London. And I’m sure some of the young HP fans in our group wearing Harry Potter scarves and glasses were disappointed. I don’t blame them. While I always enjoy a guided walk through parts of London and learning something new, the magic of the Harry Potter franchise simply wasn’t brought alive as this walk promised it would be. I certainly didn’t feel I’d peeked into a magical world. And that’s a shame.
There is a second walk, which covers the film locations in the City. If this is run by London Walks’ ‘original’ Harry Potter expert, I’d be interested to give it a second chance. Besides, Stacey, it’s always lovely to spend time with you…