To call myself a Harry Potter fan might be a bit of a stretch. Well, it would have been before my recent trip to Scotland and England.
I had seen all of the movies, but reading the books was another story. I had started to read “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” to my son, Adam, the Geekiverse’s video producer, when he was just a wee one, but somehow, we both lost interest and never finished.
So, I find myself in Scotland, England, Ireland and France for the first 2/3rds of August and I accidentally stumbled onto one Harry Potter thingamajigger after another, and it’s changed my whole attitude towards and appreciation of the Wizarding World.
The first stumble didn’t even actually present itself until several days after I was there. We were staying in Glasgow, Scotland, and made a day trip to Edinburgh. The minute I got out of the car I turned to my travel partners and said, “I am in love with this city”. Even now, after I’ve since visited Dublin, London and Paris, Edinburgh was the city I was most taken by. I felt something there. Something that stirred my own creativity. The skyline looked like a place Harry Potter should take place.
The next step on my Potter Adventure happened in the London Gatwick Airport. We were sitting for a couple hour wait for our plane to Paris and I got bored so I went to the news agent to see what they had to read. I was just going to buy a magazine. Like any conscientious retailer, they led with the big stuff. There, right in the front of the the shoppe was a big display of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” books. The good news is that I did pay less than twice (20 pounds is about $26 US) what I would have paid on Amazon, but it’s like that $9 beer at a football stadium, you know it’s ridiculous to pay that amount, but you do it anyway.
I had no real intention of reading the book before that, but then Maggie Wirth wrote a great review of the book for The Geekiverse, and I was intrigued.
A few days later we returned to London for the second part of our stay there. This time we stayed just a block up from King’s Cross and from St. Pancras stations. They are just across the street from each other and both play a role in the films. St. Pancras station plays the part of the outside of King’s Cross in the movie. It truly is a spectacular building, and we were surprised that it wasn’t the whole train station, inside and out, in the films. As I was researching this story, more than my own experiences, I found this little website that has some nice info and directions to get there if you are traveling to London and want to check out this free attraction.
I’ll freely admit that I was a bit hooked by this point in time. I had read about half of the book and almost as soon as we checked in, I made my travel mates go over to King’s Cross Station to see Platform 9-3/4. I had heard that people waited in line, in the UK they say “queued up”, to take their picture at Platform 9-3/4. I’ll admit, it wasn’t exactly what I expected when I got there. There is actually a “Platform 9-3/4 Shoppe” at the location, where you can buy all manner of Harry Potter and Wizarding World wares – magic wands, tee shirts, and school uniforms for all four of the houses of Hogwarts. (I may have bought a Gryffindor tie, but there is no proof of that, as of yet). And people do, in fact, wait for some time to get their photo taken, by employees of the “Platform 9-3/4 Shoppe”, who are then happy to sell it to you as refrigerator magnets, wallet sized photos and even in key chains. You can have someone sneak over and snap a shot while you are there. We did not wait in the line, and flip-flops may not be the best shoe choice if you are actually going through the wall to catch the Hogwarts Express.
After returning to Glasgow for a few days, we did return to Edinburgh for a full day, armed with a little more Harry Potter knowledge. I had no idea, for instance, that JK Rowling, essentially penniless (or poundless, I guess in the UK) wrote the first Harry Potter book in a coffee shop in Edinburgh. So, of course, we needed to go see that.
The Elephant House, located at 21 George IV Bridge, is unremarkable from the outside. It looks very much like most English/Irish pubs. If you didn’t know you were looking for it, you would probably walk right by. There was no big neon sign saying “See JK Rowling’s butt marks on our bench”. There were no long lines to get in. It is a fully operating cafe that says “The Birthplace of Harry Potter” in their tagline. There is no huge gift shop like the “Platform 9-3/4 Shoppe”. They sell some of their own branded tees and buttons. For a place that was the humble beginnings of such a pop culture icon, it is remarkably unpretentious.
If I wasn’t hooked before, this was it. JK Rowling’s story is as compelling to me as Harry Potter’s. I felt something standing in this place where some magic was made, by a poor, single mother, who went on to create a world wide phenomenon. I felt the same way standing in the Hemingway House in Key West, Florida. A giant had walked there before me.
Our tour guides for the day, friends and residents of Edinburgh, while not huge Harry Potter fans, knew a thing or two about Harry’s ties to Edinburgh. One of the things that surprised me, and shouldn’t have, I suppose, was that Rowling found the inspiration for some of her locations and characters, within feet of the The Elephant House, where she sat and did her writing.
On a street right behind the little cafe is an old cemetery attached to Greyfriar’s Kirk, in which, around in the back, you will find a wall tomb for Thomas Riddell, which is believed to be the inspiration for Tom Riddle, the character that eventually turns to Lord Voldemort. There are people wandering the cemetery that will be happy to give you a tour for a few pounds and share some fun and funny commentary. We actually found a YouTube video that took us directly to the tomb marker for free.
A few steps further and you can see the majestic George Heriot’s School, just behind the Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. This majestic building has been around since 1628. The building has four towers and the school has four houses, and it is right there just a short distance from The Elephant House. Important to note, this is not the location where Hogwarts was filmed. That was Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.
Finally, you have but walk around the streets of Edinburgh to see the obvious inspiration for the famous Diagon Alley. The streets are narrow, and cobblestone, with shoppes attaching to each other at angles that aren’t 90 degrees. There are bright colors and low doors and streets full of great history. There are alleyways, called “close” all over that take you from one street high above to another street much lower. There are hidden courtyards and cafes and shoppes. You cannot help but falling into the city that was the inspiration for Harry and his friends.
When we hopped the plane to Scotland, I never actually anticipated that this would be the effect it had on me. I was expected old and cool buildings and a sense of history. I was moved when I walked in the little town of Carrickmacross, Ireland, when may have been near the home of my third great grandfather. I loved Paris and the street-side cafes that we ate in. I was in awe of the art on display in the Louvre, but it was this unexpected discovery that was such a treat.
If you find yourself in Scotland, even if you are not a Potter fan, Edinburgh is a must-see. Who knows, if you aren’t fan, you may be one when you leave…like me.
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Pete Herr is the author of “10 Things We Should Teach You In High School and Usually Don’t”. He is the oldest geek in the Geekiverse by a factor of two. Follow Pete Herr on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram . If you don’t he gets Grumpy. You don’t want to see him Grumpy.