Thursday, June 14, 2012

I’m spending the day at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Or, rather, I’m going to a close approximation of Hogwarts.

This morning, I’ve booked a ticket to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, “The Making of Harry Potter,” which opened just a few months ago in a warehouse about 20 miles northwest of London.

When my nephew was young, we devoured the Harry Potter books together, one after the other. And I still remember buying the last, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, on the morning of its release at a bookshop in York, England back in 2007. Because I value reading and imagination above all, I’ve not been a big fan of the movie adaptations, but I’m excited nonetheless to see the sets and costumes, props and animatronics, that were created for the films.

First, I have to get there. By public transportation, I could have taken the tube from Victoria to Euston Station (£4.20 roundtrip on my Oyster card), a train from there to Watford Junction (£9.80 for an advance fare), and then a private shuttle bus to the studio (£2), where I would still have to pay a whooping £28 for admission. But for just £10 more, I’m opting for a far easier plan. I’m going with Golden Tours. Their bus departs just a few short blocks from my hotel, the ticket price is included, and as a bonus, I’m riding on the top deck of what looks remarkably like the Knight Bus.

The Warner Bros. studio is a boisterous, crowded place, but admissions are carefully timed to minimize congestion, and as I wait in line, I get a glimpse of the cupboard under the stairs, where Harry slept at the Dursleys before discovering he was a wizard. As part of the 11:00 AM group, I watch a short introductory film in a small theatre, and then the screen rises to reveal the massive wooden doors of Hogwarts castle, which open and allow visitors to pass through into the Great Hall.  

What comes next is a feast for the eyes. There is the Weasley family’s Burrow, Hagrid’s hut, Dumbledore’s office, the Gryffindor common room, and the potions classroom run by the onerous Snape. And there are props and costumes, too: the Sorting Hat, the Marauder’s Map, Herimone’s dress from the Yule Ball, the blue Ford Anglia that Harry and Ron fly onto the Hogwarts grounds, and the Mirror of Erised, into which Harry imagines a life in which his parents had not died.  

I take a break half-way through and buy a Butterbeer, which is cold and frothy and sickeningly sweet. Outside in the courtyard, there is a model of the Dursley’s house on Privet Drive, and in front, a teenage girl poses with a T-shirt that reads: KEEP CALM AND KILL THE DARK LORD.

I head back inside and wander by animated models of Hagrid’s giant spider, Aragog, and Buckbeak, the Hippogriff that carried Sirius to safety at the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I emerge next onto Diagon Alley, in all its glory. I see the crooked pillars of Gringott’s Bank, the cluttered windows of Ollivander’s wand shop, as well as Flourish & Blotts and Eeylops Owl Emporium, before spotting the garishly wonderful Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes at the far end of the street. The highlight of the tour, however, is an intricate scale model of Hogwart’s Castle that fills an entire room.

I glance down at my watch. I’m running out of time to meet the tour bus. There is one last room, however, and it’s made to look like Ollivander’s wand shop. There are stacks upon stacks of boxes on the shelves, and on the end of each box is printed the name of someone who worked on the films. It’s a rather fitting tribute to a vast army of talented people. But here’s the thing… Everyone around me is scrambling to take pictures of Daniel Radcliffe’s name, and Rupert Grint’s and Emma Watson’s—the actors who portrayed Harry and Ron and Hermione in the films. But J.K. Rowling is right there, too, and no one seems to care about the author who created this wonderfully magical world. I run my finger lightly across her name in gratitude, and then head to the gift shop for souvenirs.

Back in London, I’m too exhausted to go out for dinner, so once again I turn to Pret a Manger for takeout and pick up a salad and a falafel with halloumi to eat back at the Rubens. I relax for a bit, sorting through the pictures on my camera, but I have one more event to attend and I can’t afford to be late.

As I head to the Victoria underground station, I look down at the ticket in my hand. It says I have an “Invitation to Witness the Ceremony of the Keys” at the Tower of London, which has taken place every night, without fail and nearly without delay, for at least 700 years. Once, during the Second World War, the ceremony was interrupted by a German bomb that fell on the guardroom just as the Chief Warder and his escort were coming through the archway of the BloodyTower. Being British, they dusted themselves off and carried on. 

The sky is growing dim and it’s raining steadily by the time I arrive at just past nine, and our small group is let through the gate with military precision at 9:30. I’ve gone to some trouble to be here—applying by post months in advance and following careful instructions to include an International Reply Coupon, which wasn’t easy to find. I’m surprised, then, and more than a little annoyed to see a large number of people join our ranks for the ceremony minutes before it’s scheduled to begin. They are wandering about and giggling, and their umbrellas are blocking everyone’s view. There’s a swank corporate event going on at the Tower of London tonight and the Yeoman Warder apologizes, saying the group has paid “an exorbitant sum of money” to be there. Clearly, he’s not happy about it either. 

At precisely 9:53 PM, a warder marches in with a large ring of keys, accompanied by four guards. I can hear the patter of raindrops and the sound of their foot falls in unison against the pavement, but I can’t see much, nor can the kids in the crowd who have been far better behaved than the corporate suits.

As the warder and his guard approach Traitor’s Gate, a sentry steps forward to challenge them.

Sentry: “Who comes there?”
Chief Warder: “The keys.”
Sentry: “Whose keys?”
Chief Warder: “Queen Elizabeth’s keys.”
Sentry: “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well.”

They turn into the courtyard by the White Tower, the Warder says “God Preserve Queen Elizabeth,” and a bugle is played. The corporate suits rush ahead of everyone else and once again block the view.

By the top of the hour, it’s all over—a mere seven minutes—and I’m back on the tube, heading home to the Rubens. Try as I might, I’m still feeling disgruntled as I turn in for bed with Henry VIII and his six wives looking down upon me from their portraits on the wall. The Tower of the London is one of the world’s great fortresses, and the tradition I saw tonight demanded more respect than it was given. Surely, old Henry would have had something to say about that. He’d probably have had them drawn and quartered.

Friday, August 4, 2006

I am an early bird again this morning, trying to be at the Tower of London when they open at 9:00 AM.  I grab a quick bottle of orange juice and a maple pecan “flapjack”—which, as I discover, is not at all like a pancake—at a food stand nearby before heading in.  Once inside, I go straight for the crown jewels and find myself alone with them, except (of course) for the heavily armed guards.  I hop on the moving walkway, go around several times, and decide that I like Queen Victoria’s tiny crown the best.  Next, I meet up with a tour led by one of the Tower’s Yeoman Warders (or “Beefeaters”) and discover, much to my surprise, that bloody executions of the innocent can be quite amusing when the stories are told in the right way.  I spend the entire morning exploring the buildings and grounds, before stopping for lunch at the New Armouries Café, at which I once again stumble across that glorious chocolate fridge cake.  It must be fate.  

I tube to St. Paul’s Cathedral in the afternoon and sign up for a “super tour” with a wonderful volunteer guide named Chris at 2:00 p.m.  Afterward, I decide to brave the climb up to the dome.  I make it up the Whispering Gallery just fine.  Onwards and upwards I climb to the Stone Gallery.  Still OK.  Along the way to the Golden Gallery my legs tire and my heart begins to race.  Unmistakably, I begin to spot old graffiti carved into the plaster walls.  In a flight of fancy, I imagine a similar soul making the same trek a century or more ago, writing his last words to family and friends before dying of a heart attack!  I approach the last flight of narrow spiral stairs with trepidation, especially after seeing the open ironwork on the stair treads, which makes me dizzy.  But thanks to my nephew’s fondness for his “Lord of the Rings” DVD set, I think of Aragorn’s speech in “The Return of the King.” I say to myself: “There may come a time when the courage of men fail, but it is not this day.”  I push on and on, and…  Oh, the view!  Completely worth it! 

I climb back down and stay for evensong at 5:00 PM.  As at Westminster Abbey, the resident choir is on holiday, but the organ and the guest choir are both lovely.  Following the service, I walk across the MillenniumBridge—which, thankfully, no longer wobbles—toward the Tate Modern.  I eat dinner at the Pizza Express next door and then make my way into Shakespeare’s reconstructed Globe Theatre for a production of Simon Bent’s “Under the Black Flag.” I am disappointed, and not just because my aching feet have made it impossible for me to fulfill my dream of being a “groundling.”  The seats, even with a rented cushion, are very uncomfortable and at nearly three hours in length the play is overly long and tedious.  There is much death and mayhem, but the story would be better told by one of the Tower’s Beefeaters.  Here, it is just not funny, even though it tries hard to be. 

As I exit the theatre, the view of St. Paul’s illuminated in the night sky is beautiful.  I take pictures and then walk east, past Southwark Cathedral, to the London Bridge tube stop, stopping by the edge of the water in front of City Hall to snap more pictures of Tower Bridge.  As I balance my camera on the railing to keep it steady, the drawbridge opens and a ship sails through.  Another great picture.  I marvel at my good fortune.