Could It Be Magic?

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“We do not need magic to transform our world.

We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already.”
― J.K. Rowling

I have made no secret of the fact that I absolutely love Harry Potter. I’ve read the books greedily, eagerly awaiting the publication date of the next one. I’ve read and re-read them. I have seen all the films, cried at all the sad bits, laughed at all the happy bits, and generally made a big deal about each one.

I broke down when Dobby died; it was the worst thing that has ever happened in literary history. It’s even worse than when Beth died in Little Women and that is saying something (remember that episode of Friends where Joey had to put Rachel’s copy of Little Women in the freezer?)

Big Harry Potter fan. Huge. I’m a complete and utter Potter nerd.

So – in keeping with my plan to spend more time visiting places in the UK before I leave for New Zealand in 29 days (gulp!) – my parents booked tickets to go to the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour as part of my 29th birthday present. I’ve been excited about it for months but, with the business that is Christmas, it seemed to creep up on us.

My parents have never seen a Harry Potter film before, or even picked up one of the books, so I wasn’t sure what they’d think of it. We left the house early, with our packed lunch in hand (this is a must as the food is both limited and really expensive) and headed towards Watford. It was only a couple of hours drive from The Midlands and pretty easy to find. Based in an old aircraft hangar, it’s a great big monster of a building, embossed with huge pictures from the films which are a bit of a giveaway.

When you book your tickets online (again, this is a must as you can’t book tickets at the studio, and I’d suggest booking quite far in advance if you want a certain time and day) you choose a particular time slot, however, if you get there early enough, you might be able to get in to an earlier tour if the queues aren’t too long.

I really don’t want to ruin the tour for anyone, as I believe these things should come with an element of surprise, and I actually avoided people who wanted to tell me all about the tour before I went, so I will keep some of the surprised to myself.

The tour started in the Great Hall and, as its Christmas, it was all dressed up for the occasion – Christmas trees complete with magical flying witches around the top, self lighting Christmas puddings, and roast turkey with all the trimmings. The food is completely fake which is good for health and safety purposes, but it was so well put together it looked completely real and was making me feel really hungry.

Next up was the “props” room which was amazing. And absolutely huge, you really don’t think about all those intricate details that go in to the making of films. There were all sorts of items dotted around: wigs, clothes, full sets from the films such as the Gryffindor Common Room and the boys dormitory, Dumbledore’s office, owls, tiles from The Ministry of Magic entrance, and my favourite, Dolores Umbridge’s office room full of creepy cat plates.

Then it was on to the a real life mock-up of Privet Drive which looked like a row of houses on any street in the UK plus the Knight Bus and Ford Anglia complete with photo opportunities. And nothing says Christmas better than a snow machine pumping out fake snow as you walk across the Hogwarts bridge!

The “creature” room was both terrifying and a little disappointing. All through the tour I was hoping to catch a glimpse of my favourite character, Dobby the House-elf, but the only real sighting of him was a creepy toy in the gift ship and an equally creepy plastic severed Dobby head impaled on a stick. Not the way you’d like to remember your favourite character! There was also an animatronic Buckbeak, a basilisk head and a horrific looking acromantula stuffed in a corner!

If you must know, when I was three, Fred turned my – my teddy bear into a great big filthy spider because I broke his toy broomstick… You wouldn’t like it either if you’d been holding your bear and suddenly it had too many legs and…

—Ron Weasley

But passing this fanged monster was worth it because next up was a truly awe-inspiring representation of Diagon Alley. Now, I’ve been to Universal Studios in Florida which boasts a “Harry Potter World” as part of its attractions. It truly is amazing, with a life-action Olivander’s and sweet shop where you can buy all then fictional sweets (albeit for a huge price!). But there is something wonderful about the slightly dingy, magical version at the London Studio. I can’t explain it and I don’t think my photos do the feeling justice – you just have to pay a visit yourself.

Completely in awe, we followed up Diagon Alley with a walk through the illustrations room. Walls were adorned with wonderful artist’s representations of various scenes from the novels, as well as white card models of different sets – including one of Hogwarts castle itself – which were created by very talented people as a way to mark where all the cameras should be placed when it came to filming.

I then though we’d come to the end of the tour but it seems they decided to leave the best to last. A large scale model of Hogwarts Castle in the snow! I really don’t think I can describe how utterly beautiful this really was, or how talented the designers and builders of the model are. Take a look at the pictures below and see what you think!

 

The tour is really worth the visit and, at £31 per ticket (adult price) it really is worth the visit. The tour lasts around 3 hours on average (we did it in 2 but we didn’t really stop for lunch or refreshments in the café halfway round like most people) although the guide did tell us that one family stayed for 12 hours!

The best thing about the tour – other than the amazing sets – is the fact that is a self-led tour. It begins with a tour guide, and there are very helpful members of staff dotted around the tour space if you’ve got any questions or need someone to snap a picture of you.

Have you been to the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Tour recently? How did it differ to the “special” Hogwarts at Christmas exhibition? Are you a crazy Potter fan like me? What other UK attractions would you recommend?

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The (Infuriating) Coolness of London

“Mind the gap!”

― Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

With my departure date drawing closer and closer, I’ve started looking back at some of the wonderful places I’ve been lucky enough to live in the last few years.

Being a permanent UK resident, I’ve had a tendency to take our own cities for granted which is crazy when you think London, for example, is reportedly the most popular destination for tourists in the world.  With events such as the Olympics, the birth of Prince George, and this year’s Tower of London Remembers poppy installation to commemorate the First World War, it’s understandable that our capital city has raked in the foot-traffic of late.

But there’s so much more to London than simply the Royal Family, Big Ben and afternoon tea.

London is like your big sister.  It’s infinitely (and sometimes infuriatingly) cooler than you will ever be, however much you strive.

It knows all the latest trends, music, fads, and clubs, while you’re still stuck scratching your head and wondering why it’s now perfectly acceptable – and possible – to sport both a top knot and a gigantic, overly-styled beard simultaneously. Or charge £3.50 for a bowl of Cheerios. Or allow cats to roam a café while you eat (I am not knocking Cat Café – it’s the best idea anyone has ever had). Or pay silly-prices for a room that’s basically a cupboard.

But still you look up to it. You’re in awe of it. And you will forever be head over heels in love with it.

My relationship with London is complicated. Its like that boyfriend/girlfriend that you just can’t shake. The one who you could quite happily snog the face off and throttle in equal measure.

I’ve just spent a wonderful weekend visiting one of my oldest friends (another irksome thing about London is a weekend is never enough time to visit everyone that you would like). While I didn’t manage to visit my old haunts (Pimlico/Westminster was the area I lived – less cool big sis, more eccentric old uncle who likes a drink), I did get to go explore a few new places.

Because that’s the wonderful thing about London. It doesn’t matter how long you have lived there – it makes no difference if you only spent a year (like me) or if you are London born and raised – there will always be something new and exciting to do, and you will always get to play tourist.

So what did I get up to this time around?

Greenwich Market

Despite being a small mission to travel to, we decided to head to Greenwich Market rather than face the perils – and elbows – of Winter Wonderland. As much as I loved the place last year, facing the weekend crowds so close to Christmas was not something my friend and I were willing to do.

Greenwich is an area of London I am not really familiar with, having only been to Greenwich North to the O2 or that time I visited Inflatable Stonehenge (which was as weird and wonderful as it sounds) cut open my foot and lost my phone, but I soon found out it was well worth the trip.

 

Not only does the place look like a good old English town rather than another easily identifiable part of the great carnivorous jaws of London, but it was full to the brim with Christmas related joy.

We started off at Greenwich Market which is London’s only historic market set within a world heritage site. Surrounded by independent and boutique shops, you can easily spend a few hours weaving in and out of the market stalls which sell various antiques and handmade gifts such as intoxicating candles, pretty bars of soap and bespoke handmade jewellery.

While the market is always there, (it is open Tuesday to Sunday: 10am – 5.30pm and many market shops and pubs are open all week) there’s something magical about visiting it in the Christmas period, and during 1-24 December, the market will be now be open 7 days a week.

And while not cheap, its pretty good value for money in comparison to the monster that is Winter Wonderland (although there are no fairground rides and German inspired beer tents here). A mulled wine with an extra shot of warming brandy will set you back about £4 and a snack from one of the many eclectic food stalls will see you spending between £4 and £10 depending on what you’re after.

Be warned: there is nowhere to sit down unless you purchase your drink from one of the many nautical themed pubs nearby but the atmosphere is really chilled out – no bargy elbows or aggressive shoppers here.

Shoreditch

Always a good place to visit for restaurants and bars – although a bit of a journey if you’re based centrally – the achingly-hip neighbourhood of Shoreditch boasts some good nightlife, especially in the form of cocktail bars. Although not everyone’s cup of tea, its certainly worth the visits. Personally, I’m a fan of the area and have had some really great nights out there. Be careful though, some of the cocktail places in particular can be a tad pricey and some clubs charge £10+ for entrance.

We ended up in Calloh Callay Bar on Rivington Street which, although not our first choice (our first choice required booking a table in advance), was a good alternative with plenty of space if you’re looking to walk in off the street. I chose a Callooh-Stock cocktail which at £8.50 was very reasonably priced for Shoreditch and made up of Bulleit bourbon, Briottet raspberry liqueur and homemade raspberry lemonade and very tasty. Their menus also come in Oyster card holders which is different (albeit a bit gimmicky for those of us who are used to old man country pubs).

It was then on to a club that I cannot remember the name of but I know I consumed many of their yummy frozen margaritas and danced away the night to excellent music until 3 in the morning.

Oxford/Regent/Carnaby Street

Christmas shopping can be – and usually is – everyone’s worst nightmare: pushy crowds, people clutching shopping bags to their chests and sides like body armour – urgh! But if you’re going to do it, if you’re going to brave the repetitive Christmas tunes and the abrasive nature of the High Street, you might as well go big or go home. And that’s Oxford Street at Christmas. Big, loud, brash and utterly wonderful.

Now I no longer have to navigate my way through said crowds as a resident of the Big Smoke, (nothing is worse than wanting to pop to M&S to replace your laddered tights and running into a bunch of drunken lads singing Christmas carols – NOTHING) I can step back and enjoy it a bit more. There’s something in the air if you listen hard enough; the buzz of people chatting excitedly, and its quite liberating just to let yourself be carried away with the crowd rather than constantly looking for a way through!

As usual the lights and the atmosphere of Oxford and Regent Street at Christmas will give you the warm-fuzzies and Christmas feels. I may have even gone against my better judgement and popped into Selfridges’ Winter Emporium in all its expensive and loud glory (and I definitely paid a visit to The Disney Store which, FYI, has gone Frozen crazy this year).

I did, however, get completely lost looking for shops that stocked Osprey rucksacks so I could try a few on before I purchased online. I was so irritated by this that I ended up leaving OR completely and mooching round Soho for a while via the beautifully festive Carnaby Street which is good for shopping, drinking and eating, and removing yourself from the mania of the main strip before you completely lose your shit.

My advice? Hit Oxford Street in the early morning as it’s bound to be a bit quieter. Or if, like me, you’re more of a night owl, go there early evening, shop a little, and then head to Soho for some dinner and a few drinks.

So what do you lovely lot think of London? Did you go there on holiday and fall madly in love? Have you lived there before? Do you live there now? What are your tips for celebrating – and surviving – the Christmas season in the capital? And most importantly, does anyone know where I can get my paws on Osprey travel packs in the West Midlands?

Books In My Backpack

“Don't worry, about a thing,every little

I can’t find my backpack so these books aren’t actually stashed away ready for departure. They’re on my Kindle and my beloved backpack is currently either a) festering away in the loft because my Dad’s stashed it somewhere out of site b) left somewhere random in London when I moved (maybe Murdoch has stolen it and made it his new perch of choice) or c) in the shop where it is waiting for me to come along and purchase it. Again.

**any recommendations for backpacks greatly welcome**

I have heard that New Zealand is pretty pricey when it comes to literature – and that even goes for second-hand books – so I’m going to download a few novels in preparation. Now during my life PK (pre-kindle) I was an absolute zealot when it came to print vs. digital. I was firmly on the print side of the fence but now, after joining Cult Kindle, I’m kind of in the middle.

I love actual, physical, beautiful, books (library or second hand are my favourite – there’s something about the smell and feel) and I felt really blue after I’d read this Buzzfeed feature about all the stunning front covers for debut novels in 2014, because I won’t be able to buy any of these beauties.

But the kindle is also kind of a life saver. I could not go away for eight months with only a couple of novels, I would be miserable and very, very poor from buying up all the books.

So here’s what I’ve stashed in my (missing) backpack via the medium of Kindle so far:

 

Where’d you go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

This was a recommendation and not my usual fare. However, I read the blurb – and listened to the various people recommending this to me – and it sounds brilliant.

I love the idea that it centres on a disappearance and, for once, it’s a novel I have not heard that much about.

Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacy

As cheese fest as this sounds, as soon as I read the write-up about Lacy’s novel, I knew it had to be added to the list. Its about a woman who ups and leaves her stable life in America and goes to ….drum roll please…New Zealand.

“Without telling her family, Elyria takes a one-way flight to New Zealand, abruptly leaving her stable but unfulfilling life in Manhattan. As her husband scrambles to figure out what happened to her, Elyria hurtles into the unknown, testing fate by hitchhiking, tacitly being swept into the lives of strangers, and sleeping in fields, forests, and public parks.” (Amazon)

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

I have never read anything by Oyeyemi but have always had her on my TBR pile. Its the fifth novel from the author who was named in 2013 as one of Granta‘s best of young British novelists. I have always heard her described as one of the most engaging and dynamic writers, and you can’t really get a better write up that! I also really want to read Mr Fox but the cover for this novel just looks so inviting and mysterious, I had to download this book first. I also love that this is a retelling of the Snow White myth – I love reimagined fairy tales!

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Not content with having THE coolest name in fiction writing, Rowell is also uber-talented. I have already read both Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, but I wanted to try her adult fiction, not just the YA (which is my favourite genre) I’ve been gobbling up. And with such great reviews like, “Reading her work feels like listening to your hilariously insightful best friend tell her best stories.” (Library Journal) and with the impending absence of my own best friends, why wouldn’t I want to read it?

 

I will also be taking physical (heavy) books in the form of my Lonely Planet guides to both New Zealand and South Pacific. Oh, and I’m *fingers crossed* managing to get my Mslexia subscription carried over to digital for the journey!

So do you have any recommendations for reads while I’m travelling? Four books wont get this bibliophile very far! What have you read recently that you just couldn’t put down? Is there a particular book you read on your travels that stands out or makes you think of certain places/people you met along the way?