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June 29th 2012
Published: June 29th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

I am not the biggest Harry Potter fan, in fact I have not finished reading the series of books (I think I am up to Number 5) but I have seen all of the movies. However, Narelle is a major fan and has read the books more than once and watched the movies on multiple occasions. So when she bought us tickets to the Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour I was not exactly doing cartwheels with enthusiasm but took the opportunity to go – and as it is near London NLS needed a driver. It was an early morning trip down the M40 to Leavesdon near Watford, which is where the movie set for HP was for the ten years of filming. Warner Bros. have left the set as it was and have turned it into a tourist attraction to show off what they built. It has become one of the most popular attractions in and around London.

I now need to eat some humble pie as the day was so much better than I thought it would be. It began with a quick documentary narrated by the three main stars of the movie series, which was interesting but not the highlight. The highlight was when they lifted away the screen and the main doors to the Grand Hall at Hogwarts came into view – it was an amazing sight and as the large doors opened to the words “Welcome to Hogwarts” you could look right into the hall. It had been left as a ‘hot set’ so the tables were as they were in the movie and the main characters costumes were arranged around the walls. As you enter the hall is incredible it looks and feels like a castle or manor home you could easily be visiting with the National Trust and you get the first indication of how good the set design and construction was.

Professor Dumbledore’s Office is amazing. You stand there looking into a fully complete office interior that has no walls. You forget that when movies are made they need room for all the cameras, people and extras. High up in his office is the telescope that is a real feat of engineering and set making. I could not believe how many of the props had moving workable parts. We wandered through Diagon Alley and saw all the famous shop fronts like the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes and the Gringott’s Bank. There are also the sets from Hagrid’s hut, the Potion classroom, the Weasleys’ house, the boys’ dormitory and the Gryffindor common room. As you leave the first sound stage and walk onto the back lot and the famous address of 4 Privet Drive you get to look into the Ministry of Magic. There is a large art department that shows off costumes, make up and remote controlled dragons. In the films Hagrid’s face and head was worn by ex-England rugby player Martyn Bayfield and was controlled by an operator behind the scenes – the mask is very life like and came to life in front of your eyes. It is all quite surreal in its look and as I had never walked a movie set before I found it all rather interesting.

Just before you exit the tour there is a magnificent 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts. It is an incredible piece of modelling and took 86 artists and crew members a staggering 74 years of man hours to model and reconstruct as the movie series developed. It gives you a 360 degree view of the castle and is amazing to look at – at nearly 50 feet in diameter it takes you about five minutes to move around. There are 2500 fibre optic lights inside the model that allow the interior to be lit up to assist with filming. It was used in all the movies but as CGI improved they had to ensure that the model was good enough to digitally scan. Hence all the doors are hinged, real trees were placed onto the landscape and scale replicas of Alnwick castle and Durham Cathedral were made so as to match up with the location filming they did at both places. It really is quite unbelievable and makes such an impressive final look at the set.

As with all good museums your tour finishes in the shop, which was filled with Harry Potter memorabilia from sweets to very expensive wands. From the sound of the tills and the lines waiting they were printing money. It was also where I sighted my one and only person dressed up as Harry – an 18 year old girl complete with the scar on her forehead. We may have been on a slow day as dressing up is apparently usually far more prevalent. So it now appears I can add Harry Potter Tour trips to other things I have surprisingly enjoyed like coach tours and cruises.

We left the comfortable surrounds of Kate and Al’s on the Saturday morning. I had got up early to watch the All Black game against Ireland. Ireland is Al’s team and with the press saying that Ireland had a very good chance of winning we settled in to watch with interest. It did not last long – in fact Al left for work with the score at 24-0 in favour of the ABs. I was happily stunned when the score ended up 60-0 and headed off to North Wales happy in their work. It was the right conditions (raining and grey) to head to one of our favourite areas in Wales up near the picturesque Snowdonia National Park. We were heading to the 14th Century built Maes-y-Neuadd, which we used to go to a lot when we lived in the UK. If you want you can have a look at their website at www.neuadd.com

We were going in pursuit of wonderful food but I am not sure why we left Bromsgrove. Kate has delivered a culinary journey on the nights we have stayed with them. We have had scallops on black pudding, mussels, individual coq-au-vin and pudding and cheese boards to die for. It has all been quite stunning and we feel very spoilt. So whatever we encountered in North Wales had to be good – and it was. The setting for the hotel is inland from Harlech and the Cardigan Bay coastline and is surrounded by wonderful mountains and hills. The drive to it took us through Bala and high up over the slate hills – it is desolate in places and when I drive through here I never cease being amazed at where people live. Tucked up in valleys with limited access; the long winters must be pretty harsh. It is a wonderful part of the world but sadly one that has been hit hard by the recession and a change in industry. Unemployment is high amongst young people and looking at the boarded up pubs and For Lease signs business is a struggle. Putting all that to one side we did enjoy getting to our room, unpacking our bag, uncorking the complimentary sloe gin and watching Black Caviar on the BBC. I have never seen a horse dominate a day before. The crowd was simply amazing and with the Australian contingent in fine voice there has not been a better advert for the Australian Racing industry in the UK. The race so nearly did not go to plan but realistically it all just added to the atmosphere and emotion of the day. Little did I know that our friends Sharon and Gareth were front row centre in the crowd and in a remarkable coincidence Sharon had worn and outfit in the racing colours of Black Caviar; a great way of being mistaken for the owners!

Our night at Maes-y-Neuadd was just as we expected and remembered. We enjoyed a wonderful six course meal and tried some great wines. Narelle even tried a local Welsh wine, which got a positive reception. I kept my local beer tasting going and tried a beer that could only originate in Wales – Two Dragons. Both of the hotels we have returned to in the UK have had to adapt to the changing market and are different in their make-up from what we experienced ten years ago. However, both continue to offer a wonderful experience and the chance to remove yourself from the ‘real world’. I could never tire of the North Wales area and what it offers – I will have to return one day as I would love to reacquaint myself with Royal St David’s Golf Course. It is links in style and is a challenging course – it certainly pushed my ability to the limit.

Driving back to Shropshire the next day we stopped off at Betws-y-Coed. This is a tourist mecca in the region and is always full of day trippers, canoeists and outdoor pursuit type people. It is always busy and even with steady rain the numbers of people in the town swelled while we were there. It is very touristy and the shops sell every sort of Welsh souvenir the Chinese have ever manufactured – you could buy a Welsh Love Spoon for every room in the house! Years ago Narelle and I stayed at a B&B across the river – in fact it was one of our first weekend breaks. The river today was in full flow as the rain had been pretty relentless over the previous 24 hours and due to that fact there were a lot of canoeists heading off to find some good white water. We went in pursuit of hot coffee and a sit down!

It has been a great week for catching up with people. Keith Shuttleworth kindly arranged a get-together for some of our Ellesmere friends. As I said in a previous blog Keith is one of the busiest retirees that I have met. He juggles A-Level marking with cricket umpiring and Bridge at this time of year; he was dashing off to umpire a College fixture when we left his place. He lives in a cottage about 10 miles from Ellesmere and we were very lucky with the weather – in fact we ended up putting a gazebo up and having supper in the garden. Due to the summer the UK is having that has not been an easy task to arrange or foresee. Keith and his friend Beryl put on a wonderful night and it was nice to meet up with so many people in one go. The night ended soon after England’s football team had succumbed to penalties in the European Cup – how many times will the English fans have to endure that? England’s quest to win a major international football competition has many similarities with NZ’s need to win a second RWC after the initial triumph in 1987. It is definitely a ‘monkey on the back’ for them and they will hope that they can overcome it in much the same way NZ did last year. They certainly have the talent pool to do it – although seeing some of that talent pool sitting by an LA pool in the days after being knocked out of the competition did not please some of the fans.

We area back staying with Paul and Benedicte in Ellesmere. It is the last week of term for the College so it is a busy time of the school year and many events will take place this week; many of our best moments at Ellesmere occurred during the last week. I have enjoyed watching cricket on the top square – the 1st XI was playing the Shropshire Gents and it was a perfect afternoon for it. We had dinner with the McCarthy’s and the Scorers at their respective houses - the dinner at the McCarthy’s allowed us to sort some of our French trip as we will stay with Ros and Mac later in August. We got through a few bottles of wine so I do hope that their trip to Salisbury the next afternoon was not too long. That was to be the first leg of their trip to their holiday home. It was also fantastic to see John and Pippa who were looking younger than ever - the diet of travel and golf seems to be the way to go. They have moved into a barn conversion near Knockin and with the barmy weather we were able to sit out in their garden area until after 11pm. I attended the Common Room Leavers’ Drinks that were held on the Headmaster’s Lawn – I enjoyed this as I got to hear Colin’s farewell speech. Colin and Kerry are moving to Adelaide from September after ten years in Ellesmere. It has all been a good precursor to the last day of the year – on the final Saturday there is Speech Day, the Commemoration Service and ‘Champagne and Strawberries’ on the top terraces. It makes for a long day, which is rounded out by the Leavers’ Ball in the evening with the Dinner Suit getting another outing. It is a day on which you need to pace yourself – many a ‘newbie’ has woken up at 10pm on the floor of their house having missed most of the evening’s festivities! It should be fun and another chance to meet up with a few people we have not seen for a while. It is all geared up for a great day – let’s hope the weather gods are on our side as in my opinion there is nothing better than drinks on the Ellesmere terraces on a Shropshire summer’s day.

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