Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Harry Potter and the Elongated Pub Tour

My friend Judy came to visit and, as with everyone, the first day was spent simply trying to keep her awake.  This means walking a lot-- it's hard to fall asleep when walking. We did, however, happen to be going by the Bodleian a few minutes before a tour was going to begin, so we did that-- I haven't been inside the Bodleian yet, so that was nice (I like finding new things to do with visitors rather than repeating stuff. That gets boring for me.).  Like with many historic places, photos aren't allowed in most of it, so I don't have pictures of the actual Duke Humphrey Library with really cool books and shelves and great architecture.  Those at the Bodleian are so serious about this, they make you lock up your bags and cameras before going upstairs into Duke Humphrey's Library (named for a prime benefactor).  Pictures in the lower level, the divinity school (no longer used as a divinity school-- but you can hire it out for a wedding or other event), are allowed however.

What is most interesting about this section, to me at least, is that it took a really long time to build because Oxford University kept running out of money.  Eventually, there was what amounted to a fundraising drive-- the reward for donating money was that your family crest was worked into the decoration on the ceiling.

There are a lot of family crests, so I guess it was a good fundraiser.  It allowed the Divinity School to be finished, at any rate.

Judy's first day here also marked the start of what I've decided is our very slow pub crawl-- slow because it seems to have maxed out at two pubs a day.  But, we've been good about trying new pubs, ones I haven't been too (though, we did do Turf Tavern the first day because I sort of feel like people should see it-- and, it has really good food).  After our Bodleian tour and walk around Christ's Church (which does sit near the Thames), we went to Head of the River, which sits at the top of the Thames walk.  I've passed by it a few times (thus, there are pictures of the outside in another blog), but I've never gone in.  It looks like an English pub should, right down to the fireplace which is stoked with coal, not wood.

(That's Judy jet-lagged-- though, to be fair, she made it until about 7 pm before she hit the jet-lag wall. It was pretty impressive.)  The rest of our week (and as I'm writing, it's not yet over) is more ambitious.

As kitschy and touristy as I know it is, I'm in England-- I had to go to the studios where Harry Potter was filmed.  It's not a hard trek from Oxford, but it's not the easiest one either-- which does explain why many people pay 55 pounds to take the Harry Potter tour bus (which is just a bus with Harry Potter themed stuff painted on it that goes to the studios) rather than just the 28 pounds it costs to get in which requires you find your own way.  Taking the tour bus requires getting off the bus from Oxford at the Victoria Coach Station and getting onto the Harry Potter bus.  If you decide to find your own way, as Judy and I did, you get off at Victoria Train station (basically the same place as the coach station), then take the tube to a different train station, then take a train to Watford Junction and then take another bus from the train station to the studios-- which actually sounds more complicated than it felt at the time, but which is still an exercise in learning how London transports of all kinds work.  Finally, however, you will arrive at the Harry Potter Studio Tour--hopefully within 30 minutes of your assigned ticket time. You can't just buy a ticket to the studios when you finally get there-- you have to book for a specific tour time in advance.  It all worked out-- we had tickets for 2 pm and got to the studios at 1:50.  It was amazingly timed.

It would be easier to get into Fort Knox or the White House than the Harry Potter Studios. We had to pick up our tickets when we got there.  To pick up our tickets, I needed the confirmation number I had been sent and then once my booking had been found, I needed a photo ID to prove it was me who had made the booking.  Once inside, we had to show our tickets to someone to be allowed to stand in line (queue-- I know) to get into the studio and then we had to have our tickets scanned before we were allowed into the studio proper.  There must be A LOT of Harry Potter ticket fraud going on to require so many checks.

While waiting in line, there are a few exhibits like large photos of key actors, generally one from the first movie and one from the last movie to show how they've grown up over time.  And, as we inched closer to the doors that would let us into the sound stages (by luck, it's sound stages J and K-- or at least those at the tour say it's a coincidence), there is the stair case Harry slept under.

The sound stages themselves are pretty cool.  First, you go into the dining hall set (after a brief film hosted by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) which makes it quite clear how the dining hall at Christ's Church is the model-- and why it's way too small to have actually been used.  There are lots of costume displays in the dining hall as well-- they are strategically placed near the place where those in each house would have sat during filming.  This is Gryffindor.

The Dining Hall is, by far, the largest set (though Diagon Alley comes close). So, from there, you enter into the larger part of the sound stage where there are multiple sets. Gryffindor Common Room.

The Ministry of Magic.

Umbridge's office.

Dumbledore's office.

And, so many more-- it takes more than three hours to really look at stuff (it can take many more hours depending on how long you want to linger).  And, I don't want to spoil it completely for anyone who might go... so, I'm including only a little of what's there.  (Well, that, and one can only take so many photos-- I had more than 50.  I'm guessing in comparison to many who go there, I was conservative with my photography.)

There also moving displays which demonstrate the magic (and how that magic happened) of Hogwarts and the Weasley's home (and, other places).

Between sound stages J and K, there are a few outdoor sets like Privett Lane's exterior.

But, the best part of this in-between area is the Butterbeer stand.

It's non-alcoholic, but it could easily be addictive. I'm sure it's pure sugar-- that's probably what makes it so yummy.  Butterbeer is a glass of liquid butterscotch, basically. The foamy part is especially delicious-- Judy and I were both scraping it out of our cups. (Amazingly, you can't buy butterbeer in the gift shop-- I'm amazed the studios haven't capitalized on people wanting more to take home.)

The second sound stage provides a lot of information and displays about how hair, makeup, and special effects were done, including how creatures like the Hippogriff were made to move.

After the special effects are explained through some very entertaining videos, you turn the corner into Diagon Alley, which was my favorite part.

All the famous storefronts are there. And, the lighting changes as you walk through-- going from night lighting to day lighting (which is why some pictures are lighter-- but the difference is a bit harder to see in the photos than in person).

Weasley's Wizard Wheezes was particularly entertaining, for reasons like this.

Then, there is the grand finale display-- a giant scale model of Hogwarts, the one used to film needed exterior shots of the school. The lighting in there also changed from night to day as you walked around it.

It's hard to tell from the pictures, but it's massive.  The last room, before the gift shop, is the credits room where the names of every person who had anything to do with any of the eight movies has his or her name on a wand box. There's no discernible order to them, so it's a bit hard to find a particular name, but we did stumble on one of my favorites, Maggie Smith (though, I do like her more for her role on Downton Abbey...).

There is no way to get out without walking through the gift shop-- and the prices are largely exorbitant.  Still, bought a mug with the Marauder's Map on it.  I justified it by saying 1) I needed a souvenir of this-- the Brits might be annoyed that Harry Potter is now what many foreigners want to talk about when in England, but I'm willing to openly admit and demonstrate that I took a small part in the craze as well-- and 2) I needed a "good mug" (I'm particular about my mugs, especially the handles) for my flat. 

We returned to London to have dinner in Piccadilly Circus (though, we hit a pub for a pint first-- so, only one pub, but I think that counts as maintaining the pub crawl).  We randomly picked Assaggetti-- and it turned out to be a good pick. Italian tapas.  And a lovely looking restaurant.

Walking back to the tube to get back to Victoria so we could catch the coach back to London (the day of complicated transportation kept going until we reached my stop in Oxford), it started raining, so we ducked into the M&M store for a few minutes-- it's a four floor store dedicated to all M&M themed merchandise.  I love M&Ms-- they're my favorite "cheap" candy, but this was a it much. It was overwhelming (especially combined with the very loud, pounding club music they were playing-- which is strange because no one is going to mistake the M&M store for a dance club, no matter what they do).  It's probably the only place to see M&Ms dressed like British figures.

It was a day bookended by kitsch.

A little less kitschy, but still touristy enough, was today's visit to Oxford Castle.  I think it's the last major site in Oxford I hadn't visited yet... and it's easy to get to (so no story of changing transportation-- just the familiar U1 bus).

Outside the Oxford Castle is The Mound, built in 1071 by approximately 200 Anglo-Saxon slaves as a spot for last-resort defense.  I took this picture from the top of one of the castle towers to get a better sense of what it looks like (it's hard to photograph up close).  But really, it's a mound-- it's remarkable more for how old it is than how it looks. 

There is a well situated in the mound-- down a steep set of stairs.

The well is pretty remarkable too-- mostly because it's rather amazing that they were able to do this in 1071--think of the lack of technology!

Oxford Castle itself is pretty interesting-- while for a time, it was a home, mostly over time it's served as a prison. And, it was a prison until 1996-- so, it's only recently that prisoners were moved out and archeologists could move in and start excavating the site.  They're still finding skeletons and other artifacts.

The tour of Oxford Castle begins by walking through a tiny gate made to make you feel like you're entering into prison.

The Castle tour is a story of "murder, romance, betrayal, escape and execution."  It's also a story of torture-- devices for which sometimes resembled equipment found in gyms today.  I walked on what was effectively a wooden stairmaster-- it had a lot of resistance. Prisoner's were made to walk on it for hours at a time in an attempt to wear them down. There were also machines which made them walk in circles uselessly-- kind of like a tread mill does.  I don't know what it says about us that many of us pay (in some cases, quite a bit of money) to exercise on machines which were derived from devices of torture meant to break a person's spirit and will.  I willingly go use these "exercise machines" just about everyday when I'm in the states-- which means I'm literally torturing myself.  It puts a new spin on exercise.

The tour goes through St. George's Tower,

which requires climbing more than 100 very windy, narrow and small steps to get to the top.

There are the crypts (where skeletons are still in the walls. They haven't been excavated fully yet.).

And, there are the cells prisoners were held in, each of which has informational displays in them, like this one which has one of the only two known remaining 19th century gallows handles as well as a helpful list of all of those who were publicly executed in Oxford.  There's a lot about gruesome death on the tour.

Part of Oxford Castle-- where the dungeons used to be-- is now a very posh hotel, Malmaison.  We went by just to see what fancy dungeons look like, though we could only see the lobby (apparently though, the dungeon cells have been converted into upscale hotel rooms which include jacuzzies).  The lobby is quite cool though-- and after seeing the seating area, we decided to make Malmaison the first stop on the day's pub tour, just so we could sit here.

This is the first place I have gone where ordering a beer got a strange look (we were offered coffee or tea).  It was after 1 pm, perfectly acceptable drinking time in England, yet, those in the hotel bar

seemed really thrown by our order, even though the beer taps were right there (with a selection of 2-- as pubs go, it was fancy, but not impressive).

Our stop for lunch after our Malmaison beer (served in a 2/3 pint glass) was at a pub called The Crown.  (I think it's owned by the same people who own the previously written about Chequers.)  It was back to my known and loved Oxford pub environment-- where, everyone was having a pint or wine with lunch so our order was taken in stride.

And again, my opinion that pub food is quite different from-- and much better than--  American bar food.  Look how nice our lunches looked.

There was what seemed like more traditional "bar food" on the menu as well- like nachos.  I really wanted something healthier and more like lunch than nachos, so I didn't order them. But, I have a real urge to order them just once-- I want to see if they come out looking like what I think nachos should look like or if they are fancier/different.  Presentation seems important in pub food, so I'm guessing it won't just be a mound of chips with lots of meat and cheese messily poured on top and in between.  It's probably worth ordering nachos once just to find out what will arrive at my table.

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