Following the Trail of Harry Potter in the UK

“Lilli would really be interested in visiting some Harry Potter sites,” BJ relayed as we were beginning to plan our itinerary in late March.

“That’s a wonderful idea,” I told him.

He had researched information about the Jacobite train, featured prominently in many of the movies as it chugged across the Glenfinnan Viaduct and sent me the website.

“There are only a few seats left on July 28,” he told me in the phone call that followed.

“It will mean adding an additional day to your trip since we will have to travel by bus from Inverness to Fort William. Chris, Bill and I took that bus in 2000. We can get there in the late morning and book an afternoon trip,” I replied.

We purchased our tickets that afternoon and I began to search for other Harry Potter sites we might be able to include on the trip.

“I have some friends who were in Scotland last summer with their children and told me that visiting Alnwick Castle in Northumberland was a ‘must’. Much of the first two movies were filmed there.”

While I had watched all of the movies when they were available on TV, I had never read the books. I needed to refresh my memory on all things Harry Potter before our trip and was able to borrow the discs from my nieces Caroline and Anne, big Harry Potter fans. In June I started binge-watching the movies so they would be fresh in my mind.

“The scene at King’s Cross Station sure looks like the picture I took of you at Edinburgh Waverly Station,” I texted Chris as I watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer Stone.

Chris at Edinburgh Waverly Station in 2000

“Oh yeah,” she replied.

However, I learned that Waverly Station was not used in the movie, and that walkway across the tracks is now glassed in so there is no longer a resemblance.

Our second day in the UK was to be our Harry Potter day.

When we arrived at the Haymarket train station to buy our tickets, my credit card wouldn’t work at the kiosk. I tried my ATM and it didn’t work. I panicked. BJ’s didn’t either, so we went into the ticket office to inquire. Their Internet connection was down. The only way to purchase tickets was with cash. I forked out cash for one-way tickets and we were on our way.

The train skirted the coast of Scotland and headed south through rolling farm lands crossing into Northumberland a ways north of Berwick-upon-Tweed. After about an hour’s ride, we arrived in Alnmouth where we caught a local bus to the town of Alnwick.

On the train ride, I reminded BJ and Lilli of correct pronunciation of the town where we would get off the train and the Castle.

“The town is pronounced ‘An – muth’, you don’t pronounce the ‘l’ or make it sound like ‘mouth’,” I reminded them.

“The castle and nearby town is pronounced ‘An – ick’. Again, you don’t pronounce the ‘l’ or ‘w’.”

As we walked down the street towards the main part of the town of Alnwick (originally a medieval market town), Lilli was impressed by the old town gate still standing between more modern buildings. It looked almost out of place with all of the car traffic.

Old Town Gate – Alnwick

Once through the gate, we found the sign directing us down a side street towards the Castle grounds and it began to feel more tranquil. We passed the garden and showed the tickets I had purchased online to the greeters at the entrance to the Castle property. We paused to take in the impressive structure before continuing on the path towards the Castle.


“Let me take a picture of the two of you,” I told BJ and Lilli when we got a little closer.

BJ and Lilli – happy Harry Potter fans

As we approached the main entrance (Lion’s Arch), it is recognizable as the way in and out of Hogwarts.

Once inside we had to decide how to spend the limited time we had available. Lilli’s highest priority was the tour about filming at the Castle. Since it didn’t start for a while, we visited the lavish rooms of the State Apartment, home to Duke of Northumberland and his family. During the summer months when the Castle is open to visitors, the family resides at their country home.

“Did you hear the docent’s accent?” I asked BJ in one of the rooms. “He had a ‘Geordie’ accent and sounded just like my grandfather!”

Next we gathered near the Outer Bailey for the ‘Alnwick On Location’ film Tour. Our guide was lively and provided lots of interesting tidbits about our special interest – Harry Potter, in addition to other movies filmed at that location, e.g. Downton Abbey.


Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was filmed at Alnwick Castle in 2000, and in 2001 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was filmed here,” our guide explained.

“As you can see from the broomstick training across the way, the Outer Bailey is where Harry and the other students learned to use their broomsticks,” he continued. “They also learned the rules of Quidditch here.

We moved into the Inner Bailey which was used for scenes of the students going about their daily activities. The lamp on one corner features prominently in one of the scenes.


Next we moved out through the Lion’s Gate along the outer edge of the castle.

“When Harry and his friends visit Hagrid’s Hut, they leave through Lion’s Gate and head down that trail into the wooded area,” our guide pointed.

“You are probably interested in how the flying car that careened over the Castle Wall was filmed,” the guide continued.

“It took 16 different 1962 Ford Anglias to achieve this scene,” he explained. “Some of them were cut in half to allow for filming inside, others had racing engines for high-speed driving, and others were in various stages of being smashed for the scene where the car crashes.”

After the tour, it was time for lunch.  On the way we passed a crowd listening to ‘Dumbledore’ talking to a crowd sitting on the grass in another one of the Inner Bailey’s.


We purchased sandwiches at a takeaway and ate at one of the tables in the medieval Artisans Courtyard

I had seen a couple of girls about Lilli’s age wearing their Griffindor scarves. “Would you like me to buy you a scarf from the gift shop?” I asked Lilli.

“I already have one,” she lamented. “It is in my (still-delayed) suitcase, along with my wand.”

There’s always additional Harry Potter themed souvenirs to buy, so after lunch we visited the gift shop where Lilli used some of her trip spending money to pick out a necklace and I bought coasters for Caroline and Anne in thanks for loaning their movie discs.

Reluctantly, we then had to walk back to town to catch the bus in order to get back in time for the Harry Potter Walking Tour in Edinburgh.

When we arrived at our hotel in Haymarket, Lilli laid down on the bed exhausted. It was clear she needed to rest – jet lag had caught up with her.

“Since I missed the tour yesterday,” I told BJ and Lilli, “I will take a taxi over to the Castle area and go on the Harry Potter Walking Tour. Text me if you get your second wind and can join me so I can let you know where we are.”

“I’ll be wearing a yellow raincoat so you can easily spot me,” Katrina the guide for the Harry Potter Walking Tour had messaged everyone that morning, “and standing outside the Tartan Weaving Mill near the postcard stand.”

It was a small group since some folks got lost and another forgot the time. There was a mother with her three children from Switzerland. The two teen-aged sons were fluent in English, and the mother translated from French for her daughter about Lilli’s age.

Katrina started the tour by having us walk down the hill on nearby Ramsay Lane and to a location on Mound Place where we would not be in the way of tourists going to and from the Castle and nearby shops.

Katrina reminded us that Harry Potter books have such a deep connection to the city because J.K. Rowling wrote most of her seven books while living in Edinburgh. In fact, Edinburgh is still her home.

“What color was Slytherin?” she asked.

“Green,” someone answered.

Katrina went on to explain that in Britain the color green has long had a supernatural connection and is the color of ‘dark magic’. She prompted us that ‘bad spells’ were always green in the Harry Potter movies.  Interestingly, it is often the color used in the UK to announce some type of danger, as opposed to the color red in the U.S.  While I hadn’t noticed this before this afternoon, I began seeing green warning signs as we continued our trip.


Further along, we headed up the hill on Lady Stair’s Close towards the Writer’s Museum where Katrina pointed out the stones in the courtyard with quotes from famous Scottish authors. The one by John Muir really struck a chord with me.

Katrina talking about the John Muir stone and quote
Robert Louis Stevenson quote

I lost my sense of direction as we continued on the tour, winding our way through closes and stairs.

“You’ll recognize this street,” Katrina stated as we turned onto Victoria Terrace. “This narrow street with its colorful store-fronts may have been the inspiration for Diagon Alley – but wasn’t used in the filming of the movies.”

Victoria Terrace – inspiration for Diagon Alley

As we walked down the street, she pointed out some of the Harry Potter-themed shops we might like to visit after the tour.


Next we walked into the kirkyard of Greyfriar’s Kirk that houses the famous graveyard,

and walked across a grassy area.  Katrina explained that many untended graves are now covered with grass, such as the area we were walking on. The kirkyard is the burial place for many people famous in Edinburgh’s history.

Sign listing some famous Edinburgh citizens buried in the kirkyard

Before heading to the section  where many of the graves may have inspired J.K. Rowling, she had us look through the fence of the adjacent George Heriot’s School, the turreted Scottish Renaissance-era school with its four buildings is believed by many to have served as the inspiration for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

“Since the kirkyard is so close to the Elephant Café where Rowling frequently wrote, it would have been a short walk to peruse the names on grave markers for inspiration. There were a number of other Harry Potter tours in the area clustered near the grave of Thomas Riddell, which may have inspired the name for the fictional evil Lord Voldemort (Thomas Riddell’s birth name: Tom Marvolo Riddle).

Before exiting the graveyard we stopped at the grave of Greyfriar’s Bobby. While not a character in Harry Potter, it is famous in its own right as the grave of the dog that remained loyal to its owner, even after death, coming and sitting each day by his owner’s grave for 14 years. Many visitors bring sticks and dog treats to leave beside the dog’s famous grave.

Grave of Greyfriar’s Bobby

A statue of the dog sits proudly next to the Kirk on Candlemaker’s Row.

Greyfriar’s Bobby – in front of Greyfriar’s Kirk and across from Museum of Scotland – 2000

Our final stop was outside the Elephant House Café. A sign in the window proclaims that its establishment was the “birthplace of Harry Potter.” I had done enough research to know that is a false claim; however, she did do some of her writing there.

“They keep a book where visitors can leave messages for Rowling,” Katrina told us.

She went on to explain where Rowling finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “By this point she was no longer poor. Being distracted at home, she checked into the Balmoral Hotel next to the Edinburgh Castle, sequestering herself in the now famous Room 552.” Katrina continued, “After finishing the book, she famously inscribed a message on a marble bust of the god Hermes in the room, scribbling the following: ‘JK Rowling finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in this room (552) on 11th Jan 2007’.”

BJ and Lilli never made it, but felt much better after their naps – and the arrival of their suitcases.  Over dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, I relayed what I had learned on the tour and showed them my pictures.

The Jacobite Train was our final Harry Potter stop in Scotland.


Lilli and BJ were definitely ‘happy campers’ as we boarded the train and found our seats on the old steam train.

Since we were on the afternoon train, the windows were somewhat sooty. In anticipation of wanting a good picture of the train crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct, BJ scouted the train car and discovered that he could stand in the vestibule where the window was open about 6 inches and could take clear pictures.

He was following the progress of the train on Google maps on his phone so he would know when to get in place.

As we approached, the train slowed its speed slightly. As I looked out the window, I was astounded to see the hillsides lined with people who wanted to see and/or photograph the train going over the viaduct without actually riding the train – cheaper, but not nearly as much fun.

crowd below Glenfinnan Viaduct

BJ was able to get an outstanding documentary photo.

Jacobite Train going over Glenfinnan Viaduct – photo by BJ Farrar

After a two hour ride, the train arrived in Mallaig. We had heard about some Harry Potter themed shops and went out in search of them. Haggard Alley was situated near the harbor.

Harry Potter shop in Mallaig

The tiny shop was filled with Harry Potter themed paraphernalia. Lilli still hadn’t spent all of her money and went in search of something to buy – ending up with another necklace.

I heeded the sign at the entrance while Lilli shopped,


and headed outside to wait to allow other muggles to enter.

There was just enough time to enjoy a delicious dinner of smoked salmon salad before heading back to the train.


The train ride was one of Lilli’s highlights of the trip.

I learned later from my cousin Alan that the train we rode on was not the one that was used in the filming of Harry Potter. In 2012 when he and his wife were living in York, he saw the real train, the Wizard Express, in the York Railroad Museum.

Wizard Express---Alan
Wizard Express – photo by Alan Nicholson

After BJ and Lilli flew home, I headed south to visit Stage cousins in the Cheltenham area. On my second day, Alan, Lizz and their two grandchildren accompanied me to visit the Gloucester Cathedral. In addition to being a magnificent example of medieval architecture and containing the burial tombs of historically important people – like the son of William the Conqueror.

UK-Gloucester-Cathedral-son Wm the Conqueror
Tomb of son of William the Conqueror

The Cloisters area was used to film some of the scenes in Harry Potter.

Like other places I had visited, the Cathedral had developed a special brochure to help Harry Potter fans locate where various scenes were filmed, in addition to a sign describing the Cloisters transformation from monastery to filming location.


Can you picture this hallway when Harry and Ron returned to school in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince?

instead of Harry Potter and friends, cousin Alan and his grandson

Or, imagine the words on this wall when the Chamber of Secrets has been opened?


Or, picture students conversing in this hallway?


It was fun and interesting visiting new areas in the UK which were filming locations – reliving scenes from the seven Harry Potter films, as well as learning more about areas that influenced J.K. Rowling’s writing.

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