What the Harry Potter films have done for British heritage

Imagine your kids nagging you to visit a great cathedral or whining, “Kevin’s family got to go on a walking tour of Oxford, why can’t we?” Oddly enough, this scenario may not as far‑fetched as it sounds.

Durham Cathedral, Alnwick Castle, Gloucester Cathedral, Oxford University, Lacock Abbey, Hardwick Hall and the Scottish Highlands are all places that have no doubt had a boost in tourism from being Harry Potter film locations. Not that any of these sites were likely suffering from a lack of tourist attention, but it’s always difficult to get young people excited about such venues. Instilling an interest in history and museums in the minds of children has never been an easy task—but then Harry Potter came along.

Harry Potter

He looms large in the psyche of an entire generation. The Harry Potter films have created some serious tourism in the United Kingdom.

Cynically, I suspect that a fair portion of Harry Potter fans have never read the books, so of course I’m talking about the movies. The films have, forgive me, a magical effect on their young fans, encouraging them to fantasize not only about adventure but of empowerment. For kids (and middle-aged kids) to be able to place themselves in Snape’s dungeon or the halls and courtyards of Hogwarts Castle is just so much fun. And, apart from vandalism, anything that gets teens and preteens interested in heritage sites is a good thing. Along the way, they may begin to appreciate ancient architecture, atmosphere, beauty—things far more lasting than a rollercoaster’s thrill. The Harry Potter films are a gateway drug for interest in history itself and the British tourism industry is all over it.

medieval vaulted ceiling

The ceiling of the Bodleian Library Divinity School, Oxford: you may recognize it as the Hogwarts Infirmary.

medieval vaulted chamber

The vaults under Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire were the original location of the potions classroom and the model for the future set.

quadrangle and arches

The place where Mad-Eye Moody transformed Draco Malfoy into a ferret is also known as the New College cloisters, Oxford.

As adults taking an 11-year-old on a short trip to England, this was not lost on my partner and me. “How to entertain the child,” was a constant concern, but this young lady’s fascination with Harry Potter saved the day. If we could promise her a Potter location, she’d happily trudge around a rainy medieval city or wander the cloisters of an ancient abbey, each time discovering all sorts of things beyond her expectations. Having done that, we still dangled before her the ultimate juicy carrot: a visit to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London. On Greater London’s northernmost edge, this complex is where all the Potter films were made.

castle hall

The Great Hall’s charmed ceiling is mostly digitally produced. The ceiling’s scale model can be seen in the next zone.

two suits of armour

Did anybody notice that one of the suits of armour guarding the Great Hall is a quidditch player? There is a wink and a giggle in every prop from these films.

cluttered room of antiques

The wallpaper of the Gryffindor common room is a reproduction of the 16th-century French tapestry 'Lady with a Unicorn.'

For my money, and the admission cost a whole heck of a lot of it, this place really is a museum. Unlike the franchised Harry Potter experiences, this exhibition is in the actual studio complex, complete with the original sets, props, costumes and animatronic monsters from all the movies. It was, in all six definitions of the word, fantastic. Every prop and set was designed as if it were to be subjected to the most careful inspection and each came supplied with a wonderful whiff of humour. You cannot begin to appreciate the creative imagination, the astounding craftsmanship or the insane detail involved in these props by merely seeing a Harry Potter film—even in a theatre. The mind reeled at the minutiae of items like a fully annotated Ministry of Magic employee ID card or the hundreds of uniquely labelled boxes in Ollivanders wand shop. This staggering depth of detail would seem unnecessary in the grand scheme of the films’ art direction, but it all weaves a subliminal tapestry that gives the whole series its deep, rich atmosphere.

old laboratory

All of the hundreds of jars of magical ingredients in Snape’s potions class are uniquely labelled and filled with all sorts of repulsive gunk, stuff, odds and ends…

paintings in medieval style

The dozens of portraits around Hogwarts were all hand-painted, individual works of art. Many of the models were the films’ producers and crew members.

a tapestry of a family tree

The appearance of this prop “tapestry” was so compelling that J.K. Rowling herself invented generations of Sirius Black’s family so the artist could fully populate the Black family tree.

As for the sets, they’re all a bit overwhelming. The major interior locations plus some exterior ones are there with all the trimmings. Of course, you can visit Platform 9¾ and board the Hogwarts Express, but the last exhibit is the most exciting of all. I had to physically restrain the girl from spoiling the surprise for her mother: the 1:24 scale production model of Hogwarts Castle, in all its clinically obsessive detail. Even when you know it is there in the next gallery, it will still leave you, in the local vernacular, absolutely gobsmacked when you see it.

a street of old buildings

The set for Diagon Alley is smaller than it looks on film but is still an endless delight to visit in the flesh.

old steam locomotive

For you train nerds: the Hogwarts Express is a fully functional Great Western Railway 4-6-0 Hall Class locomotive built in 1937.

a set of architectural drawings

A wall of plans shows that even buildings with a slapdash appearance were carefully and professionally designed.

Such a tsunami of evocative creativity demands a deep and broad historical knowledge—and this is what’s behind the genuine believability of the props and architecture on show. So, when your kids are beside themselves with excitement to be standing in the Hogwarts Great Hall, they are surrounded by the repurposed relics of history. I believe that such details can leave a trace, implanting a latent interest in the past—even if that suit of armour over there is holding a quidditch broom.

a model of a castle

At 1:24 scale, the endlessly fascinating Hogwarts Castle production model covers the area of a tennis court.