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Harry Potter adventures

All images © Aleney de Winter

Harry Potter adventures in Britain

To celebrate 20 years of Harry Potter, Aleney De Winter and family head to Britain on a wizarding adventure.

On a scale from one to 10, my son’s obsession with Harry Potter comes in at a wizardly 9¾. So, on informing him we’re off to Britain, he conjures a little magic of his own, casting an Imperius Curse to coerce us into turning the fictional world into reality. But the spell is superfluous. His sister Marlo and I are just as wild about Harry and his hocusy-pocusy pals and are just as eager to explore the locations that inspired and featured in the Harry Potter books and films.

London calling

Where better to begin a Potter pilgrimage than Platform 9¾ at London's King’s Cross Station, where Harry began his own wizarding journey. In response to the hordes of visitors seeking out the mythical platform, Kings Cross has installed lookalike signage along with a luggage trolley 'disappearing' into a wall. They’ve also installed a woodpanelled cornucopia of wizarding wares. Here, the kids stock up on Bertie Botts Every-Flavoured Beans and chocolate frogs. Because what self-respecting wizard wouldn’t want to shovel mouthfuls of snot, vomit and dirt-flavoured jellybeans into their gob as they explore the Muggle world of London?

In lieu of a broom, we take the Tube to Monument Station and Leadenhall Market. London's most beautiful Victorian market performed duties as the exterior of Diagon Alley in the first film and an eagle-eyed Rafferty, nine, immediately spots the doorway that doubled as the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron. There are no owl emporiums or broomstickeries to peruse, but we do manage to make a platter of fish and chips vanish.

As we explore London, the kids recognise iconic landmarks including Big Ben and Tower Bridge, due less to their historical or architectural significance and more to them both having featured in 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix'. Millennium Footbridge, destroyed in 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince', is perfectly intact and completely devoid of Death Eaters when we cross, though a cautious Rafferty remains on high alert.

In Oxford, ye olde stomping grounds of literary legends Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde, we row a boat up river and soak up the extraordinary atmosphere. But we’re really here for Harry. The Bodleian Library is home to more than 12 million written items. No doubt if we look hard enough we'll find copies of Harry Potter, as key scenes of the movies were filmed within its hallowed halls. Christ Church is another site beloved of Potterheads, its pretty cloisters and grand staircase also starring in the films.

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” – Albus Dumbledore

A hoot of a castle

While it may not be Hogwarts, a stay at Dalhousie Castle, 20 minutes outside Edinburgh, is as close as we’re going to get. The 13th century fortress is Scotland’s oldest inhabited castle and, from its vaulted ceiling and winding staircases to its oak-panelled public rooms, it rocks a suitably Hogwartsian vibe. It even boasts resident ghosts, though I’m happy to report they are not of the moaning variety.

We stay in a sumptuous four-poster themed room with deep red walls and an elaborate carved bed where a tartan-clad teddy awaits. In lieu of a great hall, dinner is served in the castle’s original barrel-vaulted stone dungeon where we dine by candlelight. The wide-eyed kids are already declaring Dalhousie the best hotel ever, but it still has surprises tucked away in its bag of tricks.

An on-site falconry takes my apprentice wizards' castle experience to the next level as they’re invited to hone their owl handling skills in a private training session. The kids are smitten by their cuddly new owl pals, Bandit and Bob, who glide silently through the sky to their gloved hands. Hedwig who? This is real magic.

Dalhousie Castle

Behind the scenes

Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter is a behind-the-scenes tour of the studios where the films were made. Timed-tickets must be booked months in advance and I am a tad disappointed when confirmation arrives via email instead of owl post. Any disappointment is short-lived as we step into Hogwarts Great Hall.

Rafferty’s jaw scrapes the original stone floor as he stops to take in every detail while six-year-old Marlo is on a mission, racing off to fill her Potter Passport with stamps.

We visit Severus Snape’s potion-strewn classroom, peruse Dumbledore’s book-lined chambers, ride the Hogwarts Express, stroll Diagon Alley and pop into 4 Privet Drive. Along the way we discover the secrets behind the movies’ special effects and ride a broomstick (with the aid of green screen technology). We also encounter incredible animatronic creatures including the magestic hippogriff and gruesome five-metre acromantula, Aragog, emerging from his lair in the Forbidden Forest.

We lose hours inside the walls of the cavernous studios, stopping only to slurp down tankards of sweet, sticky butterbeer. When we do leave, through a gift shop piled with mountains of merchandise, the kids cast a vanishing spell on my wallet, leaving it empty of cash as they stock up on wizarding essentials.

Edinburgh awaits

It was in the back room of The Elephant House, overlooking the gothic grandeur of Edinburgh Castle, that J.K. Rowling crafted words that would become one of the most successful books ever published. We pop in for coffee and to see if some billionaire best-selling author magic might rub off. Instead I lose the ability to write at all as the kids abscond with my only pen, to add their bit to the graffiti odes to Harry and his creator in the cafe's toilet.

We spy the fairytale façade of George Heriot's School, alleged to be the inspiration for Hogwarts, and at Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, we stop by the grave of Voldemort, or at least that of his real-life namesake, Tom Riddell. We wander winding streets that inspired J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world, past bagpipers and street artists, ticking off iconic attractions including Victoria Street (said to be the real Diagon Alley) and the Royal Mile along the way. At the foot of Edinburgh Castle, the kids leap into Camera Obscura, six floors of interactive optical illusions that are nothing if not magical.

A hoot of a castle

While it may not be Hogwarts, a stay at Dalhousie Castle, 20 minutes outside Edinburgh, is as close as we’re going to get. The 13th century fortress is Scotland’s oldest inhabited castle and, from its vaulted ceiling and winding staircases to its oak-panelled public rooms, it rocks a suitably Hogwartsian vibe. It even boasts resident ghosts, though I’m happy to report they are not of the moaning variety.

We stay in a sumptuous four-poster themed room with deep red walls and an elaborate carved bed where a tartan-clad teddy awaits. In lieu of a great hall, dinner is served in the castle’s original barrel-vaulted stone dungeon where we dine by candlelight. The wide-eyed kids are already declaring Dalhousie the best hotel ever, but it still has surprises tucked away in its bag of tricks.

An on-site falconry takes my apprentice wizards' castle experience to the next level as they’re invited to hone their owl handling skills in a private training session. The kids are smitten by their cuddly new owl pals, Bandit and Bob, who glide silently through the sky to their gloved hands. Hedwig who? This is real magic.

Learning to fly

We farewell Scotland for Alnwick Castle (pronounced Annick due to an odd glitch in the English language). The beast of a castle, dating back to 1096, is home to the Duke of Northumberland and Alnwick's main attraction. We plan to explore every pretty nook and historic cranny, though its age isn't what lured us here. You see, the castle leads a double life as a movie star, appearing in 'Downton Abbey', 'Transformers' and, of course, 'Harry Potter'. It provided the celluloid entrance to Hogwarts, the site where Ron crash-landed the Weasley family's flying car and the sacred location of Harry's first Broomstick lesson.

Today, under the tutelage of Professor Colin Potshed and Professor Perry Winkle, it is my kids turn. Broomsticks tucked between legs, they run about the kid-friendly castle like loons and quickly nail broom levitating and flight. Another perfect moment of holiday alchemy and a flawless finale to a journey through places where the magical and Muggle worlds collide.

Our very Harry holiday has created magical memories. So much so that when I ask the kids if they'll remember this trip, my son, channeling Professor Snape, coolly replies, "Always".

This article appeared in volume 53 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

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