ACCIO happy memories!
There is no need for potions, broomsticks, time-turners or even a trip to Platform 9¾ to recapture the magic of Harry Potter – just take a train to Watford Junction.
There, within two huge hangars at Leavesden Studios, a £100million behind-the-scenes tour of the Potter film sets awaits to weave a spell over muggles of all ages.
“It is sort of the spiritual home of fans of the stories,” said one of our cheery guides, who sported a discreet tattoo of the Deathly Hallows symbol on her wrist.
“People often cry when they see the Great Hall for the first time, because it is where all the magic really began. They just can’t believe they are here!”
The tour – which labours under the official title of Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter – begins with a filmed welcome from the three main Potter stars.
“You’ll never look at Quidditch the same way again” promises retired boy wizard Daniel Radcliffe as the screen rises on the main event – the front door to Hogwarts Castle.
Stepping through that door brings memories of all eight Potter films flooding back. The familiar glory of the Great Hall of Hogwarts lays before you – with the tables all set for a feast.
Although partially destroyed during the final scenes of the last movie – reportedly reducing Daniel almost to tears – it has now been lovingly rebuilt, brick by brick.
The York flagstones, smoke-blackened fire places, animal carvings and Dumbledore’s podium – encrusted with years of melted wax – are just as they appeared in the earlier films.
Only the “enchanted ceiling” proves rather a let down. Instead of mirroring the blue skies of the early spring outside, black metal gantries and harsh spotlights fill the lofty space.
Spectacular set after spectacular set follow on from the Great Hall – including the Griffindor boys’ dormitory, where Harry and Ron shared a room with Neville, Seamus and Dean.
Originally constructed for the first film, the actors soon grew out of their tiny beds. Later movies featured them curled up – to stop their feet hanging over the ends during shooting.
There is no need for a password, Caput Draconis or otherwise, to visit the Gryffindor Common Room. The comfy chairs look most welcoming, although the Fat Lady is nowhere to be seen.
Sadly, none of the portraits move either – a little bit of trickery used only for the films – but there is a rather glamorous picture of Professor McGonagall as an elegant young witch on show.
A chance to peak at Professor Dumbledore’s office is another highlight. Magical instruments fill the cabinets and hundreds of books – actually leather-bound phonebooks – cover the walls.
Hagrid’s hut is tiny – a simple trick to make actor Robbie Coltrane look like more like a giant – with cages of bizarre creatures, such as hairless cats and fruit bats, hanging from the ceiling.
The Potions classroom is truly magnificent, complete with hundreds of bottles of baked bones, herbs, spices and other mysterious ingredients, as well a self-stirring cauldron.
More wizardry is on show at The Burrow – the quirky home of the Weasley family – where invisible hands start knitting after you point a wand to make a knife chop vegetables.
However, save your gasps of admiration for Diagon Alley – where visitors can enjoy a spot of window shopping at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, Ollivander’s wand shop or Flourish and Blotts.
Original designs for this slice of shopping paradise combined details from the Potter books with descriptions of Victorian street scenes by Charles Dickens. The result is pure magic.
Out in the backlot visitors can climb aboard the 22ft tall Knight Bus, created from three double-deckers, or get their picture taken in the flying Ford Anglia – sadly grounded for the tour.
Harry’s childhood homes at Privet Drive and Godric’s Hollow have also been recreated, and the Hogwart’s Bridge is on show too – much smaller than the impression given by the films.
Other highlights of the tour include an awe-inspiring 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts – based in part on Durham Cathedral and Alnwick Castle – which took 86 people six months to build.
A behind-the-scenes look at the monsters of Harry Potter, such as the Basilisk and Buckbeat, is a must-see, as is the collection of wigs, costumes and even teeth worn by cast members
There is a chance to try a glass of Butterbeer too, at almost £3 a shot. As the sweetest, and strangest, drink I have ever tasted, I’ll definitely be sticking to real ale from now on.
You can even jump on a broomstick and try your hand at flying. The action is filmed against a Hogwart’s backdrop, although the end result is a rather disappointing still photo for £12.
There is simply no doubting the sheer spectacle of this tour. The many millions lavished on recreating Harry’s magical world has been money well spent – at least for die-hard fans.
Ultimately, however, I found it both fascinating and frustrating. A strict “look don’t touch” policy means you can’t take a seat in the Great Hall or even visit any of the Diagon Alley shops.
This is a tour, not a theme park. There are no rides, and very little interactive fun. It is a museum to movie magic, really, with the remarkable exhibits tucked away behind glass or barriers.
It is certainly not a cheap day out either, at £28 for adults and £21 for children, and it all ends in an unavoidable gift shop – where wands cost £24.94 and replica robes are a mere snip at £495.
As a huge Potter fan, it is a magical experience I wouldn’t have missed. I’d have to rob Gringotts Wizarding Bank, however, before making a return trip.
** Tickets for the tour must be booked in advance. Log on to www.wbstudiotour.co.uk for further information.