UK Road Trip Week 3: Part 2 High Tea at Downton Abbey and Butterbeer at Hogwarts

Day 20: Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey)

It must be a pattern that I disclose my initial skepticism to my readers. Last year, Hannah, once again, caroused me into another of her shows: Downton Abbey. I rushed headlong into it, though. The show was so incredibly well done and raptly drew my attention that we binge watched it quickly. The show was filmed approximately 90 minutes west of London at an estate called Highclere Castle. We booked far in advance so we could wrap up the road trip with a visit.

With a whispered, “Dun dun dun DUN DUN DUN dun dun” to the tune of the initial piano sequence of the Downton Abbey intro, we made our way up the gravel drive. My initial impression was that the castle itself was slightly smaller than I had imagined. The grounds, however, were sprawling and seemed to never end. The production crew had done a phenomenal job of creating the illusion of space in some of the rooms. Storyboards from the filming were propped up along the tour showing the filming scenes in each room. On the boards, white sheets and light bounce cards stood covering large portions of rooms while actors milled about memorizing or reciting lines. I could imagine feeling “in character” among the aged insides of the estate, but seeing the true “behind the scenes” situations made me appreciate the genuine ability and proficiency of the actors in the show.

Flash back to a month or so ago, we “celebrated” our 1 year wedding anniversary, dozing on and off on a long, cramped bus ride from Edinburgh to Manchester. We had shared a lovely anniversary lunch of Pizza Hut that day. With a wry laugh and mutual understanding of our present lifestyle, we agreed to make it more special given the right opportunity. This among other anecdotes along the trip made us share quick eye contact and laugh when people called it our “year-long honeymoon”.

Now, in honor of our anniversary, we had reserved a table for Afternoon Tea to accompany our tour of the castle. In our entire 7 weeks in Ireland and the United Kingdom, we had not actually gone somewhere for proper “tea”. We had drunk tea, to be sure, but never attended a tea or went to a tearoom. This experience at Highclere likely would have made other attempts pale in comparison. The night prior, we carefully tried to unroll, spritz, and de-wrinkle the best clothes we had: a button down for me and a dress for her. With bravado and charm, I even surprised my wife by styling my hair with a bit of gel that our Airbnb host was gracious enough to lend me.

The tea-room was small and intimate. Servers darted in and out of the kitchens bearing 3 stories tea stands stacked with brilliantly white china. Layer 1 held 4 different types of finger sandwiches. Layer 2 contained moist carrot cake, a sort of short bread crème sandwich, and a rich chocolate mousse with what I can best describe as chocolate pop-rocks on top. The final layer had traditional scones with butter and strawberry preserves. The server also brought tea in your typical alabaster white, decadent tea pots. After several clumsy attempts at pouring tea and soiling the white table-cloth, we finished the afternoon tea and waddled our way back out into the grounds for one more slow lap around the magnificent estate.

Car Drop-Off: London 2.0

We were grateful to have a vehicle for 3 weeks. Driving on the left side of the roadways, many of them small, was stressful and there was relief in returning the car. Saying goodbye to it meant that we now carried our 30 and 40 lb bags for miles at a time again. Travel was exhausting, something our parents noted by our dark eyes on many nights when we would Skype or FaceTime. Our time in London proved short. We scheduled a tour of Harry Potter Studios through Tinggly, a company that allows people to “gift” experiences. This one was a wedding gift and we were excited to immerse ourselves in the magic.

Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studios

The title says it all. Hannah and I lugged our full backpacks and luggage to the studio tour and checked them with the concierge desk. I feared that the studio tour would be over-hyped and full of touristy ruses to create perceived value for the visit. I was wrong, thankfully. It was a magical experience.

The detail that was included in the production of the 8 movies is truly understated. One small example is that the production team asked fans to make advertisements and posters for the message board in the Gryffindor common room. The message board can vaguely be seen in the movies, with the fan made club meetings and artwork. The sheer number of props included in the warehouse was astounding, it must have had an Extension Charm like Hermione’s handbag. From the Hogwart’s Express through the corridors to the Ministry of Magic and Forbidden Forest, the magic was alive and intoxicating. The studio was immersive and so detailed that I could easily do it again many times.

The tour also gave me immense respect for the actors. There were several posters and images from behind the scenes where actors were working with green screens or not truly surrounded by the magical background of Hogwarts, yet they made the scene genuine and authentic, a true testament to the entire team’s artistry and acting abilities.

The self guided tour easily lasted 3 hours. We could have stayed longer or done the whole thing through twice, if it were up to us. The full scale sets of Gringotts Bank, Diagon Alley, The Great Hall, Gryffindor Common Room, Hagrid’s Hut, Potions Classroom, Fordbidden Forest, and Dumbledore’s Office were detailed to the slightest minutaue. Outside Hagrid’s Hut stood a large picture display with all of the different real life animals (several for each character) used in casting such as Fang, Crookshanks, Scabbers, and Hedwig. Hannah and I grew up reading and watching Harry Potter. Walking through the warehouses full of sets and props brought back immense amounts of happiness, memories,  and laughs.

Mid-way through there was a cafeteria offering food and butterbeer. We shared one, and the man serving made a mistake and gave us a butterbeer ice cream cone for free. We walked out onto the backlot among Privet Drive, large wizard chess pieces, and the bridge Neville blew up in the final movie. Hannah and I took a picture together in Hagrid’s motorcycle and in Mr. Weasley’s Ford Anglia. My knees barely fit, but it was the driver that I was worried about.

The final areas consisted of costume and makeup departments. Large catalogue books detailed which items belonged to which actor for their character. Videos showed the detail and difficulty behind some of the heavily makeup-ed characters such as the goblins and werewolves. Several of the villains and complex animatronic creatures were displayed with cross sections to show how they were made. Hannah and I knew the tour had to end sometime.

Nearing the 3 hour mark, we wandered through the Diagon Alley set several times, taking in the magical ambiance and reliving childhood for just a few minutes longer. The last room contained the full prop scale of Hogwarts used in the filming, with various angles and technique used to make it appear life size. We sat on a bench and marveled at the detail and how that room had brought so many hours of happiness. Prior to the trip, we often “tossed on” a Harry Potter movie while doing chores, studying, or planning the trip itself. It was a memory we will both hold dear to have visited the place that the magic was created.

The London Luton Airport “Inn” (kidding, we slept on the floor and benches)

I thought this might provide some amusement and clarity around our lifestyle. Several weeks prior to our stay in London, our Airbnb host cancelled, causing us to scramble at the last minute for new accommodation. London was not cheap, and there was nothing in the price range or close to the area we needed to stay for our shuttle to the airport for our 6am flight. We knew we would finish the Harry Potter Studio tour around 10pm, which meant precious few hours of sleep for a hefty price if we re-booked. Hannah and I elected to save money and undergo discomfort, only booking 1 night in London and spending the second night in the airport.

Upon arrival at the airport, droves of people were jostling through crowds with luggage, leaving for their homes. Hannah and I, meanwhile, searched for our “home” for the night; there were few choices in the pre-security arrivals area where we were trapped until morning. After about an hour of searching, we found a corner of fellow traveler misfits, spread out with sleeping rolls and random clothing for blankets. Hannah took the bench, and I made a bed on the floor with my puffer jacket, a pillow from a full packing cube, and covered myself with a microfiber towel I kept in the backpack. It would do. Hannah did not sleep, while I slept for probably 3 hours. It was rough, and thankfully the only time in the first 6 months that we had to deal with a choice such as that.

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