Watford has never struck me as a particularly spellbinding place, but it turns out that the Hertfordshire town, around 15 miles north of central London, is a gateway to a magical world – Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, The Making of Harry Potter, which lies on its outskirts.
I say magical not just because you may see your money disappear before your eyes thanks to the temptations of the incredible gift shop and the special effects photos and videos you can buy – but because you are completely immersed in the Potter universe that dazzled you in the movies.
For the behind-the-scenes tour is crammed with the actual sets, props and costumes that the filmmakers used in the making of the eight Harry Potter movies. And they’re housed on hallowed ground – Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden, where much of the filming took place.
Even if you’re not the biggest Harry Potter fan, you are guaranteed to be impressed by the jaw-dropping efforts the production team went to in their bid to bring J K Rowling’s timeless stories to life on the silver screen.
The attraction wows from the off, with visitors greeted in the entrance hall by a 64ft-wide model of the menacing Gringotts dragon, which hangs from the ceiling.
Ted Thornhill discovers that the behind-the-scenes Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter tour is crammed with the sets, props and costumes that the filmmakers used in the making of the eight Harry Potter movies. Above is the Great Hall as Ted experienced it – in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix mode
This area, dubbed ‘The Hub’, also houses a Starbucks and a canteen-style eatery decorated with a giant Marauder’s Map – plus an Afternoon Tea restaurant featuring Hogwarts-style ‘floating’ candles. The tour is vast, easily filling a day, and while there is a restaurant at roughly the half-way mark, I’d recommend getting fed and watered here before starting the experience proper.
Within minutes my partner, daughter and I were filing past the cupboard under the stairs and then into the amazing Hogwarts Great Hall.
During our visit it had a Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix theme. O.W.L examinations were underway, we were told, and at the front was Dolores Umbridge in her striking pink outfit, standing in front of a spectacular pendulum.
Then the mood changed dramatically. To replicate the moment when the Weasley twins appear on their broomsticks, throwing the exam into chaos, the hall filled with smoke and firework candles erupted along the sides, accompanied by music from that scene in the film.
The Harry Potter tour is ‘housed on hallowed ground – Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden, where much of the filming [for the eight movies] took place’
The 22ft Knight Bus as seen on the tour (left). Visitors can clamber onboard and press a button to make the horn sound. On the right is the entrance to the tour
Behold the actual Hogwarts Express. At the front is Olton Hall, the Class 5972 locomotive and tender built in 1937 at the Swindon Railway Works in Wiltshire that was used for exterior shots. Behind – the authentic Hogwarts Express carriage used for over 10 years of filming the Harry Potter series
Visitors can climb aboard the Hogwarts Express and file past the compartments, redressed by set decorators to represent key scenes from the films in chronological order
Dumbledore’s office features 48 portraits of sleeping Hogwarts Headmasters, which were painted from still photographs of the actors
Undesirable No.1: MailOnline Travel Editor Ted Thornhill (left). On the right – costumes for Fred and George Weasley on display at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London
A dazzling start. And the delights kept coming by the cauldron-full.
After the Great Hall we were mesmerised by sets that included Dumbledore’s office, the Gryffindor common room, Harry’s four-poster-bed-festooned quarters, the potions classroom – which is lined with more than 500 bottles and has a self-stirring cauldron – and the Weasley’s family home, The Burrow. Here visitors can activate the magic knitting needles and self-washing washing-up, as seen in The Chamber of Secrets.
We jumped on broomsticks in front of a green screen and were projected in front of Hogwarts and the Knight Bus for photos and videos – and had our picture taken for ‘Undesirable No. 1’ posters. Swept up in the excitement of it all I forked out £75 for the maximum number of pictures (12) and video files (six).
After a thrilling demonstration of how Harry’s Hogwarts letters were fired through his letterbox on Privet Drive we ambled through the Forbidden Forest, complete with spiders, and onto the Hogwarts Express.
The actual Hogwarts Express. Of course.
At the front is Olton Hall, the Class 5972 locomotive and tender built in 1937 at the Swindon Railway Works in Wiltshire that was used for exterior shots.
Behind is the authentic Hogwarts Express carriage used for over 10 years of filming the Harry Potter series.
And you can climb aboard and file past the compartments, redressed by set decorators to represent key scenes from the films in chronological order.
To give you some idea of just how huge the tour is and how much there is to take in – it took us around three hours to reach the Hogwarts Express.
A demonstration of how a machine flung Harry’s Hogwarts letters through the letterbox of his Privet Drive home
The charming family home of the Weasley family. Visitors can activate the magical knitting and washing up
Above is Diagon Alley, a permanent fixture at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter
Visitors to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter can go through the glass doors of Professor Sprout’s greenhouse – a fan-favourite set from the Harry Potter film series
It’s a kind of magic: The iconic Sorting Hat
After burger and chips in the cafeteria next to Platform nine and three-quarters – sadly there’s nothing spellbinding about the food – we headed outside for a saunter through No.4 Privet Drive, versions of which were built on soundstages at the studio.
The tour explains how over the course of production, the set for Number 4 was created ‘in many ways, from a real muggle home to CGI and even a scale model, all chosen to achieve a specific result on-screen’.
Visitors can go through the front door and wander past the cupboard under the stairs, the living room and the kitchen, and see a model of Dobby the house-elf in Harry’s bedroom.
Next to Harry’s Home is Professor Sprout’s greenhouse, where you can pull up a screaming Mandrake from the soil, and also nearby is the purple Knight Bus (don’t miss the button to make its horn blare).
We learn that this astonishing 22ft-tall vehicle was created from pieces of three vintage London double-deckers.
Two versions were built – one that was driveable, and a ‘stunt’ version that spun around on a turntable.
Tour visitors can go through the front door of No.4 Privet Drive and wander past the cupboard under the stairs, the living room and the kitchen, and see a model of Dobby the house-elf in Harry’s bedroom (above)
WIZARD HARRY POTTER MOVIE-MAKING FACTS
A team of 40 artists and crew members built the first version of Hogwarts castle for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
More than 50 sculptors, painters and other artists maintained the castle during production.
The model is illuminated with more than 300 fibre optic lights.
The 22ft-tall Knight Bus was created from pieces of three vintage London buses.
A section of Privet Drive was built on the backlot at Warner Bros. Studios.
The Hogwarts Express is pulled by an authentic Great Western Railway 4900 Class 5972 – Olton Hall. The locomotive was built in April 1937 at the Swindon Railway Works.
Some Forbidden Forest scenes were shot on location, but most were shot on soundstages at Leavesden on massive recreations of the forest.
Hagrid’s motorbike in The Deathly Hallows – Part 1 was a 1960 Royal Enfield.
More than 250 animals were used during the filming of the Harry Potter movies over 10 years for characters that included Hedwig, Crookshanks, Mrs Norris, Scabbers and Fang.
Dumbledore’s office features 48 portraits of sleeping Hogwarts Headmasters, which were painted from still photographs of the actors.
More than 500 bottles line the walls of the potions classroom, many with their own handcrafted labels.
A prop buyer journeyed all over London to buy plates for Umbridge’s office, ‘stacking hundreds of [them] in the back of her tiny car’.
The tour ends with the impressive set for Gringotts and the ‘jewel in the crown of the art department’ – a spectacular model of Hogwarts castle. Shots of it were cleverly combined with CGI in the movies.
It’s a stunning final chapter in a tour that deserves only one rating – nine and three-quarters out of ten.
Discovering Hogwarts is a special feature that will run from May 2 to September 4, 2023, at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter and is included in the ticket price. Highlights of this will include 400 floating candles adorning the Great Hall, the chance to practice and learn the movement behind casting the Wingardium Leviosa spell and visitors will be able to take a seat in a new photo opportunity – Harry’s first boat journey to Hogwarts. Tickets, which cost from around £51, must be pre-booked at www.wbstudiotour.co.uk and cannot be bought at the attraction. A free double-decker shuttle bus that runs to and from Watford Junction is available to ticket holders.
A free shuttle bus runs from Watford Junction railway station to The Making of Harry Potter
Discovering Hogwarts is a special feature that will run from May 2 to September 4, 2023, at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter and is included in the ticket price. Highlights of this will include 400 floating candles adorning the Great Hall. Above, how they looked in the movies