Thursday, June 29, 2017

Europe 2017: Out of Town

Have I mentioned yet how much I love the Tube? It is an interconnecting set of passageways where you go underground, get swept up by a metal rod, and then dropped off in a completely different area from where you were. I needed to get from Victoria station to Euston station to catch the London Overground, and in a few quick minutes I was there!

I thought that all my train tickets were time-sensitive, and my reservation was for 7:57 a.m. I hadn't been leaving the Cherry Court Hotel - a lovely little nook that I will miss, with its reliable wifi, bathroom en suite, cable television, and air conditioning - until 8 every morning, so this time I had to backtrack my alarm clock an hour, leaving at 7 instead.

Because of this, Victoria station wasn't as bustling as it had been the past two mornings. Apparently in London "rush hour" doesn't start until 7:30 or so. But that made me confident that I wouldn't have issues getting to the Tube with all my luggage.

When I got to Euston I noticed a train for Watford Junction was leaving in about ten minutes, so I figured I would get on that train instead of the one that was leaving at 7:57. I only had a reservation paper and needed to get my tickets, but thanks to Valerie last night, I went to a kiosk, put in the credit card I'd used, typed in my confirmation code, and all the tickets I would need for the next few days popped out! She saved me a lot of hassle.

The trains here work in the same manner as the Tube system - you could pound your Oyster or contactless card on the button and get through the gate, or you could shove a ticket in and then it would pop out the top if you needed it again. When your travel was done, the ticket would stay. Instead of using my Oyster card for the rest of the day, I had tickets ready to go.

The Overground train was a bit wider than the Underground trains I'd been on, and there were far fewer people since it was going out of the city rather than zipping around in the city. I settled in and wrote in my journal as we went from the starting destination to the final destination: Watford Junction.

The Warner Bros. Studio Lot isn't actually in Watford Junction - it's in Leavesden. But this was the easiest way to get people out of London and to the studio. There's a shuttle bus (cost two pounds fifty round trip) that will take you straight from the station to the studio tour.

Since I'd left on the earlier train, I was the second group to get there. A family of five from Seattle was already waiting. The mom asked me how early I'd booked my ticket, and I said about February. She mentioned that she and her youngest son had tried to go on an earlier trip but it was sold out, and she said that the rest of this summer was already sold out, too! Now I'm really glad I booked it early!

The buses hadn't started working yet when we were waiting, so we waited out in the bus terminal for about 15 minutes before a double decker bus wrapped with the Harry Potter Studio picture came around. Naturally, I got on the top deck. We waited on the bus for about 15 minutes before taking off, but a bit of that wait time was due to some construction on the road that was blocking the bus terminal.

As we rode, Jason Isaacs - Lucius Malfoy - came on and welcomed us to the tour. Then some - cast members? I can't figure out what they would be without thinking of the Disney term - told us the instructions. Luckily it did mention that there was a cloakroom and items could be checked there. I was hoping for a bag locker area at the Watford Junction train station but there wasn't one. This would solve the problem of my large green bag.

We got there and I was one of the first people off. We were the first shuttle of the day, which was incredibly helpful. My Disney travel experience paid off tremendously! I went to the outside ticket kiosk, typed in my code and got my ticket, went to bag security, where I didn't have to wait, then went to the cloakroom and handed over my green bag. I was like a machine.

Then I had about 25 minutes before the studio officially opened! The cafe and store were open, so I went over to the store and looked at the massive amount of merchandise they have. Yes, Universal Studios fans, the merchandise here is different from what they have at the theme parks! I was very impressed. I remember almost 20 years ago when the first bits of merchandise were released - it was pretty crappy stuff. (I shouldn't be too snarky - one of my travel notebooks on this trip is a Hogwarts notebook from that era.)

The queue to get in had almost as many switchbacks as Heathrow, it seemed, but it wasn't even close. Still, I made sure to get in the queue quickly, and was only about three switchbacks behind. They featured Harry's room under the cupboard as you waited, so as you passed by you could take pictures inside.

Firstly, they take you into a Disney-like preshow, where there's screens on the walls and no furniture inside. You're just supposed to fill in the available space, and there's doors on the other end. (Hint: go right next to the doors on the other end. They're going to open!) A man welcomed us and we watched a video of how the movies created the insane hype that exists today. Then those doors opened and we were in a theater. We took a seat (going all the way to the end of the row and filling in every available seat) and the lady there joked that we were now going to watch all eight Harry Potter movies in a row and she'd see us tomorrow morning.

But instead we watched a film of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint welcoming us to the Studio that they'd called home for ten years. They were "standing" (I'm pretty sure it was a green screen) behind the large doors of Hogwarts. Then they told us to have fun and went into the doors, shutting them behind the three of them. The cool thing was that the screen rose, revealing those very doors behind it! That got lots of "oohs" from the audience.

The lady pushed the doors open, and we were in the Great Hall - the one used in the movies! Not all the tables were there - just on the outside, so we could walk - but a lot of costumes were also set up around the room.

This was the only space where we were all in one place while a person narrated the area to us. They want to make the reveal as cool as possible, so they release people in shifts. After the Great Hall, we are supposed to continue the tour at our own pace.

It was pretty light for the first half hour, but then it did start to pick up a bit. It was kind of hard to get shots without someone in them. But they had so many costumes out - especially from the final five movies or so - and wigs, too, labeled for each actor. Not all the sets were there completely, but they had segments from all the important ones, like the Gryffindor common room, the Potions dungeon, the Burrow, Dumbledore's office (where they had the robes for Michael Gambon and Richard Harris), and Hagrid's hut. My favorite pieces were from the Ministry of Magic - those bright tiles all one color that are laid all over the walls. I just really connected with that art design, and they had both the green and red areas shown in the studio. They also had the "Magic Is Might" statue from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1, which is an incredibly sad piece of artwork, but after seeing different examples of art yesterday at the British Museum, I was much more interested in seeing how the people looked and moved in this piece of set design. I'd call it art, honestly.

A new exhibition had recently opened - the Forbidden Forest. They had an audio animatronic of Buckbeak, who moved, crowed, and bowed before you. He did it with such lifelike precision that I was enamored!

They had an area with some special effects, too, where Aragorn and the other spiders come to attack you. That was a bit spooky for me - I don't like spiders. But then they showed examples of how they created the lifelike looks of the trees - it definitely isn't just a cut-and-paint job.

The Hogwarts Express was next, and since I'd been to Florida, this was less of a jaw dropper than it could have been. But it was still pretty awesome! They had several Platform 9 3/4s where you could look like you were going into the wall, so I guess I don't have to seek it out at King's Cross if I don't have the time!

By this point I'd been touring around for an hour and a half. I also had done a "free" photo opportunity where I could pose for a wanted poster and fly on a broomstick. The thing is that if you want the photo or the DVD, where they gave you a costume and insert backgrounds, you have to pay. Yes, I did decide to buy my wanted poster. I looked pretty dumb on my flying video, though it was fun seeing me in those robes!

They conveniently put a cafe lunch stop about 3/4ths of the way through the tour, and it's the only place outside of Universal Studios where you can purchase butterbeer (not the frozen kind, though, which is better IMO). Some cast members I talked to said it's better here because it's made in England, but when I had it, can I admit that it was better at the theme park? Is that bad?

I was excited to connect to the wifi for the studio (after a long back-and-forth with getting my phone to log me in - it's becoming a real annoyance), and I sent my family about 20 Snapchats from my time at the studios. Since it's a five hour difference, they must have been shocked to wake up in the morning to find their phones slammed with videos and pictures! Sorry, family. Hope you weren't annoyed.

There is an outdoor portion of the tour that contains the Dursley's house on Privet Drive and the Potter's smashed house. They also have the tressel bridge from Hogwarts, and I'd managed to get out there before it was crowded with people and got a great shot from inside it all by myself!

The crowds here are definitely international. There were not many Brits in the crowds of people I passed and heard talking. Most were Americans, but there were others from all over the continent, too.

Inside the second studio was mechanical props and body parts, like the heads of the goblins, the Monster Book of Monsters, and a mandrake. They had the head of the Hungarian Horntail and the Basilisk hanging out, some devil's snare, and thestrals.

Next was concept art - incredibly detailed drawings of props, vehicles, and even sets that were created by Stuart Craig. That guy is a genius.

The next room was taking the ideas of J.K. Rowling and painting them. These pieces of art were gorgeous! I want them in the next editions of the books, or at least to be sold as prints. I want them in my house.

They also had card models of several setpieces, but that got pushed aside when you went into the second-to-last room - the scale model of Hogwarts. It's not a tiny thing, either - the room is huge! They used it for swooping shots and filled in the rest of the work around it. The cool thing is that it has different lighting, so as it goes from day to night there are little lights that turn on inside. You can walk all around it as you go down a level and see it from all sides. I didn't get emotional seeing it like I did the original Disneyland model, but I came pretty close.

The final room was an Ollivanders-like room with shelves and shelves of wands, with each box named with a member of the Harry Potter crew. I thought that was a cool touch.

We emptied back out into the gift shop, and the tour was done! Well, sort of. Before getting to the gift shop, I turned around and walked all the way back to the Great Hall and sauntered through the whole thing again, this time without my camera. I made sure to notice every little item and detail. It was a good idea to do that.

They've done a great job converting a working studio into a tourist attraction, and if you love Harry Potter, this is a requirement. But I wouldn't go out of my way to do it. Going to Florida or California and seeing the theme park versions is just as good. (Plus: frozen butterbeer!)

I got back on the shuttle that took me back to Watford Junction. Even though I was in the right direction (northwest) I was unable to find a train ticket from that location to Oxford. So I had to take the Overground back to London, take the Underground to Marylebone station, where the train to Oxford would be departing. It meant extending my travels a bit, but maybe it was just a nice opportunity to relax, which I definitely did.

The Marylebone station is interesting. There's not much seating around the departure screen, so everyone is standing around, waiting to see which platform from which their train will be leaving. Some are posted early, but others, like mine, don't post until about five minutes before, for some reason. So all of us are staring at the screen, waiting for them to say which platform to go to, and then the number "2" flashes up and everyone starts running for the platform! I'd never seen that before, but I joined along gleefully.

This was my first real train travel of the trip. The seats were forward and backward facing and there were some with tables in between. I had to sit in a backwards seat, which I hate, but this trip actually wasn't so bad for me. I got a window seat, and was using my portable charger to charge up my phone, which desperately needed a charge after three hours of touring and Snapchatting.

I had gotten myself a Cornish pasty from a kiosk before I left, and was very pleased with it. Unlike the Yooper pasty, this one actually has a bit of gravy inside, and the crust is much thicker. It actually reminded me of the crust on the Banquet pot pies that Dad used to buy for us when Mom was in grad school. (I loved that crust!) The only real problem with it was that the crust was very crumbly and got all over the place!

As we went by, we passed National Stadium in Wembley, marking the second Olympic stadium I have ever seen! It was quite exciting.

After about an hour on the rails we made it to Oxford station. There were far fewer tourists in Oxford, which was very welcome. But I made a rather big mistake when I got there. Instead of inquiring about the bus travel, I walked to my lodging.

The walk wasn't very long - about 20 minutes - but if I'd checked with the bus, I would have seen that I could have purchased a 24-hour pass that would have worked for the entirety of my stay in Oxford. It would have saved me a bit of time, and allowed me to see more of the city this evening than I actually did.

Unfortunately, I didn't know that information until I passed a bus terminal after dinner. Instead, I walked to St. Hugh's. (It wasn't a bad walk, to be completely honest - even with my heavy green bag.)

The porter at the entrance showed me a map and told me my room was on the second level. Well, I went up one flight and started looking around. My room wasn't there! But then I remembered that in Europe, they have the ground floor, then the first floor, then the second floor. I was actually only on the first floor! So I went up another level, and found my room with little difficulty.

The room is very nice, and honestly bigger than my room at Cherry Court. But this one doesn't have some of my key items: en suite bathroom, television, and air conditioning! The bathrooms are down the hall, the showers are a different room, and I had to open the window to free up the air flow in the room. I also was having a lot of trouble with my phone cooperating with the wifi - it didn't start to work until after I'd gotten back from dinner, so I was pretty clueless as to where to go in the evening. The maps provided didn't do a very good job, and I guess Oxford was the place that I didn't study enough before leaving.

I got out of the room and walked south and managed to find a nice, quiet street with several food choices. I decided on The Rose and Crown pub, where I got a half-pint of their milk stout and a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. There was pretty much no seating inside, so I ate out back in their patio area, which was frequented by groups of locals. (The milk stout was delicious. The sandwich not so much.)

I walked around North Park for a bit, watching some club members practicing tennis on the lawn. I also sat outside my own college's garden area, which was nice. There's a conference or something going on, so there's quite a few people milling about here and there.

It was funny doing all of the bathroom necessities back in a dorm setting - I didn't have to do it during Worship Conference, so this is something I haven't done in quite a while! I was wishing for my plastic shower caddy back.

Tomorrow I will look to get a bus pass for the day and also look into storing my green bag somewhere so I don't have to lug it around. It will be a little calmer of a day, I think!

Read about my day in Oxford HERE!

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