Harry Potter with a Side of England

The Magic Behind an 11-Day Road Trip in the UK

Bodiam Castle, my personal favorite

Years ago, when I worked at Amoeba Records in San Francisco, I learned a skill that I will never put on my resume: How to buy tickets to events that sell out. Technically, it wasn’t a skill I acquired from the job but from my peers who were intensely, voraciously, seriously into music. And in a city like San Francisco, you had to be in order to get tickets to the best shows.

After living in that city, that climate, that habit stuck. So when I heard that J.K. Rowling had written a play and tickets would be going on sale, I ensured said tickets would be in my hot little hands. And I made it so. I had purchased two tickets to see Harry Potter and The Cursed Child a year and a half in advance.

When I told my partner Mark about this, he didn’t seem phased (that’s why I adore him). He was elated and had the exact response I was hoping for, Let’s make a trip out of it. From the moment we began planning, we had many friends ask about our itinerary, especially when they heard, Harry Potter, road trip and castles. Apart from the stories, which are likely posts on their own, I want to share what we did and how we did it. I hope you find it helpful if you decide to do something similar and maybe even entertaining.

What I included:

  • How and when to buy tickets for the most important Harry Potter experiences
  • A link to the Google Map we created for our trip and our tips for driving in England
  • Where to stay last minute whether it’s basically a castle or a modern hotel without spending.. one million pounds <austinpowers.gif>
  • How we did London in one day and got around the city
  • How to find and see all the castles (and abbeys, trust me on this one)
  • And a fun extra, my original Pinterest board — because that’s how I do most things [Link]

Before you go, or Harry Potter

The Harry Potter play has two parts. You can either see them both on the same day (we did) or split them up between two days. During the intermission, Mark and I agreed that we could have left right then and have called the trip a success. The play is a must-see. The story, the acting, the stage magic, the tiny, beautiful, historic Palace Theatre, all incredible.

Harry Potter and The Cursed Child [Ticket info]
Cursed Child tickets are now only available three months in advance. During intermission there is wine, beer, snacks and souvenirs for purchase.

Warner Bros. Studio Tour London [Ticket info]
The Studio Tour is a tour of the official sets, costumes, and props and requires a ticket that must be purchased as far as two months in advance. The ticket purchase requires the selection of both a date and a time. Many of the visitors are Brits, so these tickets go quickly.

A model of the Durmstrang ship from Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire
A model of Hogwarts used for exterior shots of the castle in the films

What we did when we missed our Studio Tour ticket time
We had planned in advance to do the tour the third day we were in London. In reality, we were so incredibly jetlagged we decided to sleep in, not thinking it would be a big deal to go another day. Big mistake. Tickets were impossible to get but we obsessively monitored the site one evening until I managed to finally get one. We decided to both go anyway and explain the situation. Thankfully, they have a ticket exchange policy. If you had tickets and needed to exchange them for a different day, you pay £10 for the exchange and all is well. The people we spoke with were very helpful and not only did that for us but also refunded the cost of the extra ticket we purchased.

House of MinaLima [Site]
If you are a design nerd you will appreciate this three story gallery showcasing the graphic design of the Harry Potter films. Beautifully displayed and wonderful to see on its own. Right around the corner from the Palace Theatre where the Cursed Child is performed. Entry is free and prints of the work are for sale both in the gallery and on their website.

A very large map

Our Road Trip

We made our vacation a road trip and only planned so far as to buy plane tickets well in advance, see Harry Potter things, plot points on a map and generally decide what we wanted to see. The rest was completely fly by the seat of our pants. I had done this type of “planning” before with a friend of mine through Italy and France but never with a significant other. And Mark had never traveled this way, period.

If you use Google Maps you can download the entire map of England (1.7GB) which includes roads, highways and points of interest to use offline while driving. You can also take our map with you, it includes everything we saw plus the things we considered, throughout England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. [Our Google Map]

Not having too many hard and fast plans ultimately maximized our ability to be flexible but could have done with more planning upfront. By the time we were ready to head into Scotland we realized we only had three days for Scotland things. We made a quick but bittersweet decision to stay in southern England and come back to Scotland another time. And worth noting as you look at our map, our return flight was Glasgow to London, London to Seattle. While it was not policy for the airline to allow us to cancel any part of our trip, when we checked in to our London to Seattle leg, I let the agent know that we missed our Glasgow flight. The attendant barely flinched.

While in England

Hotels.com [Site]
While in line at Europcar we met an Aussie gentleman with some interesting experiences. He said he and his wife had done a road trip in England a few times before. And he said they’d even stayed in “some castles.” Of course, we were instantly looking for castle hotels. Somehow in my years of research I had settled with hotels.com as one of my go-to sites. I am happy to report that both beautiful accommodations below, while not castles, were roughly $100 a night when we booked them. Yes, USD. And we booked mere hours before checking in. We didn’t always spend so much but for an evening in an almost-castle, but we thought a few times was worth it. And hotels.com does a good job aggregating a spectrum of price points. You know, for those non-castle nights.

The Chepstow Marriott in Wales

While beautiful, many of these almost-castles had almost-comfortable beds. Modern accommodations did win out closer to the end of our trip so be sure to try these out early on while you have the energy.

The Wroxall Abbey Hotel & Estate in Warwickshire

Driving in England
The English use miles per hour to show their speed limits. The national speed limit on highways in 70mph, unless otherwise posted. For some reason, people seem to go much faster than 70mph even in the presence of police and seemingly a lot of speed traps. [Wiki page]

Driving on the other side of the road was fine. More helpful if you have a front seat passenger to warn you of “Curb!” and remind you to turn into the correct lane. For me, Mark had to remind me every time. Additionally, beware of very narrow streets in smaller towns. And remember, if you’re having issues with returning to a manual transmission, learning roundabouts or just lost for a minute or two, it’s okay. You’re on vacation.

Car rentals
The car rental was standard. I priced it when in Italy and it was the same. The price per day plus a deposit of about $250. We asked for something fuel efficient because Europcar didn’t have hybrids. We ended up with a manual, diesel Volkswagen Golf. While it fit the bill on fuel efficiency, the diesel made me feel queasy most days. Choose wisely.

London & Big Bus Tours [Official site]
We wanted to experience London but could easily spend weeks doing it. I’m a big fan of guided tours and the iconic double-decker London bus tour is one that I’ve always wanted to experience. The concierge at our hotel suggested Big Bus as the best and we got to see the whole of London in two hours. The logic was we could see nearly everything and then if anything caught our eye, we could hop off or make a special trip.

Addison Lee [Official site]
When we don’t drive in Seattle, we use Lyft. Lyft doesn’t yet operate in London. Not happy about the idea of using Uber, I did some research and found a comparable company, Addison Lee. Their app worked well and their drivers were friendly and helpful. Even better for the inevitable, ‘which car is mine?’ all Addison Lee cars are black, emblazoned with their yellow logo. Enjoy your ride, tech-drama free.

Castles! Castles! Abbeys!

English Heritage and National Trust [EH site] [NT site]
These two organizations operate the majority (if not all) of the sights to see. Our first stop was Dover Castle and upon ticket purchase were informed of a 9-day English Heritage pass, about £50 for two. Since our next stop was Stonehenge, another English Heritage site, it would be paid for after that visit. The 9-day pass doesn’t cover the cost of car parks. Parking your car will cost you £2–10 each time you park (ouch).

What most abbeys look like. Not too shabby, right?

We did see several castles, all worth visiting, especially Bodiam and Warwick. Bodiam Castle is featured at the top of this post. And Warwick can be best described as, imagine if Disney took possession of an actual, historic castle. There are 20-minute themed tours every hour, roaming peacocks, shows and so much to take in. And without fail, every abbey you can take in will not disappoint.

Our English Heritage map focused on southern England

The English Heritage map is impressive and shows you English Heritage sites, National Trust sites and general points of interest. The sites are wonderful. English Heritage and National Trust do an excellent job of preserving, restoring, and organizing people through these sites. All sites have restrooms, food, many with an incredible amount of options and plenty of people to answer questions.

It was interesting to learn just how in-demand the Cursed Child tickets were once we were in London. Many people, mostly locals, we interacted with weren’t shocked at all to learn how far in advance we purchased our tickets. I’d like to think that somewhere, old co-workers would be nodding in understanding and maybe even a little impressed. And of course, resourcefulness is its own kind of magic.

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