Four hours after departing King’s Cross my LNER train rolled into Alnmouth Station, where I spotted a piece of A4 paper blue-tacked to a window. I dialled the top number and a man with a thick Geordie accent croaked “Alnwick Wizard Taxis” down the line: the real-life version of the rowing boats which usher students across the Black Lake to Hogwarts, I suppose.
It is plain to see why the location scouts picked Alnwick Castle for the exterior Hogwarts scenes. Its crenellated walls and well-groomed greens are the perfect settings upon which to transpose Rowling’s imaginary world. The fact it was (and remains) lived in, by the 12th Duke of Northumberland no less, gave it added plausibility as a functioning school. Almost everywhere you turn is recognisable from the film. The Outer Bailey is where Harry and friends had their first lesson under the instruction of Zoe Wanamaker’s Madam Hooch, and these days the castle runs very popular “broom flying” classes on the lawn. Then there’s the Inner Bailey, where Harry and Ron crash their flying car in the second film, and outside the castle walls you’ll find the spot where the students wander down to Hagrid’s Hut.
The surrounding hills, the Whomping Willow and the Forbidden Forest, however, were the workings of CGI. Not that the children here seem to care. There was something refreshing, if jarring, about seeing young ones dragging their parents and grandparents around an old heritage site, and not the other way around. Does it matter that they (and let’s face it, many older visitors) are drawn to Alnwick because of Harry Potter, instead of Harry Hotspur, who was born here in 1364 and fought against the French in the Hundred Years War? I suspect some will sniff at the idea. But Tintagel Castle lures in punters as the birthplace of the mythical King Arthur, not for its associations with (checks notes) Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall. Loch Ness is world-famous not for its scale and beauty, but for its resident monster. As Alnwick has discovered, a sprinkling of make believe can get unlikely visitors through the door – millions since 2001. And they continue to arrive from far and wide.
Stefy de Bellis was exploring the castle grounds in full homemade Gryffindor garb, like a Mediterranean Hermione. “There’s magic in the air in England,” she said, so thrilled to be at Alnwick for the first time that she would be returning again the following day. She said that Harry Potter helped her through a difficult time during childhood, and that she has never looked back. Stefy is now the owner of two pet owls, and works as an actress in a wizarding world attraction called Lilium Alley in her hometown of Naples. “And the books showed me there’s magic in all of us,” she said, before wafting off as if she was late for class.
If she was, she would have to travel beyond the grounds of Alnwick. Rumour has it that the production crew originally wanted to shoot the classroom and corridor scenes at Canterbury Cathedral, but were turned away for the story’s “pagan themes”. Gallantly, Durham Cathedral stepped up to the mark, which is convenient for touring Potter fans as the city is just two stops (40 minutes) south of Alnmouth by rail.
“The most famous scene is probably when Harry releases Hedwig in the snow,” Clarissa Cahill, marketing officer of Durham Cathedral, told me as we took a lap of the cloisters stomped by Radcliffe, Watson and Grint in the films. Production crew used carpet snow for this particular scene, after staff at Alnwick Castle complained of finding fake snow flakes lodged into cracks in the walls, months after the crew shot a wintry scene there. “Or,” she smiled, “the scene where Ron pukes up slugs in the second film. That was filmed here, too.”