The Harry Potter Studios are even better than I thought

I shall announce with shameless pride that I recently visited the Harry Potter Studios completely sans child. Nobody paid me to go (I paid to go), and another completely adult friend joined me. I know some people who just don’t “get” why adults like Harry Potter. Well, the adults who do like Harry Potter don’t “get” why there are any who don’t! At the studios, there were actually more grownup visitors than there were kids.

Harry Potter tour entrance.jpgThese are the actual studios where all the films were filmed. They are a piece of filmmaking history. However you might feel about the films themselves, it is wonderful to see all of the work, imagination and pure craftsmanship that went into the making of them.

The practical stuff

The question I always ask when it comes to stuff like this is, “Is it worth the ticket price?” Tickets for this attraction cost £35 for an adult and £27 for children aged 5-15. Children 4 and under go free. These prices sounded very expensive to me, but now that I’ve gone, I can say that you definitely get enough entertainment to make the price worthwhile. It is also useful to know that the attraction is very buggy-friendly so you could easily bring an under-4 along without it being too much of a mission.

It’s worth noting that you need to purchase tickets in advance – you can’t just rock up there on a whim and buy at the door.

It’s pretty easy to get to as well. I took a train to Watford Junction and caught their shuttle bus up to the studios. The bus costs £2.50 return. If you prefer to drive, there is loads of parking on-site and right next to the entrance. You could always fly there in your Ford Anglia.

Flying Ford Anglia from Harry Potter

What you get to see

I took a hundred photos but I won’t share them all with you for the sake of surprise. But for the sake of proving it’s worth the ticket price, here are a few highlights.

They tell you at the beginning that the tour lasts about 3 hours. My friend and I went through a little faster than that, but you could easily spend longer than us. We didn’t queue up for the green screen room, where you can get a photo of yourself riding a broomstick (among other things), nor did we get a video of ourselves riding the Hogwarts Express.

Just about all of the iconic sets and props that you could wish to see are there. All of the costumes on display are the ones that the actors actually wore. I’ve been to Universal and Hollywood Studios in Orlando, but this tour is more real movie history than I’ve ever seen.

You start the tour with a stroll through the Great Hall at Hogwart’s, which has real York flagstones on the floor. I rather liked the fetching mannequins of Dumbledore, Snape and McGonagall standing at the front.

hogwarts-great-hall

After the Great Hall, you move on to a massive room which has various sets from the movies along with hundreds of props, costumes and models of fanciful creatures. Some highlights for me were the potions classroom and the painting of the Fat Lady who guarded the entrance to Gryffindor House.

Potions classroomFat Lady portrait from Harry Potter

I was also amazed to see the set of the kitchen at The Burrow (The Weasley family’s house). I’d always assumed that the knife that chopped by itself and the brush that washed dishes on its own were powered by some sort of digital trickery. But actually, they were mechanical, and you can watch them chopping and washing away completely independent of human intervention.

I also enjoyed laughing at the profusion of Kitten plates in Umbridge’s office.

Dolores Umbridge's Office from Harry Potter

When we finally left the massive room full of sets and props (and we could easily have spent much longer in there), we emerged into a room that was much more exciting. It contained…

Hogwarts Express

THE HOGWART’S EXPRESS!

I had no idea before going that they would have the whole train there, waiting there on Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station, giving off steam. You can walk on actual train carriages which are dressed to match the various scenes that happened on the train throughout all of the movies. I was very surprised to learn that there was so much realism in these scenes.

After the train, you have a chance to get some refreshments at a little cafe and sample some Butterbeer. I’m not sure if I can recommend it, but there are only a few places in the world where you can try it, so you might as well have a go.

You then proceed outside to a backlot where you can see the actual Knight Bus, the Dursley’s house on Privet Drive, and the crooked bridge from Hogwarts. I was always rather enamoured of the look of this bridge and was very excited to be able to walk on it.

Hogwart's Bridge

After the backlot, you can see a creature shop that shows how they made lots of the fantastic beasts from the films. Then, finally, the piece de resistance: Diagon Alley. I’m not even going to put a picture of it because it can’t do it justice. The detail of this set is absolutely staggering. You will feel as though you’ve been whisked away into the Harry Potter world, a muggle no longer!

And just when you think it doesn’t get any better, you emerge to an aerial view of a huge scale model of Hogwarts itself. We spent ages looking at the incredible details and craftsmanship that went into this model, and enjoying the unique atmosphere provided by the lighting and the music in the background.

Finally, of course, you emerge into the gift shop. There are so many fun things in here so as to completely bankrupt you. I managed to restrain myself to purchasing only a chocolate frog.

I was interested to find that you can buy an illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I might buy that for my son’s 5th birthday to introduce him to the series!

I’ve only touched briefly on all of the astounding details of this attraction. It is probably one of the most interesting places I have ever visited. These films were clearly produced by a team of people who were both incredibly talented and who cared deeply about their work. I know that it’s a money-making venture, but I still think it is unusual and generous to make all of this behind-the-scenes film history available to the public.

hogwarts-pinterest
Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday

A Shrek Adventure with my big boy

Earlier this week I took my son on a day out in London on his last day before starting school. It was such a treat to go to London with just one child who doesn’t need a pushchair, bibs, bottles, purees or any other heavy equipment in order to enjoy the day.

The main attraction of the day was our trip to Shrek’s Adventure, and I thought I’d write a little review in case you’ve been wondering whether it was worth a trip.

The background

As you may know, the Shrek franchise is part of the DreamWorks film company. They are your leading alternative to Disney movies, and they do it well. I have loved Shrek since the first movie came out in 2001 – well before my kids were even a glimmer in my eye. I love the moral that you don’t need to be beautiful or popular to be a hero. And the snappy one-liners.

That must be Lord Farquaad’s castle … Do you think he’s maybe compensating for something?

Other DreamWorks films include Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and (more recent but less well known) Home. All of them have great modern soundtracks and clever dialogue that the parents can enjoy too. One of my favourite ever film lines is from Kung Fu Panda:

There is no charge for awesomeness. Or attractiveness.

So this was one of those days out that was (selfishly?) just as much about me as it was about my son. I was giggling like a little girl the whole time.

The practical stuff

It is a bit expensive, but you can save money if you book in advance online. The online price is £18.90 per adult and £15.30 per child. shrek portraitThis is about on a par with other London attractions though, and well worth it considering the quality of the show.

I highly recommend booking well in advance if you’re going during half-term or other busy times. I had tried to go last half-term and there were no tickets available when I went online to book the day before. However, today, as some kids were already back to school, it was virtually empty – which was awesome.

It’s in a great location on the South Bank, close to Waterloo Station and next to other attractions such as Sea Life, the London Dungeons and the London Eye. If you want to see more than one thing, you can save money buying combi tickets.

The best bits

I obviously won’t give away all the details, as that would ruin the fun, but here are a few of our favourite bits.

The show starts out with a 4D bus ride. In case you’re unfamiliar with 4D, that’s where, on top of the film being in 3D, they do other stuff to make the environment seem realistic, like squirt water at you if you’re being splashed in the film. It wasn’t just any bus ride – it flies through the air from London to the Kingdom of Far Far Away. My son thought it was the coolest thing ever.

Rather than landing in Far Far Away, you crash there – for reasons I’ll keep a surprise – and then you are sent on a quest to find a way back home to London. Obviously, well-known characters from the Shrek franchise will be there to help or hinder you.

You wander through a series of realistic fairytale sets, and actors play the Shrek characters. There is also a bit of direct audience participation, and it’s all very silly with lots of gross-out humour. It really is entertainment for the whole family.  It’s a little piece of theme park magic.

At the enPhoto with Shrekd of your quest, you get to meet a real live Shrek and take pictures with him using your own camera. This is so nice because it would be very easy for a place like this to insist the only photos you get are the ones they try to sell you.

The staff were so lovely as well. When we got to the Shrek photo opportunity bit, my phone (which I’d turned off because I <always> follow the rules) was taking AGES to boot up. I went to the end of the photo queue and it was still booting when I got to the front. The woman working there let me stand off to the side for as long as it took (it must have been at least 15 minutes), and then come back when I was ready, so we wouldn’t miss out. This was beyond the call of duty and I really appreciated it.

While we were waiting, a giant King Julien (from Madagascar) had a dance party with my son.

I like to move it, move it!

After we finally got our Shrek photo, we came out into an area that had loads of bits from the other Dreamworks movies, with cool things you could pose with for photos, and a Kung Fu Panda computer game. We stayed in this area for ages and, again, no one rushed us along, which was great.

kung-fu-pandaFinally, we came out into the bit where they try to sell you pictures they took of you during the show. These had been taken in front of a green screen and they were actually really good quality. I have to admit to being suckered in.

We got a ‘Far Far Away travel journal’ with all of our pictures in, and stories and activities related to the movies. It also came with a keyring and magnet with our pictures in, and you are able to download the photos for use online. It was £25, but it was a really special day and I’m happy with spending this for the memories. My son has wanted to read his travel journal before bed every night.

The verdict

I think this is the most exotic adventure you can have with a young child in London. The website says children under 6 might be too afraid at this attraction, but my son is 4 and is very sensitive, and he was totally fine. It’s definitely worth a visit if you like theme parks, Dreamworks movies and/or adventure!

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a sponsored review. I paid my own way!

The Pramshed

Don’t pretend to be a duck: Lessons from a lovely day at Hever Castle

Tips for a stress-free day out with the kids.

I think we’ve already established that I’m not the outdoorsy type. It’s not that I don’t like going outside, it’s just that I’m lazy and everything is easier indoors.

I am the sort of parent who believes in toddler gates. Lots of them. And playpens too. Anything that keeps my little ones in an enclosed area in which I can watch them without having to move (or spilling my drink). I therefore get just a little bit stressed about taking my kids to wide open spaces where I have to chase them around and apply jackets, or sunscreen, or hats (that will be immediately tossed away and lost) or perhaps a change of clothes because they’ve fallen into a moat or something.

So I thought I would share with you some lessons I learnt on a recent trip to Hever Castle, which might help anyone who’s planning a trip there to have a stress-free time – or at least give you a chance to laugh at me.

1. Plan your journey

As usual I just assumed my sat nav would get me to the Castle’s car park and did no further research despite having an excellent internet connection in my house. I’m pretty sure my sat nav is out to kill me. Every time I saw a lovely brown sign pointing the way to the Castle, my sat nav entreated me to go in the opposite direction. Luckily, I ignored it and managed to not end up crashing into a field of sheep. However, apparently Hever has more than one car park. I had planned on meeting my friend ‘in the car park’, and we ended up on opposite ends of the property. No big tragedy, but could have been avoided if I was paying attention.

2. The Tower Maze is awesome but watch the exits

Our first point of call was the adventure playground, containing standard playground equipment along with a truly awesome giant wooden multi-level maze with slides coming down out of it. Having entered at the top of the playground, my friend and I blithely assumed that there were no further exits to the playground area and that we could send our older children to run free on the Tower Maze without them disappearing into the unknown.

But then we didn’t see or hear them for a while. So I walked round to the back of the maze and [camera pans to my face with a look of horror] there was another exit out of the playground. Going right out to who-knows-where. Cue me walking frantically around the maze looking for the children, calling their names in my ‘definitely not panicking’ voice. Thankfully, I found them hiding in a hidey hole in the maze having a whale of a time and not the least bit lost.

3. They have really nice toilets

Like, really nice. With those Dyson hand dryers that you stick your hands into instead of under and that actually dry your hands. Whenever toilets have their own dedicated outbuildings, I don’t expect them to be nice. But they were. With proper baby changers and everything. And it’s a good thing too. Because we went to ALL the different toilets while we were there. At least 5 times. I’m not convinced that my son even used the toilets each of those times. Maybe he was just admiring the hand dryers.

4. Don’t pretend to be a duck

Hever is a beautiful place to have a picnic. We set up under the shade of a big old tree on a slope of well-groomed grass that looked out towards the castle. For 10–15 glorious minutes, all of the children sat on the actual picnic mat and ate their picnics. This is something that has never happened to me before. Usually they are just running about while I chase them with a sandwich.

ducks at hever castle
You can see the ducks here, trying to sneak up on an innocent child, looking shifty.

And what was it that broke the spell? It was me, pretending to be a duck. There were lots of ducks around, and a couple of them were getting a bit close and looking a bit shifty like they wanted to make off with some of our carbohydrate-rich food.

I shouted at them to go away. They ignored me. I threw a small stick in their direction, hoping to scare them off. They tried to eat the stick.

Finally, I got up off the picnic mat and chased them away, waving my arms in the air while yelling, ‘Quack, quack, quack’, as if somehow speaking their language would finally get through to them and make them realise they were on my turf.

The good news is, my strategy worked. The ducks flew away and didn’t return. However, our children thought that my duck impersonation was the funniest thing since a Minion first said ‘banana’. Their peaceful sitting-and-eating turned into them running away across the field while shouting QUACK at each other. As there were no toddler gates, I got stressed that one of them would fall into the moat.

5. Bring a change of clothes or a swim kit.

Hever Castle gardens
My attempt at an artsy photo of the gardens.

Hever Castle has this awesome thing called a Water Maze. It is a series of stepping stones leading into a central tower and back out again. If you try to go the wrong way, great jets of water fly out of the ground. I’m pretty sure the idea is that if the water sprays, you realise it’s a dead end in the maze and try going a different direction. But try telling that to a 4-year-old who would rather just stand in the spray of water for as long as possible. This would indeed be jolly good fun for all if you had brought swimming costumes and towels, or at least a change of clothes. Do you think we had brought these things? If you do, you haven’t been paying attention.

The verdict

Hever Castle is absolutely beautiful. I haven’t even mentioned the actual castle bit yet.

That is because they do a really great deal where you can pay for just the gardens and not the castle. We didn’t think we’d be able to enjoy the castle bit with the kids so saved ourselves the money. But I did go inside the castle once pre-kids and remember it being very interesting indeed.

I don’t think one could get tired of walking through the gardens, and I know they put on a lot of different activities for children and adults throughout the year. When my kids are older, I look forward to renting a pedalo or rowing boat on the lake.

All-in-all, it’s a lovely place for the kids to play, for the adults to enjoy the scenery, to buy an ice cream … and to visit the toilet.

The Lake at Hever Castle
This is a pretty fountain by the lake.
The Pramshed

A day at Shanklin Beach, Isle of Wight

A family day out with possible abseiling and a race against time

Getting there

When I go on holiday, I’m usually a stickler about doing my research. I buy a guidebook and read stuff online, and any day trips are carefully planned. However, this time I was all tired out from planning the umpteen million things I needed to pack to keep my kids happy. So when we decided to go to the beach, I said, “I heard Shanklin’s good”, and blithely chose a Shanklin car park on my sat nav.

So I’m not sure what other people’s sat navs are like, but mine loves going off the beaten track. I have troves of holiday photos of roads that end abruptly in the middle of a field of sheep or that require me to ford a small stream. I therefore should not have been surprised when my blithely chosen car park did get me near the beach. It was just a quick abseil down a massive cliff to get there.

So we tried again and figured out that we wanted the Shanklin Esplanade. This is the bit where you can actually get to a beach without mountaineering equipment.

Our second mistake was deciding we’d turn up at the beach “just in time for lunch”. There were loads of car parks on the Esplanade plus parking along the road, but every single last spot was full. It was an exceptionally nice day, but this was still on an off-season weekday so I wasn’t expecting the busyness. We wasted quite a bit of time driving up and down, stalking pedestrians who might be returning to their car, in the effort to find a spot. We finally gave up on parking on the Esplanade and drove back up the hill, where after a bit more stalking we found a spot. It was a parallel parking sort of one so it’s a good thing my husband was driving. I’m so bad at parallel parking we’d probably still be there, going back and forth, trying to get closer to the kerb.

TOP TIP: Either go early to nab a parking spot or plan to drop your family and beach kit on the beach while the unlucky driver parks the car wherever he or she can.

So we piled all of our stuff out of the car at the top of the hill. And we really brought a lot of stuff. A tent, sand toys, swim kits & towels, a very large changing bag packed to the brim with things I’m sure I couldn’t have managed without … It’s a good thing we have a big pushchair with all-terrain wheels.

However we had foolishly retired the double-buggy extra seat, thinking 4-year-old could now manage without. Not very long after leaving the car and really quite some way from the restaurant we wanted for lunch, my big boy started doing some of his very best whingeing. First it was just “my little feet are tired” and “I’m hungry”. But then he uttered the phrase that strikes fear into my heart: “I need the toilet”.

I learned something on this day. I will go a long way to avoid a public toileting accident. Ever since my son in younger years made a trail across the church hall which the vicar then cleaned up. I guess I was traumatised. So as soon as he uttered these words, I scooped him up and began carrying him as fast as I could to the nearest toilet. However, it seemed everywhere that looked like it might have a toilet either didn’t or required you to queue up with the customers and get a key. So I ended up carrying him (along with the overstuffed changing bag) about half-a-mile all the way to restaurant, sweating and puffing while my son whinged about his bladder and the haphazard way I was carrying him.

TOP TIP: Later in the day, I learned that there were public toilets RIGHT F__ING NEXT TO where my son had first announced his toilet emergency. Near the entrance of the Esplanade near Pirates Cove Mini Golf, which looks awesome, btw. In fact, I’ve later realised that my son often says he wants a wee when he sees a public toilet sign, so that’s probably all it was in the first place.

Lunch at The Waterfront Inn

Chosen via an extremely brief and careless Google search, mainly based on its location, I was happy with my lunch there. To be honest, after our mad dash for the loo, the most important part of my lunch was the beautiful cold pint of cider.

But the atmosphere was great. There was terraced outdoor seating at the front of the restaurant looking out towards the beach, and most of it was in the shade. You have to order at the bar, but there were still plenty of smiling and helpful staff about to get highchairs, advise where to park the buggy, etc.

View from The Waterfront Inn, Shanklin, Isle of Wight

I ordered the seared tuna with salsa verde and husband had mussels in a Thai-flavoured sauce. There was a lot of variety on the kids menu. Older boy had lasagne with garlic bread and youngest had fish and chips. The kids food was very good quality (I stole a lot of it), and they ate as much as they usually do when the food in unobjectionable (i.e. not a whole helluva lot). Husband seemed to enjoy his mussels too. My only complaint is that my seared tuna was fully cooked through. I thought seared tuna meant it was a bit raw in the middle. But it was still perfectly edible and I cleaned my plate.

And now to the actual beach…

The beach is all sandy and beautiful and there were plenty of places to “cop a squat“, as they say in Pretty Woman.

Now, those of you, dear readers, who grew up in England may be no strangers to pitching a tent on the beach. I suppose the weather here often necessitates that sort of thing. But I had never before had a tent on a beach. I grew up in the USA where I’ve never seen that done. But, boy am I converted. We had shade, a place to hide our stuff where it wouldn’t get blown away, and best of all a place to change without seeking out a changing room. I am never going to the beach without a tent again. So worth carrying THAT down the hill.

So we pitched our tent and we all changed into our swim kits INSIDE THE TENT. Okay, I’ll stop going on about it.

It’s simply a brilliant beach. The English Channel water is really freeze your arse off cold though. And if you can handle the cold, be sure you wear some aqua shoes because even though the beach is sandy, it’s very rocky once you’re inside the water. But other than that it’s clean, sandy, spacious and scenic.

It was my youngest son’s first time at the seaside. He hurtled himself towards the water yelling “Sea! Sea! Sea!”. While my oldest dug himself a hole full of water to make a nice safe paddling pool. Good times.

The verdict

I reckon if you’re visiting the Isle of Wight during beach sort of weather, Shanklin Beach is a must-see.

ShelliconShelliconShelliconShellicon4 out of 5 shells (I had to penalise them one for the parking fiasco, even though it was mostly my fault)