Harry Potter Sights in Scotland

I wrote up our Scotland holiday recently (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), but here’s a little bonus post for the HP fangirls out there like myself.

I started writing this post in the bar of Edinburgh’s famous Balmoral Hotel, where J.K. Rowling lived while she wrote the final Harry Potter book.

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As I sat there with my laptop, propped up by a tartan-plaid pillow, sipping a very overpriced cocktail, the staff and other patrons were probably thinking, “Wow, she could be the next J.K. Rowling, writing the next big thing!”

Or… maybe not. Maybe she’s just writing a blog that only her parents read. Let’s give the poor girl some complimentary bar snacks.

Anyhow, in addition to the Balmoral Hotel, there are quite a few Harry Potter-related sights in Scotland, and M and I saw several of them on our trip:

Glencoe

The third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, filmed the scenes outside Hagrid’s hut on location here. It’s stunningly gorgeous, and we had lunch here in the hikers’ inn/pub after our hike.

Jacobite Steam Train

The scenes of the Hogwarts Express with the train steaming its way north to Hogwarts along dramatic scenery and across the 21-arched Glenfinnan viaduct were filmed in Scotland. We didn’t actually go see this ourselves, as it’s a bit farther north than where we were, but you can actually take a ride on a steam train along the route (the train doesn’t look like the red Hogwarts Express, though; you can see that on the Warner Brothers Studio Tour.)

Edinburgh

Edinburgh is where J.K. Rowling primarily wrote the books, and we saw more than a few people walking around wearing their HP fan attire, from Chudley Cannons t-shirts to full-on wizard robes.

The Elephant House Cafe

The self-proclaimed “birthplace of Harry Potter,” this is the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling spent time writing the first book, back when she was penniless. Lots of fans flock here and there are now photos of her sitting there (posed, after she became famous) up in the restaurant, and supposedly there’s a lot of HP-themed fan graffiti on the walls of the loos (I didn’t actually go in to confirm this).

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Grey Friars Kirkyard

This is definitely one of the spookiest graveyards I’ve been to, and I can imagine Ms. Rowling wandering around here and drawing inspiration from the place. In fact, there’s a Thomas Riddell buried here. She’s confirmed that there could be a subconscious connection there, but hasn’t said outright that’s where she got the name for the most dastardly wizard of all time. (There’s also a McGonagall buried in here.)

Victoria Street

This curved, whimsical street was the inspiration for Diagon Alley—there’s even a joke shop. It now has a shop selling HP merch, called Diagon House, and a queue out front to get in.

J.K. Rowling’s Hand Prints

The City Chambers building along the Royal Mile features the bronze hand prints of winners of the prestigious Edinburgh Award, which Rowling won in 2008.

George Heriot’s School

This turreted, castle-like 17th-century school is said to be the inspiration for Hogwarts.

Balmoral Hotel

Finally, the Balmoral Hotel, where she lived while she wrote the last book. The suite she inhabited has been renamed in her honour, and now bears an owl-shaped door knocker and includes the writing desk she used during her stay. And costs somewhere around £1,000 a night. A £15 cocktail doesn’t seem quite so bad now.

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Holiday in Scotland, Part 3: Entertaining Edinburgh

ICYMI: Read about the first part of our Scotland holiday here, and the second part here.

We spent the last three nights of our six-night holiday in Edinburgh, which is simply a lovely city. It feels sort of like a less overwhelming version of London. It has similar architecture and sense of history about it, a lot of the same chain stores and eateries, and double-decker buses, but it’s all on a smaller scale.

 

We stayed in the fantastic boutique hotel 21212, which is just four rooms in this gorgeous old row home that now boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant by Chef/Owner Paul Kitching.

August is festival time in Edinburgh, with the main draw being the Fringe Festival, billed as “the world’s largest arts festival.” In 1947, several theatre troupes who couldn’t get into the Edinburgh International Festival decided to stage their performances anyway, on the outskirts of it, and thus the “fringe” was born.

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Now the Fringe Festival is even bigger than the original festival, hosting thousands of acts—theatre, comedy, music, cabaret, and more. Every room in the city that could be a venue for a performance becomes one: pubs, school classrooms, churches, a parked bus, you name it.

The vibe was electric. We were there for just the final two days of the three-week festival, so everything was wrapping up, but there was still such a great vibe as we walked through crowds of festival-goers, street performers, and people handing out fliers and postcards advertising their acts. The performances last just under an hour, so you pick and choose what you’d like to see when, and if something wasn’t great, no big deal, it was only 55 minutes and cost maybe £10.

We booked tickets for one act ahead of our trip, to ensure we wouldn’t arrive and find that the only thing left that wasn’t sold out that day was a 9 a.m. modern dance performance or something. So our first evening we saw Al Porter, a young Irish comedian we found hilarious. Making it all the funnier was the fact that his parents were in the audience that night, listening to their son telling lewd jokes.

Before the show, we had a little time to kill, so we headed to a cemetery (ba-dum-tssss). Greyfriars is easily the spookiest graveyard I’ve ever been to.

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Apparently J.K. Rowling used to wander through here while she was writing the Harry Potter books in Edinburgh. There’s even a gravestone of one Thomas Riddle (OK, it’s spelled Riddell, but still). There’s definitely enough creepy atmosphere for inspiration!

The less creepy story about this cemetery is its most famous resident, Greyfriars Bobby, a dog who lived there for 14 years after his master was buried there. He’s now buried alongside his master. You just can’t beat canine loyalty.

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But, I mean, so creepy, right?

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And after the show, we went to l’Escargot Bleu for a delicious French dinner in Scotland.

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The next day, we started out by walking the Royal Mile, which runs from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

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We looked at Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle but didn’t pay the admission for either.

We stopped in the church where the queen worships when she’s in Edinburgh.

And mostly we just admired the sights as we walked along.

The Royal Mile is mostly lined with shops selling souvenirs, but the charm of its closes (narrow alleys) can still be seen along the way, if you can block out the bagpipe soundtrack blaring from the shops hawking tartan kilts, cashmere scarves, Scotch whisky, and shortbread to Chinese tourists. (A lot of the shops now have signs in Chinese characters, and have employed Mandarin-speaking salespeople.)

We went on the hourlong Real Mary King’s Close tour, which was recommended to us by an Edinburgh native we met at our hotel in Oban. In the 17th century, an entire section of houses and streets was sealed off as buildings were built over top of them, and now you can tour the preserved (but crumbling) old part, and hear stories about how people lived back then (hint: the sanitation situation was dire). It reminded us a bit of the Seattle Underground tour, kind of part history, part ghost tour.

After that, we had lunch at Ting Thai Caravan, which was the best Thai food I’ve ever had. In Scotland, of all places (all right, I’ve never actually been to Thailand).

Then we went to a Fringe play we’d bought tickets to that morning, after being handed a postcard for it:

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It wasn’t great, but again, it was only an hour, and we could drink a beer during it, so hey, no big deal.

The show we went to a bit later was much funnier:

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An improv murder mystery! Our performance’s set-up based on audience suggestions involved a zoo, Julie Andrews, and a German-speaking flamingo. It was very entertaining.

After that, we had our second fantastic dinner in Edinburgh at the Gardener’s Cottage.

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Our dinner entertainment

On our last full day, we went to the National Museum of Scotland. We took the hourlong highlights of the collection tour, which was a good introduction to the museum, and offered some important points of Scotland’s history.

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Dolly, the world’s first cloned mammal

You can also go out onto the museum’s roof for good views over the city.

We went back to Ting Thai Caravan for lunch again, at my request, because I liked it that much. That afternoon, M went to a Scotch whisky shop for a tasting class, and I went to the Balmoral Hotel, where J.K. Rowling lived while she wrote the final Harry Potter book. I took my laptop to the bar and ordered an overpriced (but tasty) drink, simply because I wanted to be able to say I did some writing in the same place she did.

 

Then we met up on Calton Hill to watch the sun set over the city.

For our final dinner, we ate at the restaurant in our hotel, 21212.

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On our last morning, M went for a hilly run up to Arthur’s Seat, and we did some shopping around the Royal Mile and Victoria Street (the inspiration for Diagon Alley, Potter fans!)

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M obviously needed a new tweed bag to schlep home all the Scotch he purchased this trip

And that was our trip! Whew! It only took me a month and a half to blog about it all. Things have been busy lately, with visitors from the States, E starting primary school, and sleep training R. I’m either too busy or too tired to get much time to sit down with my computer these days. And when I do, it’s mostly to do admin and plan more trips!

Holiday in Scotland, Part 2: Oban and the Inner Hebrides

ICYMI: See my Holiday in Scotland, Part 1 post here.

Picking up on our next day in Oban, we headed off on a day trip to the Inner Hebrides isles. A boat ride on open waters was probably a bit bold after M braved the full Scottish breakfast that morning.

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Yes, that’s haggis AND black pudding. Don’t worry, there’s green veg on the plate, too. See it? Healthy.

For the day trip to the islands from Oban, you can choose to visit Mull and Iona, or also add on a third island, Staffa. We only did the first two, but if I could do it again, I would definitely include the third (puffins!!!)

You board the Cal-Mac ferry (Caledonian-MacBrayne) and sail for about 45 minutes to the island of Mull.

Once on Mull, you board a coach that drives across the island for an hour and a half, with the bus driver narrating over a microphone the whole way.

Our bus driver was Sheila (Shaleigh? How do you spell the Scottish version of what sounded like Sheila?), and she was great. She told us a lot about the Isle of Mull, and made some good jokes, like how they’re shaving the hairy coos to make Trump wigs.

The scenery on the drive was incredible, but we were in the coach the whole time, so I couldn’t really take pictures. We had quite a few wildlife sightings, as well: herons, seals, otters, sheep, and, of course, the Highland hairy coos, which did cause a bit of a traffic jam at one point; we had to wait for them to get out of the road before the bus could continue.

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Moooooove along, please

Once you’re across Mull, you board another, smaller ferry for the short ride to Iona.

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Coming in to Iona

The two most popular choices of how to spend the couple of hours you have to explore Iona are tour the abbey or hike up to the highest point of the island for the 360-degree views.

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The abbey on the left, and the hill to climb beyond it

We opted for the hike. It wasn’t easy to scramble up the muddy rocks in Hunter wellies, but I made it, and the view was stunning.

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In case we’d forgotten where we were, and needed a bit more ambience to complement the view, a bagpipe struck up in the distance.

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We hiked back down and walked to the far side of the island, which is a sandy beach that looks totally different from the other Scottish terrain we’d been seeing.

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After all that, we didn’t have much time left before needing to hustle back to board the return ferry to Mull. We walked past the abbey, and through the ruins of the medieval nunnery.

Then we popped into a small local craft shop, where I picked up this handmade beauty:

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Our bus driver back across Mull was no Sheila/Shaleigh/Sheelah?. If you’re a mumbler with a thick Scottish brogue, maybe tour guide is not the best job for ye, lad. M and I just kept looking at each other and laughing because we couldn’t understand a thing he said.

We arrived back at the port for the ferry back to Oban, but the weather was so nice right then we decided to play hooky, and watched the ferry sail off without us from the pub garden at the Craignure Inn.

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Now that was a proper local pub. I think we were the only tourists. All the people there seemed to know each other, and oh, what luck! It was open mic night.

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We were asked right away if we played any instruments, and adamantly shook our heads no. We actually considered heading inside, despite the sunshine, during one woman’s set. Another sang an upbeat ditty about killing her husband. If only there were talent scouts around…

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As much as we enjoyed the local entertainment, we decided we had better catch the next ferry back to Oban.

Read Part 3 of our Scotland trip here.

Holiday in Scotland, Part 1: Glasgow and the Highlands

Just like the queen, M and I spent our August holiday in Scotland. Sans children. HUGE thank you to my in-laws for coming to London and staying with our girls so we could have a real getaway. I’m breaking up the trip into three posts, because I have a lot of photos to share, and one post for the whole week would be incredibly long.

Glasgow

We flew into Glasgow in the evening, and spent the night and the next morning there before picking up a car and heading into the Highlands.

These were the first people we saw when we walked into the hotel lobby:img_9230
Then the woman at reception told us “Don’t be alarmed if you hear drums. They won’t be on long.” It was a Hilton Doubletree. YEAH, SCOTLAND! FREEEEDOOMMM!

Then she was running through all the standard info about the hotel—breakfast times, fitness centre and pool locations, etc.—and I suddenly snapped to attention when I heard her say “have sex in the morning.” Wait what? Ohhh she said the fitness centre opens at “half six in the morning.” Oh, that Scottish accent!

After breakfast at the hotel the next morning, and only breakfast, ahem, we did the downtown Glasgow walk outlined in Rick Steves’ Scotland book. Though the first two stops we made were completely closed up and covered by scaffolding for renovation, we had nice weather for our walk and got a taste of what downtown Glasgow is like.

I’d been before, back in 2002, but the only thing I really remember doing was having tea at the Willow Tea Rooms, which was one of the things closed for renovations this time.

Instead, we stopped for a coffee at the central train station, where I heard myself answer the barista, “I’ll have a wee.”

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Around midday, we picked up our rental car and drove out into the Highlands. We wound along beautiful lochs (Loch Lomond, Loch Long, and Loch Fyne), up to the “Rest-and-be-thankful Pass,” and to Inveraray, a cute town that features a castle that was used as “Uncle Shrimpie’s” (Rose MacClare’s father’s) house in Downton Abbey.

We had a look around and grabbed some sandwiches for lunch, then headed on to our destination, and home base for the next three days:

Oban

We went straight to the Argyllshire Gathering Oban Games, the annual highland games in Oban that just so happened to be the day we were arriving. We got there toward the end of the event, really just for the last hour, but we managed to get the gist of what happens (and also avoided paying the £12 admission, since they were no longer charging for entry at that point): Highlanders competing for feats of strength, which basically consists of throwing an awkward, heavy object as high or long as they can. Some running races. Scottish dancing. And bagpipes. LOTS and LOTS of bagpipes. There were also some food stands, a beer tent, some handicraft stalls, and some activities for kids. Did I mention there were bagpipes?

​​​After the final pipe-and-drum march that signaled the end of the event, we checked our hearing for possible deafness, then checked into the Alltavona Guest House.

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View from our room window

We enjoyed a welcome “wee dram” of whisky and sherry, and sat chatting with an older couple from Edinburgh, who gave us lots of suggestions of what to do once we got there.

Oban is right on the sea, so the thing to get there is seafood. We went to dinner our first night there at Ee’usk, where we enjoyed mussels and scallops, among other tastes of the local fare.

Oban at night

Glencoe

We had a big breakfast at our guest house the next morning, then drove into the misty mountains of Glencoe. The scenery was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It was like being in Jurassic Park, or Lord of the Rings, neither of which filmed here but could have. It’s easy to see why there are so many legends surrounding the Scottish Highlands. They really do have a mystical quality about them.

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We hiked a loop of all three trails that connect (blue, black, and yellow), which took a couple hours, and we did get rained on a bit.

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If ever you take a trip where it’s worth devoting a sizable portion of your suitcase to rain boots, Scotland is it.

We stopped for lunch at a hikers’ pub, the Claichaig Inn, and rested our muddy boots in the Boots Bar.

This is right where the third Harry Potter movie filmed the scenes of Hagrid’s hut.

After driving through even more incredible vistas, we headed back to Oban for a tour and tasting at the Oban Distillery.

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Single malt Scotch whisky isn’t my thing, but it is M’s, and I was happy to hand him my tastes as well. It was interesting to learn more about the process of how they make Scotch whisky, and why they age it for the number of years they do.

My favourite part of the tour was when a man pointed to the pictures on the wall of the different notes you get on the nose when you smell their whisky—honey, salt, smoke, and orange—and asked where they found oranges in Scotland hundreds of years ago in order to make this whisky.

I’ll end my first Scotland post with this video my friend Amber sent me while we were there, which M and I found hilarious (but we agreed it would have been even funnier if the floor they were trying to get to was six; see earlier comment about how the Scots pronounce it):

Read Part 2 of our Scotland trip here.

 

Our 11th Anniversary: Worth the Queues

I’ve got a slew of updates to come, covering our weeklong (kid-less!) trip to bonny Scotland, but until I can get those put together (you don’t really want to see all 500+ pictures I took, do you?), here’s how we spent our 11th wedding anniversary last night:

There’s a restaurant at Borough Market called Padella that does fresh, handmade pasta. There’s always a long queue outside to get in (they don’t take bookings).


So we queued for an hour (fortunately there was a stand selling draught pints of Camden ales nearby, and it was also a perfect-weather-type day) and then were rewarded with a delicious dinner.


Then it was off to the Royal Festival Hall at Southbank Centre to see/hear David Sedaris.


I’ve seen him once before, in Baltimore, but this was M’s first time. He definitely didn’t disappoint. We laughed for much of the hour and a half he talked and read his essays, and then he did a Q&A.

Someone asked him why, when he has the whole world to choose from, he chooses to live mostly in Sussex. He responded that he just loves England, and thinks it’s all so beautiful, and also that he likes that people don’t kiss in public here. That drove him out of France, he said. People making out in public all the time. Couldn’t take it. Hilarious.

Afterward, we queued once more to meet him and have him sign one of his books for us. We chatted with him about being Americans living in England, and then told him it was our anniversary. He fished around in a tote bag for a while and finally pulled out a card that read “Sorry about the other night.” He told us we could pass it back and forth. Sage marriage advice courtesy of the inimitable David Sedaris.


He had another author with him last night, Akhil Sharma, who read a bit from his book of short stories, and we bought that too. He wrote us a dedication in the front of the book, and then asked about our daughters and wrote a note to them in the back of the book, for “when they can read.”

Two Days at Downton Abbey

Well, Highclere Castle is its real name. Like many American women, I loved the TV show Downton Abbey, and wanted to go visit the place where it was filmed, which is actually a lived-in home owned by the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. It’s only open certain days of the year, primarily in July and August (presumably the owners are at their summer estate somewhere), which must be booked in advance.

When my friend Amber was visiting last month, we (plus Baby R) went for a day trip.

We got an absolutely perfect day, weather-wise. Tickets let you tour the castle (well, part of it) either in the morning or afternoon (between 10-1 or 1-4), and then wander the grounds/gardens the rest of the day.

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Touring the castle takes about 45 minutes, more or less. Sometimes there’s a queue to enter the castle, but not always. If you’re not in a rush, wander the gardens until the queue dies down.

Tourist attire on point
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See? No more queue

Photos aren’t allowed inside the castle, so my pictures stop here at the entrance.

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You walk through the library, drawing room, dining room (the table looked reasonably sized, but I was informed it has 12 leaves and can seat up to 28), smoking room, music room, and the “heart of Highclere,” which is the centre of it all; and you can peek into several bedrooms, including Cora’s, Mary’s, and Edith’s.

What struck me the most was how worn and shabby a lot of the furniture looked. The castle itself is quite grand, of course, and the many oil paintings of past and present family members let you know this is an aristocratic household that goes back a long way, but the furniture and home decor in the rooms isn’t particularly fancy. Well maybe apart from Napoleon’s writing desk. I’d love to get a peek at the rooms they actually live in and see how modern they are. Apparently there are 50 bedrooms in the castle, so you see a relatively small portion of them.

There are loads of family photos in frames all over the tables throughout the castle, plus modern books and magazines lying about, which serve to remind you it’s not actually Downton Abbey.

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There are three different small cafe-type food purchase options all in a row behind the castle, with plenty of outdoor tables; or you can pack a picnic and just enjoy sitting outside on the lawn and admiring the views of the estate. There’s a gift shop, too, of course.

I went back again this month with my in-laws (plus Baby R again, and this time E too, since she’s out of school for summer holidays).

I treated my MIL to afternoon tea in the Coach House, which is an add-on option when you buy your tickets. Children aren’t allowed at the tea, so my FIL was kind enough to hang out with the girls on the picnic blanket while my MIL and I clinked glasses of Champagne.

 

Getting to Highclere Castle

Getting to Highclere Castle is not the easiest thing to figure out. The best thing to do, probably, is to drive there. It’s certainly the most straightforward and direct option, and may even be cheaper than using public transit. Google Maps estimates it will take between an hour and 20 minutes to two hours and 10 minutes from here. If you’re like me and afraid to drive in England, you have to find another way. It took us about two and a half hours one way, door to castle gate, but through my trial and errors, I now think I could get there faster.

The castle website says there’s good rail service from Paddington Station to Newbury, or Waterloo Station to Whitchurch, and from those two stations you can get a taxi to Highclere. However, we had complications arise both times that resulted in a fair amount of stress.

When Amber and I went, we took a train from Clapham Junction to Waterloo, then a train from Waterloo to Whitchurch, and had pre-booked a taxi from there. However, the morning of, I received an email that the taxi I had booked online the night before to pick us up at Whitchurch Station had canceled on us, no reason given. So we arrived at Whitchurch and didn’t have a way to get to the castle. It’s a tiny station in a little village, with no one working at the station at all. We looked at a board posted on the station with travel information, and there was one other taxi company listed besides the one that had just flaked on us. So I crossed my fingers and dialed. We got really lucky that he was available right then, because the private car-hire company is just him. Steve at AAP Private Hire came to our rescue in just five minutes, agreed to pick us up from the castle that afternoon, and charged us £20 each way, which was less than we had paid online for the other company.

So I thought I had it figured out for the second trip, but no. There are major issues at Clapham Junction and Waterloo this month while they are constructing more platforms (or wider platforms? or longer platforms? I am not really sure, I just know it’s a huge pain in the ass to get anywhere right now), so we had to figure out a way that didn’t involve going through Waterloo. We also had to get to Clapham Junction extra early, because they’ve been warning that you may have to queue for 45 minutes to enter the station or board a train, because there are fewer trains running. Also, Steve from AAP was already booked for the morning, so we had to go with a different private car hire out of Whitchurch, who was going to charge us £35 instead of £20, ugh.

It was actually all going pretty smoothly to start, we didn’t have trouble getting into the station or onto the platform… but then we got on the wrong train. We had tickets for the train to Basingstoke, and then were going to change to a train to Whitchurch. Well, we got on an earlier train to Basingstoke, which turned out to be the slow train that called at a lot of different stations, rather than the train we were supposed to be on that was scheduled to leave 6 minutes later but was direct. Which meant we were going to miss our connecting train to Whitchurch. Which departs only once an hour.

In a flurry of frustration and panic, I tried to figure out what we could do. As it turned out, the train we were supposed to have boarded was one of the trains delayed thanks to the Waterloo works, so we would have missed our connection anyway. Eventually I came upon a solution that worked out even better: I got a taxi to pick us up at Basingstoke once we arrived, and for some reason, even though it’s farther, he only charged us £20! I don’t know why the castle website doesn’t list Basingstoke as an option, but it’s definitely easier to get a taxi from there than from Whitchurch, and it’s the same price.

Now I finally know the best way to get there from where I live: Train from Clapham Junction to Basingstoke (42 minutes), then taxi from Basingstoke (about 25 minutes; call ahead to order one; we used Alpha Cars.

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A Proper English Garden

Going from a house with a big yard and lawns that needed quite a bit of regular maintenance to a house with a small “garden” that’s literally just a patio made us really lazy when it came to plant upkeep. We pretty much didn’t do anything back here for almost a year, other than buy a new patio table set.

But finally this summer, we realised the old bamboo planters had had it. Everything was either dead or now weeds, and the planter pots themselves were literally crumbling. Yikes, what an eyesore!

Before

We went to Battersea Flower Station, which is a cute name if you are familiar with Battersea Power Station, and asked for some advice on container planting. We ended up buying a bunch of plants for some new planters (which I bought at Homebase), seven different herb plants for me to grow an herb garden, plus a strawberry plant for E.

Battersea Flower Station

I spent some time planting it all, added some fairy lights to the lattice, and voila! A much more visually pleasant space in which to spend our summer evenings.

After

Our entire back wall between the kitchen and the garden is an accordion glass door, so we can open up the whole wall and it’s like one big indoor-outdoor room, which we absolutely love. (It helps that there aren’t big bitey mosquitoes here.)

My herb garden has exploded, too. I’ve had to make and freeze batches of pesto because my basil just went crazy. I don’t even know what to do with all the sage and mint that have gone wild. Come by, bring some gin, and I’ll make you a minty G&T.

One Week, Two Very Different Plays

Seems I’ve been on a theatre kick lately, judging by this being the third post in a row about shows I’ve seen recently. Honestly, with the state of the world lately—and the disturbing news coming out of our home country, in particular: North Korea and Trump tossing serious threats back and forth, white supremacists marching through the University of Virginia, Baltimore calling for a 72-hour “cease-fire” like it’s a war zone because there have been 208 homicides this year so far, and it’s only August!—can you blame me for wanting to mentally escape the real world for a few hours?


This week M and I had a date to see Hamlet. Specifically, to see Andrew Scott play Hamlet. If you’ve watched Sherlock on TV, then you’ll know Andrew Scott as the insane villain Moriarty. Hamlet sounded like the perfect role for him, and we were eager to see him perform live. We were kind of amazed we were able to get tickets on fairly short notice. Thank you to M’s parents who babysat for us that night!

No, sadly, WineGums are not made with actual wine

When we got to our seats in the stalls of the Harold Pinter Theatre, I looked in the programme and discovered Ophelia was being played by Jessica Finchley Brown, aka Downton Abbey‘s Lady Sybil! Even better! This is now the fourth Downton actress I’ve seen on the stage; we saw Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) and Zoe Boyle (Lavinia) in a Noël Coward play in Bath last summer, and my mom and I saw Dame Maggie Smith (the inimitable Dowager Countess, of course) years ago on the West End in a two-woman play alongside Dame Judy Dench. But back to the present.


The play, particularly the acting, was phenomenal. It was set in modern-day Denmark, and I especially liked how they incorporated the use of video. I must have seen and read Hamlet at least half a dozen times over the years, and this was easily the best.

An unabridged Hamlet is long, of course. It started at 7 and ended at 10:50. And it got uncomfortably warm in the theatre near the end. But all in all, it was a great night at the theatre.

A few nights later, we took my in-laws to see The Book of Mormon.

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Talk about a completely different show! I had seen it before, several years ago, with my parents in Portland when it was on tour, but had forgotten much of it. While it does aim to offend, the irreverent musical is highly entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny.

It’s been a good run of theatre lately, while we’ve had visitors in town. Anyone else want to come visit and give me an excuse to go see a show?

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (No Spoilers)

I have had the good fortune of seeing this incredible play not just once, but twice, as I saw it last year in June when it was still in previews, before the script was published as a book. I think I may have mentioned before that I’m a big Harry Potter fan…

When the play was first announced, sometime in 2015 (long before we knew we’d be moving to London), M and I signed up for the emails about the show, to find out when tickets would go on sale. We followed all the rules they laid out about how to get into the queue to buy tickets online, which involved registering by a certain day and I don’t remember what else. Then at the moment they went on sale, I sat at my computer and crossed my fingers and waited for my turn to purchase.

Apparently the number of people trying to buy tickets in the UK was so high it crashed the site there, but I think because I was in America, and not as many people were trying to get tickets to a show in London, I got lucky. I was able to purchase six tickets for when it was in previews in June 2016. Then I emailed M’s family and said, Who wants to take a vacation to London next June??

So we planned a trip here before knowing we’d be moving here just a month later, all around seeing this play. And it was worth the trip.

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June 2016

It’s in two parts, a little shy of 3 hours each, and you have the choice of seeing Part One one evening and Part Two the next evening, or Part One at a 2 p.m. matinee and Part Two the same day at 7:30 p.m. Yes, nearly 6 hours spent sitting in a theatre seat. Yes, it’s worth it.

But my No. 1 recommendation is DON’T READ THE SCRIPT FIRST. It will ruin all the plot surprises for you. If you think that at any point you might see this play (it’s coming to Broadway next year, I think, so certainly it will go on tour across America at some point), do yourself a favor and just wait and not spoil the story by reading the published script.

For one thing, the script is just the dialogue. It’s not like one of J.K. Rowling’s novels, where the descriptions set the scene for you. I read it after it was published last July, and I think it would be a disappointing read for someone who has read the HP books.

When you see the story unfold on stage before your very eyes, with special effects and props and music, the effect is simply magic. I was spellbound.

So when my friend Amber wanted to try to get tickets when the next round were released for this year, and asked if I would go see it again with her, I said absolutely!

Yeah, we made Gryffindor fascinators, ’cause we fancy like that. (Don’t worry, we took them off before the play started, so we didn’t block anyone’s view.)

The opening set

Only a few original cast members are still in it a year later, but it was just as wonderful as I remembered. I’d even forgotten a few things and so was captivated all over again. It’s just a joy to watch.

I also took the opportunity to reuse the Butterbeer cups I got at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. They don’t sell Butterbeer at the theatre bar (major oversight, if you ask me), so that’s champagne.

Thinking about selling Harry Potter fascinators on Etsy… who wants to buy one?

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Much Ado About Shakespeare’s Globe 

Something I’d been wanting to do in London was go see a play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

When we were planning our friends Amber and Justin’s visit from Baltimore, I suggested this as an option to them, and they said yes right away. Justin teaches English, so this was right up his alley, and we’ve all four gone to the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s summer outdoor performances several times over the years.

This was a lot less hot and had way fewer mosquitoes, but is still open-roof. The Globe is right on the south bank of the river, and it’s modeled after Shakespeare’s first London theatre.

“The reconstruction is as faithful to the original as modern scholarship and traditional craftsmanship can make it, but for the time being this Globe is—and is likely to remain—neither more nor less than the ‘best guess’ at Shakespeare’s theatre,” reads our programme.

You can buy tickets for seats, which are just hardwood benches (rent a cushion for a pound, it’s worth it; pro tip: buy tickets for seats in a back row of a section, then you won’t need to also rent a seatback, which cost £3), or you can pay just £5 to watch the play from the standing area, called “the yard,” in front of the stage. Those people looked very uncomfortable, shifting their weight from leg to leg for three hours. And it rained on them (the seats are all under cover).

We saw Much Ado About Nothing, which I’ve seen before, but the beautiful thing about Shakespeare’s plays is that directors set them in different times and places, so each production is very different from the ones you’ve seen elsewhere.

This one was set in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which totally worked! I loved the way they used that time and place to set the play, and the music and dancing were enchanting.

Before the play, we went out to dinner at the Oxo Tower restaurant, and sat out on the deck overlooking the Thames and the city.

After the play, we walked along the river as lightning flashed over St. Paul’s Cathedral, turning the sky purple.

​And we enjoyed this police boat’s little bit of humour, as well.