Harry Potter Studio Tour

I started reading the Harry Potter series in 2001 when the first four books were published. I read them so greedily, pouring myself into the pages and escaping into another world. I was captivated and truly enchanted. I never went as far as queuing up at midnight for the next book or dressing up for the upcoming film (which is totes fine btw), but I was and still am a huge fan of the universe.

So naturally, when Warner Bros at Pinewood opened the doors to how the magic was made on the big screen, I definitely wanted to visit and see for myself.

The Making of Harry Potter is located North West of London, a 15-minute bus journey from Watford Junction. Easily accessible by train and shuttle bus or a short drive from the M25 motorway.  It is free parking right outside, and Golden Tours even do a shuttle bus from central London (at a cost).

Entry is ticketed with prices around £40 for an adult. Tickets must be purchased in advance and can be printed off or collected from the venue. Your card gives you an allocated entry time slot for entry into the attraction. Get there with plenty of time, you can always have a drink or bite to eat in the cafe or have a wee look around the shop. You do not want to be late and miss anything!

When you first enter you are taken into a prescreening room with some pleasant and overtly happy hosts (seriously had too much butterbeer!) to watch a short 5-minute clip on what the tour is really about.

I really want to tell you about the tour but also want to keep it a bit of a surprise for people who haven’t been before.

Walking into the Great Hall is pretty magical and the only part of the tour which is guided. The tables are laid, and the costumes and outfits are scattered around, including the teachers at the far end of the hall.

Pretty much everything from the films is here on tour. From the Gryffindor Common Room, Potions Classroom, Hagrid’s Hut, the Burrow’s kitchen and Dumbledore’s office. In a previous expansion, the Hogwarts Express train is now on site and even more recently the Forbidden Forest (hopefully minus the spiders!).

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The average person spends about 3-4 hours at the tour, and about halfway through is a cafe where you can stop for a Butterbeer (be warned it is super sweet, I had to share a small one!) before stepping outside where the Knight Bus, Privet Drive and the Potter’s House at Godric Hollow is.

There are interactive sections and demonstrations where you can learn specific wand movement for duelling, you can play Quidditch in front of a green screen, and I have even visited when Death Eaters are lurking about (Hallowe’en special event).

Yes, the tour is quite pricey, even for London standards but you are getting a lengthy, immersive and interactive experience. It is magical for any Harry Potter fan, and also if you are not a huge fan (like two people I went with), it is still a really cool experience understanding how these blockbuster movies were made.

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Bletchley Park

Situated an hour north of London, is an inconspicuous estate close to Bletchley train station. A mansion and grounds, that was pivotal in the modern era of information technology and cloaked in secrecy. The home of the code breakers in World War II has exceptional historical importance and is still relevant today.

The Mansion and grounds were purchased in 1938 by the head of the secret intelligence service, in the event of war. On the train link between Oxford and Cambridge and only 50 miles from London, it was a prime location to attract academics that the secret service would hope to hire.  Bletchley was to be the new home of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS).

Following the outbreak of war in 1939, Bletchley Park became home to the codebreakers.  An elite specialist team with the aim of intercepting and interpreting any messages. At the height of espionage, numerous different coding machines were being used to communicate in secret. For months and months, the allies had no way of deciphering them. Tens of thousands of people worked at this park, in small and modest huts during the course of the war.

One of the most notable residents of Bletchley was Alan Turing. Regarded as the father of modern-day computers, Turning was fundamental in developing a machine that was capable of replicating and breaking the Engima and Lorenz codes used by the enemy. Turing’s work during and after the war is regarded as the breakthrough into computer science. His post-war life and death are full of prejudice and tragedy, especially for someone who has done so much.

Bletchley Park was not only groundbreaking in what they achieved in shortening in the war and saving thousands of lives but also in the number of women who worked there. Numerous women were given the opportunity to progress into STEM subjects with dwindling numbers of men who had gone off to the war. Women with experience in mathematics, physics, engineering and languages. These trailblazers showed that anyone could have the right skills and make a difference.

Under the Secrets Act, most of what happened at Bletchley is a mystery, with many taking their secrets with them. We may never know the full extent of what happened and what was uncovered at Bletchley, but their hard work, patience and dedication saved many lives and secured the outcome of the war for the allies.

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Tower Of London

An impenetrable fortress on the north bank of the river Thames is the Tower of London. A long and multi-functional history since being built in 1066, the Tower has been a palace, a prison, an armoury, a royal mint, a treasury, a public records office and the home of the Crown Jewels.

Most famously the Tower of London was a prison, with grisly rumours of torture. Some famous names during the medieval period were held and/or executed at the Tower, including Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife), Guy Fawkes (gunpowder plot) and even Elizabeth I was imprisoned here.  A plague immortalises Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters, both in remembrance and as a warning to other prisoners of the possible consequences of their actions. Rudolf Hess in 1941, the deputy of the Nazi Party was the last state prisoner to be held at the Tower. As late as 1952, prisoners were held in the Tower. The infamous Kray twins were held in 1952 at the Tower for failing to report for national service.

The Crown Jewels comprise of 140 various ceremonial objects used by the British Monarchy.  This includes 7 crowns, with a dazzling array of gold, silver and 23,578 precious stones. The tradition of the ornate coronation has been around since the 12th century and the collection has grown, until the English Civil War (1642-1651) where the monarchy was overthrown and a number of objects were destroyed. With the restoration of the Crown, the collection was remodelled and first went on show in the tower in 1771.

An iconic symbol of the British Monarch and London’s history, the Tower of London is a great place to visit.

Best to get there early and head straight for the Crown Jewels as it gets really busy. Book your tickets in advance for discounts

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Russia World Cup 2018

‘The World Cup is a very important way to measure the good players, and the great ones’ – Pele

The beautiful game of football is played worldwide by millions of men, women, and children. Played first (official association football) in 1863 and how the game has grown since this scoreless draw between Barnes and Richmond. Now represented by an estimated 265 million people across 207 member associations, and the pinnacle of association football is the World Cup.

Hosted every four years since 1930, Russia hosts the 2018 competition which starts on Thursday 14th June. This tournaments’ hosts are Russia, and the bidding was not without scandal or controversy. Allegations of corruption were raised by the English Association, with suggestions that Russia bought votes.  Russia has quite strict laws against freedom of speech and profound discrimination with regards to race and LGBT groups. Ongoing doping issues are surrounding Russian athletes resulting in their inability to compete in Olympic competitions. Suspicious activity along its boards with Ukraine, the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shot out of the sky and the threat of domestic terrorism, it is incredible that the tournament is starting this week.

The British Government has issued the following 11 pointers to stay safe when in Russia for the tournament:

  1. Preparation – check the local government websites before you travel for up to date travel advice
  2. Health Insurance – the European Insurance Card (the old E111) is not valid in Russia so all travelers will need travel insurance
  3. Fan ID – all match ticket holders need to apply for Fan ID as their Visa for entry into Russia
  4. Visa – those without a match ticket need to apply for a Russian Visa to enter, and it can take some time (so hopefully you will have applied already!)
  5. Passport – needs to be valid and have an additional six months before expiry. Take a few copies of the ID page and the Visa/Fan ID page, and store it safely when away.
  6. Match Tickets – only purchase from authorised suppliers and must be linked to the Fan ID to enter the stadium
  7. Plan Your Journeys – Russia is massive country, so plan your travel between the host cities ensuring you have enough time
  8. Accommodation – when visiting a host city, you are required to register within 24 hours. Book accommodation well in advance and ensure that they have recorded you upon arrival.
  9. Stay Up To Date – sign up to the government website for frequent updates
  10. Be Sensible – be respectful of others, including law enforcement and be sensitive to others. Don’t be an anti-social twat.
  11. Emergency Number – 112

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The Great British BBQ

Numerous countries around the world are famous for its barbeque traditions, and the UK is amongst them.  The UK has strong indigenous barbecue culture. Something of a Bank Holiday or lazy Saturday tradition is a barbecue. A quick glimpse of the sun, and its the optimistic rush to the garden shed for the grill.

The Preparation

British tradition is to invite pretty much everyone to a barbeque. Digging around in the shed, cupboards and loft for an assortment of chairs and blankets to accommodate everyone.

Then the food. Brits over prepare for BBQs in the same way that they do for Christmas but buying the supermarket out of food! Head to a supermarket on a sunny Saturday, and there won’t be a burger or sausage in sight.

Ideally preparing food in the morning or even the night before works out best, marinating any meat the night before but Brits are last minute in preparation, generally because of the unpredictability of the weather.

The Weather

Ahhhh, the Brits and the weather. A proud national obsession, with its endless changeability and unpredictability. The constant checking and changing and feeling it out. Any planning will involve vigorously checking the weather on numerous apps or websites, in the vain hope that it might actually be true.

Many BBQs starts with the optimistic weather but will end in the mad dash to the kitchen once the rain begins, with the poor chef underneath an umbrella to make sure the food still gets cooked.

The Food and Drink

Burgers and sausages are a staple of the British BBQ. Everyone will bring crisps and there are never enough burger buns to go round (why are they in packs of 4 when burgers are in packs of 6!). Dessert is most probably a Victoria Sponge and the drinks are beers and nowadays ciders. Someone will make a jug of Pimms, especially if Wimbledon is on the telly.

The sausages will be burnt on the outside but raw in the middle. The chicken will be well overcooked due to the panic of it being raw in the middle. Everyone will eat lots but there will be plenty left over, especially the potato salad.

The Act

There’s something irresistible about the prospect of food sizzling over smoky charcoal and eating outdoors with friends and family on a warm sunny day. An almost primitive act of cooking large slabs of red meat over flames. Most men will revel in having a few cold beers while the fire is burning, the smoke rising, the captivating aromas.

A BBQ is an energetic and engaging experience, and if you are ever invited it is well worth attending

 

 

Barbican, London

A brutalist concrete jungle casts shadows over the City of London. An ambitious community project from the 1960s oozes with character and charm.

Formerly a gateway to the London Wall, an original part of Roman Londonium. Incredibly part of the wall still survives as you walk around the complex. Population blossomed in the area during the 1850s, as did the ‘rag trade’ or textiles markets, especially at the Cripplegate end of the Barbican complex.

Devasted during World War II, the area was rebuilt in the 1960s. The idea was to populate the city, to build a community in the heart of the tragedy of the devastation. Brilliantly ambitious to create a utopian style complex in the centre of the City of London.

With its high rise walkways, the communal and private spaces, lakes and canals and its three towering blocks, it feels like a city within a city. Unique, charming and practical.

This complex divides people, either you love its brutal yet enchanting character, or you hate the perceived impersonal concrete towers. Either way, the compound is now listed and protected because of its distinctive appearance and the hope it gave to the rebirth of London in the 1960s.

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Best Songs About London

With Manchester and Liverpool representing English pop music for decades, it is easy to forget that the Capital City has produced some fantastic artists and provided the inspiration for many incredible songs. Here is just a selection:

‘A Foggy Day (In London Town)’ – Ella Fitzgerald

‘London: the best place on Earth to be miserable’ surely resonates with the majority of commuters stuck on a crowded and delay train/tube/bus. Ms. Fitzgerald beautifully croons on this number which has been covered by many artists, about the infamous fog that would haunt the capital, but the sun is always shining.

‘American Boy’ – Estelle feat. Kanye West

London born Estelle uses a combination of R&B and funk-ish beats to describe her meeting an American guy, and she wants to show round the West End, but Kanye wants to ‘Dress Smart Like a London Bloke’ in a nod to the infamous bespoke tailoring and London fashion houses.

‘Back to Black’ – Amy Winehouse

The unofficial Queen of Camden, Amy Winehouse’s story of acclaim, substance abuse, legal issues and her untimely death is as iconic as it is tragic. A beloved icon, her trademark eyeliner as iconic as her talented songwriting and beautiful voice.

‘Bow E3’ – Wiley

The unofficial Godfather of Grime, Wiley pays tribute to his roots in this dedicated track to his postcode of Bow. Grime emerged in London during the 2000’s in a gritty description of life as the subject matter, with an almost bold and dynamic electronic sound, and although it has become more mainstream, there is still a significant underground following.

‘Electric Avenue’ – Eddy Grant

Electric Avenue in Brixton, South London has a large Caribbean community, and in the 1980s (when this song was released), it was the home of much violence and rioting, due to the poverty, unemployment, and racism in the area. American Eddy Grant provided such a catchy chorus, and you almost don’t hear the lyrics about the ‘violence in the street.’

‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ – Dizzee Rascal

One of the Grime trailblazers making the genre more mainstream is Bow boy Dizzee Rascal. Fix Up, Look Sharp is a stark reminder to be street aware growing up in the East End, with heavy beats and a catchy chorus.

‘God Save the Queen’ – Sex Pistols

Local lads, the Sex Pistols were London’s iconic punks, launching their revolution from Camden. In their anarchic, anti-establishment anthem, the Pistols tell us there is ‘no future in England’s dreaming.’

‘Has It Come to This?’ – The Streets

Although from Birmingham, Mike Skinner from the Streets lyrically paves a new way for the British Garage scene, with its rap and catchy choruses. In ‘Has It Come To This’ Skinner explains his underground journey ‘runs from Mile End to Ealing From Brixton to Boundsgreen’

‘Hometown Glory’ – Adele

Hometown Glory is a tribute to London’s cultural wonders by Tottenham girl Adele. Only a teenager when this was released, Adele has blossomed into a pop Queen of London, with the voice of an angel, who swears like a sailor.

‘LDN’ – Lily Allen

‘Riding through the city on my bike all day, ‘Cos the filth took away my license, It doesn’t get me down, and I feel okay,’Cos the sights that I’m seeing are priceless.’ Lily Allen isn’t quite talking about Big Ben and the London Eye, but rather some unsavory types of sentiment to London’s people watchers.

‘London Calling’ – The Clash

The Clash’s tribute to late-’70s punk London is ‘London Calling.’  Not quite as anarchic as the Sex Pistols, but still a railing cry, with an album based on social displacement, unemployment, racial conflict, drug use, and the responsibilities of adulthood

‘Sheila’ – Jamie T

Jamie T delightfully tells of a poor pissed girl in the grips of an alcohol-induced emotional crisis, familiar to anyone who’s ever been out in London on a Saturday night (or ever been out in London).

‘The City’ – Ed Sheeran

In 2011 Ed didn’t look old enough to have left the Scouts, let alone the bosom of his family. But in this song, he’s a streetwise character with a cynic’s eye for the pleasures and pitfalls of the big city, which he credits with informing, inspiring and ultimately improving his music. Nice work, London.

‘Waterloo Sunset’ – The Kinks

The song was supposed to be about the end of Merseybeat, called “Liverpool Sunset,” but when The Kinks lead singer was writing the lyrics, and that he used to walk past Waterloo on the way to art college and created one of the most iconic London songs.

 

Moeraki Boulders

On Koekohe beach, between Dunedin and Oamaru is a natural phenomenon steeped in Maori folklore. The Moeraki Boulders are one of New Zealand’s most photographed landscapes. Numerous wonderfully circular orbs of stone litter the Otago beachside.

Local legend says the boulders are the remains of eel baskets, calabashes, and kumara washed ashore from the wreck at nearby Shag Point from a large canoe of Arai-te-Uru. The patterning on the boulders, according to legend, are the remains of the canoe’s fishing nets.

Over 50 boulders have been unearthed from the eroding shoreline, with stones still half hidden in the banks of the beach, with some weighing 7 tonnes and measuring 2 metres wide. There were many more when the site was first discovered, where people actually took home the boulders as garden ornaments.

Captivating geologists, it is believed that these boulders initially started forming in ancient sea floor sediments (Paleocene mudstone) around 60 million years ago, and the biggest rocks are estimated to have taken roughly 4 million years to get to their current size.

Top Tips for Visiting Moeraki

  • For photography, it is best to get there either early or late, as the beach is emptier (and the light is prettier)
  • The boulders are free to visit if you follow the Department of Conservation (DOC) signposting. If you head to the cafe, you will be charged to get to the beach front a small cleaning fee $2.
  • Do not damage any of the boulders or take any pieces home, they are not souvenirs
  • Best to go in low tide to get the full effect of the whole boulders scene
  • Please properly discard of any rubbish with you, leave only footprints
  • Check out nearby Shag Point and Katika Lighthouse for nearby wildlife

 

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How Green Is Your Hotel? Tips For Finding An Environmentally Friendly Resort

As more people travel and the concerns about the state of the environment and the future of our planet mount, the desire for reducing our carbon footprint and trying to be more green, destinations are aiming to be more environmentally conscious.

But how do you know if your resort is green? Here are some things to look out for:

Renewable Sources

Bit of an obvious one but hotels consume a lot of energy as there are a lot of people. Many are now using renewable sources to reduce their carbon footprint (especially destinations with lots of sun) so look out for solar panels and wind turbines.

Master Key Cards

Many hotels now have master key cards that control the lights, sockets and heating/air con of the room, meaning that while you are not in the room additional energy is not being consumed.

Water Waste

There are many ways by which hotels can limit water waste, such as flow restrictors on taps and showers, and by dual flush toilets.

Many hotels also ask to reuse towels to avoid excessive washing. By just hanging up your towel they will not be replaced.

Toiletries Freebies

Some hotels have now started using large pump dispensers for soap and body wash in the bathrooms rather than many small complimentary bottles, reducing plastic waste.

Locally Sourced Food

Not only locally sourced food incredibly delicious and it supports local suppliers, but the bonus is also that it has a much lower carbon footprint as it isn’t imported.

Paper Straws

Plastic straws are such a waste and cannot be readily recycled. Eco-friendly hotels don’t hand out straws freely or have paper alternatives (which can be recovered).

Tap Water

Ideally, water should be safe to drink reducing the need for plastic water bottles. Alternatively, a sanitation system on the property to ensure plastic bottles are not needed. Glasses and ceramic mugs for drinking instead of single-use plastic or paper cups.

Natural Fibres

Bedding and furniture are made from natural fibres, which not only reduces sensitivity issues, are super comfortable and have a cleaner manufacture process than synthetic fibres!

Eco-policies are clearly stated

Properties that practice environmentally sound policies are generally proud to tell their customers! Read reviews and check online before you book.

The Future Is Bright…

There are always new ways to stay greener such as using organic food, natural cleaning products, increasing recycling rates, chlorine-free pool sanitation and boutiques for locally made products, green tourism is moving forwards!

London’s Best Parks

An unusual seasonal heatwave hits London over a bank holiday weekend; it is like hitting the jackpot!

One of the chief joys of London is the numerous green spaces within the labyrinth of old cobbled streets and high rise buildings. Other major cities will have one large park but London has so many, and here are the big five to visit:

Greenwich Park

For most people who know me, Greenwich is probably my most favourite part of London. Greenwich means ‘green settlement’ in old Saxon, and this park is monumental in honouring the origins of the name. The oldest enclosed royal park in London, covering 180 acres, used to be an old hunting ground. With a deer park nestled in one of the far corners, the Royal Observatory atop the hill, the Ranger’s house with glorious rose garden and the Maritime Museum and Queen’s house nestled at the bottom, this park has so much to offer.

Nearest Station: Greenwich Mainline or DLR Cutty Sark

Best for relaxing on a sunny afternoon and taking in some culture before having an ice-cream in the shade of the bandstand

Hyde Park

London’s most famous park nestled right in the heart of the west end. With Marble Arch on the north-west corner, to Kensington on the south-east, it covers a rectangular 350 acres. The history and rebellion of Hyde Park are reminiscent of London, with Speakers Corner being a platform for free speech since 1855 and some prominent protests have taken place in the park. Once again first used as a hunting ground, during the 15th century, the history of Hyde Park is lengthy. The original Crystal Palace resided in Hyde Park (before being destroyed in a fire), and the serpentine river hosts many sporting events.

Nearest Station: Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch or High Street Kensington

Best for having a breather from all your shopping in central London, walk around all the memorials, pop down to Kensington Palace to wave at the Royals, before having a cup of tea next to the serpentine

Regent’s Park

Based in North West London, sandwiched between Camden at the northern border and Baker Street and Great Portland Street in the bottom corners, this Royal Park is an impressive 170 acres considering its relatively central location.  Named after King George IV, he ordered for the park’s remodelling and opened to the public in 1835. The park is home to many sporting events and teams, and there is always something going on.

Regent’s Park’s most famous guests have to be ZSL London Zoo. The oldest scientific zoo in the world, and have 698 different species of animals. Sometimes you can spot a giraffe when walking northbound, and you can hear when it is feeding time.

Nearest Station: Camden or Great Portland Street

Best for animal, sports and people watching!

Richmond Park

Boasting an impressive 2,360 acres in south-west London, this is the largest Royal Park and second largest park in greater London and one of the largest in the UK. About three times the size of New York’s Central Park, this park was opened up to the public in 1872 after being (yet another) hunting park for deer. Around 650 deer reside in the park as well as many other woodland creatures and insects.

The history of the park is prestigious, and it is now efficiently policed to ensure that all users can appreciate the beauty of the park, and not cause a stampede (like one unfortunate fellow as his dog rang off the lead https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GRSbr0EYYU)

Nearest Station: Richmond

Best for deer watching before heading to an excellent local pub for some grub.

Victoria Park

The people’s park in East London was first opened to give the massing working class population living in the area some green space to appreciate. With the network of houses growing on top of each other for many, it was their only green space since it opened to the public in 1845. The ponds became bathing pools and many east end children learnt to swim in the lido.

A Japanese Pagoda from Hyde Park sits overlooking the central pond, and many organised runs happen in the park every year. Almost connected to Mile End Park to the south, only divided by a small a canal, adds another 80 acres to this area, with a patchwork of channels intersecting both parks.

Victoria park for me represents London away from the tourists. It has a more authentic feel, a more lived in experience and feels more appreciated.

Nearest Station: Mile End

Best for walking the canals around the parks and watching the ducks in the large ponds with an ice-cold drink

What are your favourite London parks and why?