We finally made it to our first Harry Potter filming location: Oxford! Stephen, a student whom we met through the couch surfing website, showed us all around the different colleges that make up the university.
First stop was Christ Church College, home to the staircase where Professor McGonagall welcomed the first-years to Hogwarts in the first movie.
…and right behind it, the inspiration for the Great Hall.
Apparently Lewis Carroll, while teaching at Oxford, carved his White Rabbit into one of the chairs in this hall. We searched for two seconds and did not find it.
Next up was the cloister in New College, filmed for the scene in which Mad-Eye turns Malfoy into a ferret.
Then off to the Bodlean Library for the room used for the Hogwarts’ Infirmary. Recognise it?
We didn’t make it into the part of the Bodlean Library used as the Restricted Section, because that part was closed that day (ironic), but Stephen had plenty more for us to do in the busy university town.
One of our favourite parts of our entire trip so far was a visit to the Magical Books exhibit. Photography wasn’t allowed, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I tell of the wonders we beheld. There before our very eyes, behind a single pane of glass, hung original sketches by J.R.R. Tolkien of Smaug the Dragon, the three Trolls, Elvish runes, the map from the Hobbit (published in black and white, but here drawn with blue), and alternative covers for the Lord of the Rings. Also magnificently present was C.S. Lewis’s original map of Narnia (he used coloured pencil, whereas Tolkien used ink), along with Phillip Pullman’s handwritten manuscripts for the Golden Compass – and a life-sized replica of an alethiometer made for him by a friend. I got the same thrill I get looking at fossils in a museum – here, close enough to touch, is a tangible glimpse of something you’ve only ever read about and imagined, separated by an impossible gulf of time but suddenly physically here in the present. So cool. And to think we might have missed it if Stephen hadn’t casually said, “Oh, by the way, want to pop in here for a look?”
We also visited the natural history museum, where we did get to marvel at some fossils, as well as some very well-preserved sea spiders, squids in jars, and actual shrunken heads (most of them, it turns out, are altered monkey or sloth heads, but a couple were really human. We didn’t want to find out which ones.) It was a giant, dimly lit room with glass cases filling the floor almost at random. Quite a moody atmosphere.
That afternoon, Stephen took us punting. No, not the kind we do in the gym at Base Camp to try and make soccer balls through the basketball hoop from all the way across the court (which I actually did once! Cole saw it). This kind of punting means standing on a boat in a shallow river, pushing it along with a pole. Here’s Stephen showing us how.
I’ve used the word “quintessential” before, and here I will use it again. It was a quintessential Oxford afternoon. Students running through the streets after exams in their gowns and carnations yelling “Freedom,” croquet being played on lawns, and drinking cider while punting on a lazy river with the mallards and geese and moorhens.
Amazingly, when Ryan gave it a go we did not crash and explode.
Our actual couch surfing hosts that night were Gillian and Aaron. Gillian grew up in London, studied in North Carolina, worked in Tennessee, moved to Shanghai, where she met Aaron, and is now doing graduate work at Oxford on the social effects of the internet. We ate a delicious meal of beans and rice spiced with peppers grown in their apartment window, then took a stroll along the Thames. The couple alternated between English, Chinese, and French all evening. Karen and I stuck to English. Bjork popped up on shuffle right when we were telling them about our visit to Iceland. Now she’s just teasing us.
Harry Potter Time!