A Magical Experience: Harry Potter Study Abroad

Scale model of Hogwarts Castle featured on film set tour

By: Haley Helgesen

I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when I was eleven years old. Staying up past my bedtime, reading by lamp light, I never imagined the series would have such a profound effect on me. J.K. Rowling’s books not only delighted my overactive childhood imagination, they also cemented reading as one of the great passions of my life. I wouldn’t be an English major today without those books, so when I heard the English Department was looking for people who wanted to spend two weeks in the United Kingdom visiting all the locations that inspired the series I hold most dear, I only had one question. Where do I sign up?

Before we even left, Dr. Buchanan instructed us to keep travel journals, saying we would thank her someday. Well, it hasn’t even been a year, and I’m already thankful. Rather than attempt some retrospective that explains the abstract benefits of studying abroad, I’m going to share some of my prized journal entries. Hopefully that paints a clear picture of what being a Harry Potter fan in the United Kingdom is like.


I’ve never flown internationally before. Our flight attendant is a sassy Irish man who makes us laugh at every interaction. He asked my boyfriend if he wanted a coffee, and then made fun of him for saying yes. “This isn’t a Starbuck” he shouted loud enough for the whole plane to hear. He also reprimanded me for meekly asking if they carried any tea. “This is a good Irish airline,” he responded, “of course there’s tea”. I’m a little disappointed we won’t be spending any time in Ireland, they seem like my people.

I had another cup of tea on the return trip from the Jacobite (aka The Hogwarts Express). It feels like I am traveling solely to drink tea in new locations. I go from drinking tea at the pub, to drinking tea on the train, to drinking tea at the café, to drinking tea on the train home, to drinking tea in bed. It makes for a very cyclical day. On an unrelated note, my heart rate appears to have tripled over the past few days. I should really look into whether decaffeinated tea is a thing here. [Edit: It is!]

Alnwick Castle is where they filmed Quidditch training, McGonagall’s office, the Whomping Willow, the entrances to Hogwarts, and the Forbidden Forest scenes. Exploring the castle’s interior and grounds was a weird mixture of emotions. I felt adoration for the richness and visibility of Europe’s history, as well as pleasant confusion over how Hogwarts was jigsawed together with so many pieces of a single castle. As amazing as it was, it was also a little heartbreaking because a part of me still wants to believe there is a real Hogwarts out there.

The walking tour of Edinburgh was my favorite part of the trip thus far. We saw how Rowling’s local haunts inspired many of the characters and locations in Harry Potter. We went to a graveyard where Rowling frequently ate lunch (she’s an eccentric writer, this is pretty standard behavior for us) and saw headstones for a poet named McGonagall and some nobody named Tom Riddell. We also saw George Harriet, the school that inspired Hogwarts, and Spoon Café, where she wrote the first few books. I’m almost certain that the reason my own series hasn’t been published yet is because I have no moody cemetery to steal names from, and no relative whose coffee shop I can write in for free.


Today we went to High Tea. I can now confirm that tea sandwiches are a superior food group, and I will be unjustifiably denied them no longer. When we walked in, a string cover of “Yesterday” by the Beatles was playing, which was great. What wasn’t great was how they played that same cover on repeat the entire hour and a half we were there. I get it, London, the Beatles are awesome. Thanks for ruining their best song forever.

Seeing Stonehenge is weird. We’ve seen some old buildings so far, but standing in awe of a 5,000-year-old stone circle makes you realize your presence is an insignificant blip in the relic’s lifespan. It’s humbling, and more than a little unnerving. Thankfully, the gift shop sells tea to calm you down from post-Stonehenge existential crises.

We only had a half hour of free time before leaving Oxford, so a group of us ran to the Inkling’s pub, The Eagle and Child, where Tolkien came up with Middle Earth. It was cool, but crowded, and we barely got our drinks before it was time to hop on the bus. In summation, I chugged a glass of tepid merlot in honor of Tolkien. I’ve never felt so alive.

The tour of the stages where they filmed Harry Potter held the last great surprise. At the end of the tour is Hogwarts Castle, just a scale model of course, but it was honestly beautiful. They played the film score and I got to walk around the entire castle grounds. I saw pieces of Gloucester Cathedral, Alnwick Castle, Lacock Abbey, George Harriet, and more. Every minute of the trip had left me with puzzle pieces of the United Kingdom hodgepodge that is Hogwarts. Seeing those pieces assembled wasn’t just emotional because it represented my trip, it also confirmed my childlike desire to know Hogwarts is real. I have been told since I was young that Hogwarts is fictional. Throughout this trip I’ve had to remind myself that I’m only visiting a few of the thousands of set pieces and locations that make up my fictitious version of Hogwarts. However, seeing the castle in its entirety made me believe in magic again. Hogwarts isn’t just a bunch of carefully edited stills or CGI, it’s just as real as the tenderness with which I regard it. Seeing it is a memory I’ll never forget.


TT 4/23 (Loved reading this! Very cool!)(I am debating whether the paragraphs that are your journal entries should be in quotations or not. That may be beneficial because then your different paragraphs will be seen as separate entries from different days. It might also make your article more cohesive/ clear if you put the date each entry was written so the readers will be able to tell the difference between your introduction to the article and the different journal entries that you list after your introduction. )