Do not read on if you plan to visit the Harry Potter Studio Tour as this may spoil some of the surprises.
I'm not a Harry Potter obsessive - yes, I've seen all the films and I've watched Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint graduate from cute kids to accomplished adult actors. And I've wowed at the special effects, supposing most of them to be computer generated images. But I always felt I'd rather missed the Harry Potter boat - with teenage children when the first books were published, I was too old to be trendy.
However, a tour of the studio has transformed me into a born again Harry Potter nerd - hell bent on reading all the books whilst simultaneously watching the films, pause button at the ready.
It's only on the studio tour that you fully come to appreciate the huge talents of the designers, set builders, artists, craftsmen and women, make up artists - the list goes on and on - who quite literally made the magic that is Harry Potter. The incredible attention to detail is mind blowing. Just take a look at this exquisite Death Eater mask.
Some of the sets were surprisingly small and it was difficult to imagine cast and crew crammed in to the boy's dormitory. Personal favourites were the Weasley's Burrow and Hagrid's Hut where Harry and co sat on large furniture while Robbie Coltrane was filmed surrounded by small furniture, simple but effective.
The whole tour is very well organised although there were blips when the studio became almost too busy. The trick is to wait and let the crowd surge through. Visitors are definitely from two tribes - the over excited ones who scream at every exhibit and run through at breakneck speed and those who take time to look and read and watch the videos. Apparently the record for the fastest visit is 45 minutes. Unfortunately once you have passed through the doors to the outside lot there is no going back. We took a more leisurely pace, returning to Dumbledore's office for a better look when the visitors had thinned. We clocked up a four hour visit, two hours behind the longest so far recorded.
There is no restriction on photography, although even with a good quality camera the results can be a little disappointing.
Number 4 Privet Drive takes pride of place on the outside lot, looking very much like a house in West Swindon I regularly walk past. Do the residents here keep a small boy wizard under the stairs, I wonder?
An expensive day out it might be, especially the gift shop experience, but was it worth it - you bet.
So what was it that reduced me to an emotional wreck. The piece de resistance is of course Hogwarts - a 1:24 scale model used in the exterior shots of six of the eight films. The sheer size and intricacy of the model, the subtle lighting effects from daytime to night fall when a myriad of lights twinkle in the windows, the haunting music - well, I was awash. That butterbeer certainly packs a punch.
What does this have to do with the history of Swindon you may ask? Well, absolutely nothing! Be warned, similar unrelated posts may follow.
Addendum - my friend Graham Carter, co founder of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society, tells me there is a Harry Potter/Swindon connection - the Hogwarts Express is a GWR Hall Class loco, built in Swindon. For more information visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hogwarts#Hogwarts_Express