An afternoon at Hogwarts – Harry Potter studio tour

It’s been on our list of things to do for a while, and on Tuesday S and I went to the wonderful world of wizardry in Watford! We drove to Watford for an afternoon of spells, magic, and snowy owls!

Outside you can see the wizard chess pieces, which are enormous. I was only able to reach a hoof. Ok I’m not very tall, but they weigh around 226 kg, so you can imagine how big they are.

If you need a signed tour or one with audio description, these are available, but you need to book two weeks in advance because people are brought in specifically to do them. We booked quite spontaneously and wanted to go during our week off, so we didn’t have audio description, but S described what he was looking at, and there was also a lot of information available on the digital guide. The guide is mainly interviews with people who worked on the film, designers, make-up artists, directors, and the cast themselves. A person with no sight will not be able to interact with the guide independently as it’s a touch screen, but it certainly saves someone else with you from doing a lot of reading!

I think my favourite interviews were with the animal trainers – no surprise to anyone who has been reading my blog for a while. How they trained the dogs that played Fang, how the ravens were easier to train than the owls, and how a large hare patronus was actually a deerhound in a glowing coat. The owls took six months to learn how to carry the letters. In dangerous scenes, part of it was done with real owls, but when it came to an owl flying into a window, the real owl flew through an open window, and the bit where it connected with the glass was done using special effects.

Yes, I loved all the information about the animals, but it was also good to hear from the characters themselves about what it was like to basically grow up on the set during the 10 years in which the films were produced.

Everyone seemed really passionate about their work and about getting every little detail right – every prop, costume, and set. It didn’t just seem like a job to them. They wanted to recreate the Harry Potter world and make it as good as it could be on screen.

You watch a short video first, and then you are taken into the great hall, where so many important scenes took place. The floor is made of real York stone – they needed something robust that would stand up to so many feet walking over it. You then visit other places such as Dumbledore’s office, the potions classroom, the Weasley’s house, the night bus and Diagon Alley with its cobbled streets.

Portraits were used in different ways by different directors, but what we didn’t know before was that many of them were based on crew members, including one guy and his … you guessed it …dog!

Oh, and while we’re on the topic of dogs, here’s another fun fact – Dobby’s ears were based on a dog called Max, who used to hang out under the designers’ desks!

Halfway round we stopped in the café for a butterbeer – well we got the drinks that we wanted and shared a butterbeer, which is actually cream soda with butterscotch on top. I was glad I tried it, but I preferred my coffee!

There are three gift shops throughout the tour. One at the beginning/end, one in the forest, and one at the railway platform. They sell different things, so if you see something you like, you need to buy it in the shop where you see it. I ended up with quite a few things to remind us of our day, including an owl mug (of course!), a Gryffindor top, and a chocolate frog for my slider bracelet. I also got an enormous chocolate frog – which is cute in its own little way and I don’t want to eat him – but I’m sure I will!

I was conflicted about whether to take my white cane or my crutch with me. As S was guiding me, I couldn’t manage both, so I opted for the crutch because I thought we’d be doing a lot of walking. I was definitely glad of it by the end! The staff were helpful and friendly. Other tourists didn’t care and shoved into it several times. It’s good I am not putting too much weight on it now. I resisted the temptation to give people bruised ankles, but it made me think of how difficult it must be for people who genuinely have balance problems or need a crutch/cane for support. People really don’t pay attention to where they’re going.

If you are blind, I would recommend trying out the audio described tour, although I can’t tell you anything about it. I had a good day and was able to get a lot out of it from the descriptions, information, and sound effects. If you like a really hands-on experience, this may not be as good for you as most things are behind bars and you are asked not to touch, and I’m not aware of any touch tours, but I don’t think you need this because there are other ways to enjoy the experience, such as the interviews and the sound effects.

The most impressive thing for S was the huge model of Hogwarts, which is the last thing you come to before leaving the tour. You can walk all the way around it and see every little detail of all the parts of the castle and its surroundings. Every external shot of the castle was filmed using this model, and it kept being remodelled as new parts of the castle were described in the books. This is until the final scenes when parts of the castle were destroyed – that was done with computer graphics so no harm came to the actual model.

I think my favourite part was the enchanted forest – partly because it’s about animals, but also because it was a more immersive experience. You could feel the forest flor under foot, and hear the animals and the wolves howling. You’ll see buckbeak and a centaur as you walk through. Watch out though if you’re not a fan of spiders, because you know that a massive one lives in the forest!

Around the exhibition there are 6 stamp machines, which you can use to collect six stamps to go in your Harry Potter passport. It’s good because the stamps are raised and I could feel them, especially basic shapes, such as the snitch and the 9 on the platform 9 3/4.

If you want photo opportunities, you can take your own, such as pushing a trolley through the wall on the platform, or sitting in the flying car. You can also get pictures in robes for a wanted wizard poster, or you can sit on a broom and watch the scenery as you fly over.

I certainly hadn’t realised how different the wands were. You could buy them in the shop, and there were also wands on display. I knew they were all unique, but not that they were made of so many different materials with different shapes. Also, we learned that the real wands had to be reinforced with strengthening material to make them safe when the actors were using them.

It was a fun day out and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves Harry Potter and who wants to spend a few hours in his world! The tour takes around 3.5 hours, although apart from the first room and the video, you can go at your own pace. I like this because then you’re not stuck with a big group the whole way round, and you can spend more time on the things that particularly interest you. Also if it’s a bit too loud, like the fight with the death-eaters, you can move on. Or if you’re really interested in something, you can spend a bit longer finding out about that.

I’ve actually only read the books and not seen the films – I thought they had not been audio described. Amazon Prime has them with audio description, But it appears only in the US. Grr! Hopefully that will change, but it didn’t matter for the tour as I knew all the characters and film plots. In fact with the books I think you get inside the characters’ heads more, but that’s a debate for another day!

Afterwards we stopped off at Nana’s, a Lebanese restaurant nearby. We got a mixture of small dishes and I can highly recommend the baba ghanoush (smoked aubergines with tahini, garlic, and lemon!)

Have you been to the Harry Potter Studio tour? If so, what was your favourite part?

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What subscriptions do you have?

I talk about our subscriptions for beauty, food, and entertainment.

What subscriptions do you have?

When I started thinking about this post and adding up the subscriptions that we have, I was a little surprised. However we do use all of them. One is very new, so we’ll have to see whether we’re going to keep it.

The beauty ones are definitely mine, but the rest are ours as a household. Maybe there are some here that you didn’t know about.

Beauty

I have two beauty subscriptions. The first is Latest in Beauty. The great thing about Latest in Beauty is that you make your own box. You might not love everything you pick – that’s just the way it goes with trying new products – but you make the decisions about what goes into your box, so if there are types of products that you’ll never use, you never have to get them.

There are build-your-own boxes and curated boxes. If you build your own, you can get 3, 6 or 9 products. The more products you get, the cheaper they become. I look through the list once my payment is taken and select the things that I want. First I look for new and exciting things, then I look for things that I need, then I look for things that I’ve had before and really enjoyed. Some months it’s really hard to choose because there are so many things that I would like. Other months it’s a bit harder, like a couple of months ago when there were a lot of nail varnishes and tanning products, neither of which really interest me. But I’ve discovered a lot of cool stuff this way!

My second beauty box is Lovelula – the natural and cruelty-free beauty box. You can sign up for the monthly boxes (there are different pricing structures, so if you’re interested, check them out here.)

I like Lovelula because I want to use more natural and cruelty-free products, and this is a good way to try some new types of product and new brands in a way that’s cheaper than buying them full-price. There are sometimes one or two things in the box that I wouldn’t use, but I don’t feel that these are wasted because they go into swap boxes with other bloggers, into a blog prize draw, or I use them as gifts. If it got to the point where I was using only one or two of the products, that would be a problem, but as it is, I use most of them.

The other good thing about Lovelula is that you get a discount on the brands in the box each month, and if you really like something, you can buy it in the shop. This is different from Latest in Beauty because they have rolling stock, which means once something has sold out, it’s gone unless they bring it back again.

Both boxes provide a range of full-size and sample-size products, and particularly as someone who loves to try new things, they both work well for me.

Entertainment

We hardly ever watch TV in our house. If we watch anything, it’s usually Netflix, Prime video or a DVD. Oh and then there are all the beauty videos on Youtube, but fortunately they’re free!

At the beginning of last year, we weren’t sure whether to go for Netflix or Amazon Prime. Both of them were offering one month for free, so we tried them both out and continued both subscriptions, but for different reasons!

I’d say that we use Netflix more in terms of watching things – either together or on our own. There are some things that S watches that drive me crazy, and I’m sure he feels the same about some of my choices. You can set up individual profiles, so that the suggestions are based on what you actually like, rather than some random thing that another member of the household was watching. The number of people who can watch at any one time is based on the payment plan that you choose.

I usually just listen on my phone because I don’t need a screen. I really like the way that you can filter by audio described content, which is content that has an additional sound track for explaining to blind people what’s happening on the screen. When I’m watching on my own, I’m usually only interested in this type of content, and it’s nice that it can be pulled out into a separate list. I wouldn’t say we’re really heavy users of the service, but it’s nice to have it.

We do watch a few things on Amazon Prime, but there is less audio-described content on there and you can’t filter it as you can on Netflix. If Prime only had the option of Amazon Video, it probably wouldn’t be worth our while, but it gives you a number of other benefits too, which we definitely use:

  • Free next day delivery. This isn’t just cool because it’s quicker, although that is cool! It helps me to plan when the deliveries are coming so that they don’t arrive on a day when I have back-to-back meetings.
  • Free magazines – every month there is a range of magazines that offer one issue for free. You buy them for £0 on your Amazon account and then you can read them on the Kindle app, or presumably on your kindle (I don’t have one!) This doesn’t work if you want to read the same magazine every month, but if you have a more general interest, such as beauty or travel, you can usually find something to read.
  • Amazon music – most of the time I prefer listening to my own music – I haven’t really got on board with the stream on demand thing, but there are times when it’s good to put on someone else’s playlist, such as when I go running and want some upbeat, motivational music.
  • Extra free books on Audible – we’ll come to Audible in a minute, but when I signed up, being an Amazon Prime member gave me an extra 2 books for free.
  • Share with your household – I’m the Amazon Prime account holder, but S gets all of these benefits too because I linked both of our accounts to our household.

If you want to try out Amazon Prime free for a month, you can sign up here.

Finally we have Audible – a service for audio books. I love audio books! I used to read Braille books, but you can’t take a huge volume of Braille on the train with you, so in my commuter days I read a lot of audio books! They’re also good when you want to relax. S likes them too, so we often listen to books together as a change to watching films.

S bought me an Audible subscription last Christmas. I decided to continue it after the gift ran out, and then I got 3 more books because I’m an Amazon Prime member. Now I pay for them, but I think it’s worth it. I tend to go for longer books, so I can have several nights of entertainment for a similar price to, for example, a trip to the cinema.

You have to buy the books on the Audible site and then you can listen to them on the Audible app. You can’t buy books on the app. There are over 200,000 books to choose from, and the player lets you speed them up if that’s your thing!

If you sign up to the service, you are eligible to get one book for free, as long as you haven’t had a free book from Audible in the last year (3 free books if you’re an Amazon Prime member). If you like it, you keep the subscription going and you will be charged for a new credit each month. The credit is used to buy your next book. If you just want the free book, you can cancel your subscription within the first month – you won’t be charged, and you get to keep your book.

If you’re interested, you can use my Audible free trial link (If you are based in Germany, use my German link.

Food

And finally we come to food. We get a weekly organic fruit and vegetable box. There are a number of different options to suit different households and preferences, but you can read about our first three boxes here. I like the way that you don’t have to get anything that you don’t like, but you are introduced to seasonal produce and you might also have to find recipies for things you’ve never tried before, which keeps things interesting.

The other food subscription is the Spicebox. You can read a review about it here. Basically you are sent a box every month with little bags of spices and a recipe for a delicious curry. You have to buy the main ingredients in edition, but all the rare things are measured out for you, so you only buy what you need for the dish, the spice blends are already mixed, and you don’t have to trek round looking for things that aren’t sold in the supermarket.

S and I always cook and enjoy these together – a kind of date night in! You get one a month, and there’s usually an extra sachet with spices for another dish. You can find out more about the company on The Spicery’s web page.

How about you

What subscriptions do you have, and which are your favourites? Let me know in the comments!

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Rogue One

On Saturday I went to the cinema to see Rogue One. Some of my friends have been raving about it on Facebook and we found out that it was audio described at our local cinema.

In the past I’ve been to the cinema with friends. I didn’t always have access to audio description, which means that you wear a headset and can listen to additional information about what is happening on the screen and what the characters are doing. To be honest, if you’re watching a film like a comedy or a love story with lots of dialogue, it’s not too distracting if someone whispers a few words about what just happened. However, in a film with a lot of action, the description is more important because there is a lot of information to convey and this could be distracting for other people in the cinema, even if you are trying to be quiet. At home it doesn’t matter – my boyfriend just describes the action because there is no one else around.

Anyway – before I met my boyfriend, I hadn’t seen any of the Star Wars movies. We watched numbers iv v and vi at home last year. The events in Rogue One take place before the 4th movie and explain how the rebel alliance steals the plans for the Deathstar superweapon created by the Galactic Empire.

The storyline was clear at the beginning, then it got a little confusing as it kept switching between several locations before finally bringing all the characters and elements of the plot together for the final battle at the end. I wouldn’t say I was a big Star Wars fan, but I could follow the story and although I didn’t pick up on some of the references that others did, I didn’t feel that I was missing any information through not having watched the first three movies.

I think my favourite character has to be the new droid because of his uncanny ability to predict things, such as how unlikely the group was to succeed or use weapons against each other, which he delivered with the calm certainty that he would use for any other general calculation. He made me laugh and had some good lines!

I also liked the visually impaired character, Chirrut, whose samurai style made a change from the usual way that people despatch their enemies with their blasters.

Even though the group of characters didn’t start off as a team, they needed to work as one and each do their part if they wanted to succeed with their mission.

It was good to see Jyn’s character developing from someone who didn’t care who was in charge, to someone who was determined to fight for what she believed in. At over two hours, I don’t think it would have been good to add any more length to the film, but I would have been happy to sacrifice a little of the final action scene for a bit more time to get to know the back stories of some of the other characters so we could get to know them and their motivations better. Maybe that’s just me though and I’m not representative of the hard-core fans.

I had hoped for more survivors, but I guess this wasn’t practical, seeing as it’s around 40 years since the other movies came out, and it also makes the depleted number of rebels in the 4th film more realistic. The audio description didn’t say anything about computer animations of Tarkin’s character, which whilst it didn’t distract from the story, meant I had no idea what my sighted friends were talking about until they explained.

The final part of the movie is full of action and without the audio description, I would have had no idea what was going on. They did a really good job!

Overall I enjoyed the film and would recommend it to any Star Trek fans or anyone who likes this genre.

Have you been to see Rogue One? What did you think of it?

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