This last weekend I caught a train from the rugged hills of Scotland to bustling streets of London, England. London’s influence seems to permeate the world and the imaginations of even those who have never set foot in it. Images of red telephone boxes, waving Union Jack, and double-decker busses zooming past iconic landmarks have dwelt with me most of my life, an idealized vision of some place I’ve always dreamed of going. I have to admit that while I had high hopes for this city, half of me wondered if its charm was grounded more in hype than what it actually had to offer. Yet every moment from arriving in King’s Cross Station to when we left on Sunday exceeded all expectations, leaving me in no doubt as to why London was someplace I had always been dying to see.
Being in London sort of felt like Christmas. Sticky July heat aside, we were alive with the childlike giddiness of seeing long-anticipated places that before had only been real in pictures. It’s surreal to walk over Tower Bridge, past Parliament, and hear Big Ben tolling noon like it’s the most normal thing in the world. For many walking the streets it was; just another day getting from here to there and home again. But for us it was the joy of discovering for ourselves somewhere that has touched and influenced millions of people for thousands of years.
It was an intense four days of trying to pack in as much as possible, and I think we did a pretty good job. We mastered the London Underground, which brought us to places such as the Tower of London, the infamous fortress where people where held prisoner and executed; Buckingham Palace, where the guards really do look as goofy in real life as they do on the Travel Channel; the Westminster Abbey, site of every coronation and royal wedding; and Kensington Palace, where Queen Victoria was born and raised. I think it’s best to have a somewhat high pain tolerance when visiting London; the need to pinch yourself to remember the significance of what you’re seeing may happen more than once. When you see armour worn by King Henry VIII, the Crown Jewels, Queen Victoria’s wedding dress, and the graves of people like Sir Isaac Newton, Queen Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens, and Winston Churchill all in a matter of hours, you may start to lose touch with reality. Occasional tears are also acceptable.
Though it was all magnificent (save for the blisters), what was arguably my favorite part was touring the Harry Potter set at the Warner Brothers Studios. For those of you who did not know me during my elementary and middle school years, Harry Potter was a defining feature of my childhood. Perhaps the defining feature for a while. I lost sleep staying up late reading the series by flashlight, counted down the days until each new book or movie was released, proudly plastered my room with movie posters, and even planned how I would tell my family and friends when I got my Hogwarts acceptance letter. I’m still waiting for the last bit. While I’ve mostly mellowed from that degree of obsession, I still have a strong connection to the books and films. Maybe I liked the story of a J.K. Rowling, whose good idea and talent for writing has changed the world of childhood literacy. Or Hermione Granger, a young female character whose defining traits were not beauty and desperation but strength and intelligence (finally!). Or the intricacies of an imagined world that is so convincing you still wonder if it can be real. Whatever it was that drew me to the series originally, what has lasted more than anything is the personal and family connections I have to Harry Potter.
Those memories came to life as we walked through the film sets and got to see the places and props used to make the movies. I remember my family buying the first movie on VHS when I was in third grade, and the five of us watching it on our old TV for the first time. I think Mom got more joy watching me watch the film than from the movie itself. I walked through the set of the Great Hall and remembered the end of the second movie, and Dad and I tearing up in the theater when he and I first went to see it together. Or my senior year of high school when the last film was released, and my parents took me out of school so we could see it opening day. The love of these stories was always something that my family shared. Together we discovered the wizarding world, and among other things, it was something we had in common that united all of us.
In a way, this trip to London was like a pilgrimage, the long-awaited visit to somewhere I’d dream of after a rough day of middle school or the monotony of high school. It was neat because rather than having reality be a letdown from my imagination, that childlike excitement returned, and I could live reality from that perspective of wonder. Sometimes I’m sad that childhood is over. But as I get older, I also realize that part of it never really ends. There will always be the treasured stories and memories that come back to spark our imaginations and bring us back to those times that we loved. We just have to let them.