With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them just around the corner, Film & TV grab their Time-Turner and remember the role that Durham has played in the franchise.
By Hannah Woods
Whether you find the Harry Potter franchise riddikulus or spell-binding, there’s no escaping its wizardry around Durham.
The University boasts a wide array of magic, from making wands in the Durham University Harry Potter Society to playing Quidditch and even studying the module Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion through the Department of Education. Perhaps most exciting is the use of Durham Cathedral as an actual set for the films, rooting the city as a must-see location for all avid fans.
Durham Cathedral was used in both Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for exterior and interior shots of Hogwarts. The cathedral’s Chapter House first features as Professor’s McGonagall’s classroom for her transfiguration lessons, in which Harry and Ron turn up late to the lesson, thinking they’ve made it in time, only for McGonagall to transform from the cat sat on the desk.
Director Chris Columbus recruited children from local schools such as Durham Johnston School to feature as extras in this scene, making it a firm favourite among local families. Yet sadly, many of the other classroom scenes were cut from the final version of the film, meaning the only other shot of McGonagall’s classroom in this film is when Harry, Ron, Hermione and Malfoy all gather there for detention.
Perhaps the most well-known image of the cathedral is the ancient cloisters that became the snow-covered quadrangle where Harry releases Hedwig in The Philosopher’s Stone. Numerous volunteers who work at the cathedral today were present for the filming and one volunteer told me how she saw a stuffed Hedwig being carried towards the filming site.
The cathedral remained open during filming and, as long as visitors didn’t get in the way, they were allowed to watch the magic happen. These cloisters also featured in the second film in an iconic, if slightly gruesome scene, where Ron performs the “Eat Slugs” spell, only for it to backfire on itself and cause him to cough up slugs.
Interestingly, to be able to create an authentic landscape, the film crew had to create a fake wall in the cloisters to hide the modern lighting and plugs from their equipment. They also used the triforium (the upper-storey of the cathedral) to set up their cameras and store props. The triforium can no longer be accessed as it is not structurally safe to do so, and there are rumours that the cast and crew left props that were no longer required that are still up there today.
In fitting with the nature of the cathedral, the staff who work there do not avidly promote the fact that Harry Potter was filmed there, instead choosing to focus on its heritage and religious duties. I spoke to a volunteer who said she was also reluctant to tell people as she didn’t want to spoil the magic of the films, especially for her younger grandson.
Additionally, members of the Durham University Harry Potter Society told me how the film crew were planning to use Castle’s Dining Hall for the Great Hall scenes and contacted the college to ask them for three weeks to film the scenes for the first film. Unfortunately, Castle had to turn them down because they were, and still are, a very popular place to host functions and events and there was a wedding taking place there during those three weeks. Although many people think that Christ Church College, Oxford was the inspiration for the Great Hall set, it was actually Durham’s own University College!
If you travel only an hour away from Durham, you reach Alnwick Castle, another major filming location for the Harry Potter franchise. Not only were many exterior shots of the castle used to create Hogwarts, it was here that Harry’s first broomstick experience happened in the first film (and consequently the castle now offers broomstick training sessions!).
The castle can also be seen when Ron crashes his flying car in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. During the filming of this scene, there were a series of Ford Anglia’s parked at the castle to be used for different parts of the car’s crash landing at Hogwarts. I spoke to Daniel Watkins, head tour guide at the castle, who told me how “it was one of the first locations they visited in the whole series, so a few of the cast have talked about how it was a good kind of bonding all being out on location together, and how it was quite easy to imagine being a wizard going to school once they were in costume and in a real castle!”
David Bradley (Filch) returned to the castle a couple of months ago, and remembered that it took all night to film the scene where he took the children down to detention in the Forbidden Forest as they couldn’t keep a straight face during takes. Once again, the castle remained open for filming, although Harry Potter wasn’t the massive worldwide success it is today so it remained fairly quiet.
Thus, Durham and the surrounding area are an integral part of the Harry Potter phenomena and the cathedral is an essential stop for fans doing the tours of filming locations around the UK. Although many of us didn’t make Oxbridge, we can now tell our friends and family that we matriculated and graduated in Hogwarts itself – far more impressive than any muggle institution!
‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ hits cinemas 18th November.
Image: Charlotte Way