London snapshots + a weekend recap.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

I'm back on Texas soil! The weather is great and cuddling with my dog is even better. Today is actually the first day I've properly cracked open my laptop in a week, which is pretty unheard of for me.

Let's recap....

Last Wednesday I spent the day in London having tea at Kensington Palace with my friend from home and her family, wrapping up Christmas shopping with the hoards of Londoners and tourists on Oxford Street, and popped over to Homeslice to stare at the dreamy waiters...and eat pizza.

The next day I headed over to Heathrow Airport via Paddington + the Heathrow Express with plenty of time to spare, letting me enjoy a leisurely breakfast and "watch the world go by" as the waitress said while she plunked me into a cushy seat. I boarded the United Dreamliner, enjoyed my 3 extra inches of legroom, and spent the next 10.5 hours forcing myself awake and having a movie marathon.

Upon returning home, I was wrapped in a whirlwind of acquainting myself with my family's new temporary house, running errands, wedding rehearsals, the happiest and funnest wedding day for my best friend, finding my dress for my sister's wedding, and collapsing into my bed for as long as humanly possible. I'm happy to be home and can't wait for all the exciting things happening while I'm here!

Did I mention I also kicked jet lag's ass? Thankful for wedding weekend adrenaline keeping me alive.

Happy Christmas to those who celebrate it, and Happy Holidays to everyone wherever you are in the world! 

Wreath Wonderland in Lacock

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A little over a month ago, I visited the charming village of Lacock for a short lunch break and jaunt around the area. Between the quaint streets, beautiful countryside, and Harry Potter landmarks around every corner, it was love at first sight and before I had even left I knew I wanted to go back for a longer visit.

Although the village itself is tiny, with 4 main streets that you can circle in less than 15 minutes, it's the perfect place to spend the day exploring. And y'all know by now that my daycation partner-in-crime is Sara.

We had been wanting to take a mini vacation before I went back to the states for Christmas break because come January, I'm going to be living in the library frantically finish up my papers, and Sara is currently dealing with an impending visa expiration date plus job hunting. With a time and money crunch on our hands, we decided to go somewhere nearby – enter Lacock. She had never been so it was my turn to play tour guide! (She has multiple history degrees, it's hard to compete)

After an easy-peasy train journey and speedy taxi through the English countryside, we arrived just as the town was waking up and had the entire abbey cloisters and grounds to ourselves for a while. The abbey rooms are only open on Sundays, so unfortunately I still have yet to see them – but I'll take any excuse to return here!

The abbey was founded in the 13th century, but most importantly – it served as Hogwarts for several of the Harry Potter films including a potion's dungeon, housing the Mirror of Erised, and several corridor shots, among others. If you're a fan of the movies, you'll instantly recognize scenes as soon as you step into the cloisters.

This time around, the village and abbey were decorated for Christmas! Not a door to be found sans-wreath...

Not wanting to leave out any Harry Potter sites, we strolled over to the Potter's home (from Sorcerer's Stone, not Deathly Hallows), and paid Slughorn a visit too.

Sniff, right in the feels.

We got there by apparating of course...

One of my favorite things about Lacock is how much of a bubble it is. As I mentioned in the previous post, the village is owned entirely by the National Trust and in order to live there, you have to have proven lineage of your family in the village. After hundreds of years of the same families living there, it's hard to imagine that they don't know a thing or two about their neighbor! At the same time, the vibe is extremely warm. Lots of homes and businesses promote their goods for sale on their front porch and simply ask buyers to slide their payment through their letter box. Honor system at it's finest.

We decided to venture out past the main roads and check out the surrounding streets and fields. We were greeted with bubbling streams, picturesque back gardens, rolling hills, and lots of sheep.

On our way out of the village, I spotted this precious pup tucked away on top of a sofa, curiously watching passerby's and probably wondering why a girl with a camera was squealing at them.

I love you lots, Lacock. Now I just need to find a local to marry so I can live there when I'm old and grey.

Do you have a favorite village or tiny town you like to escape to?

You Don't Look a Day Over 150.

Monday, December 8, 2014

When I moved to England, seeing "the bridge" sat high at the top of my to-do list. I Googled and Pinterest-searched pictures of Bristol in my spare time, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge was always the first image that popped up. 

Nestled in one of my favorite and most quaint areas of the city, the bridge is a Bristol icon. Towering high above the River Avon, it's surrounded by plenty of green space for jogging and picnics, or you can opt to take in the view from the terrace at the Avon Gorge Hotel with a pint from the White Lion or a full tea from the Bridge Cafe. 

This past weekend marked the 150th Anniversary of the bridge being opened to the public, after 33 years of construction. The man behind the design, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is often voted as the most important Briton of all time, coming in just behind Winston Churchill. A remarkable engineer even from a young age, you can see his work across the West of England from the iconic bridge, the Great Western Railway, the S.S. Great Britain, and many more engineering feats. Although he died before the bridge's completion, I'm sure he'd be proud that the iron work in the bridge you see today is 98% original and remains the symbol of Bristol 

To celebrate its birthday, Bristol hosted events all weekend to tip its hat to the beloved bridge. I spent a perfectly crisp and sunny Saturday afternoon perusing the pop up Christmas market along the Royal York Crescent – one of the longest crescents in all of Europe and most expensive streets to call home in Bristol. 

On Sunday, myself and 100,000 other Bristol residents bundled up and shuffled into any open spot we could find along the gorge in anticipation for the 12 minute fireworks show, which did not disappoint. Normally with fireworks shows (especially ones I am standing in the cold during) I'm pretty satisfied after 10 minutes and my attention starts to wane, but I never wanted this show to end. 

They had speakers set up along the river, playing music before the show began, telling stories about the history, a moment of silence to commemorate very upsetting and recent deaths in the gorge, and even an interview of a mother and her 8-year old son Harry who was born on the bridge and given the middle name "Brunel" to commemorate the experience. Yes, you read that correctly: he was literally born while his parents were driving across the bridge on the way to the hospital. I'll spare you the details of that, but how cool that they had the opportunity to stand on that bridge and push the lever to start the show!

If you'd like to see the fuss behind the fireworks, here's a great video courtesy of the University of Bristol student-run television station (UBTV). The bit that begins at 5:04 in the video below blew my mind. However cool it looks in videos or photos can't compare to how impressive it was to see first-hand, you could hear cheers and gasps from the audience near and far. 

Thanks, Bristol!

Christmas at Hogwarts.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

“Christmas was coming. One morning in mid-December, Hogwarts woke to find itself covered in several feet of snow. The lake froze solid and the Weasley twins were punished for bewitching several snowballs so that they followed Quirrell around, bouncing off the back of his turban.” - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

In lieu of a heavy introduction about my love of Harry Potter that started at age seven, which I could write a small novel about in itself, we'll cut to the chase: I finally went to Hogwarts during Christmas. From the 14 of November of this year to 1 February 2015, The Making of Harry Potter, Warner Bros Studio, Leavesden is blanketed with snow and holiday decor just like they had in the movies. Crackling fireplaces and all.

I visited the studio tour for the first time in the summer of 2012, where I choked my way through tears at the tour introduction – I won't give any spoilers for those who haven't been, just know that Potterheads will be emotionally fried – and my return in 2014 was no different. Blubbering like a true nerd.
This makes me laugh so hard for some reason. I feel like I look COMPLETELY different and it's only a 2.5-year difference.

The basic (non-spoiler) synopsis of the tour is that you begin in the Great Hall, work your way through soundstage J, the backlot, then onto soundstage K (yes, J and K...the eeriest coincidence of all), and exit via the amazing, pocket-burning gift shop. The tour allows a certain number of people to enter at once, but once in, you are allowed to take as long or as little time as you want exploring. Once you leave a section however, there's no turning back. So take your time and don't rush through things! I spent about 3 hours on the tour both times I've been, and I still feel like my eyes haven't seen it all. There is just so much to see that it's hard to focus!

I don't want to waste time explaining what each aspect of the tour offers because A) This post would be longer than the Order of the Phoenix B) I don't want to spoil the surprises for people who haven't gone! Fair warning that this is going to be outrageously long and picture-heavy, but without further ado...

Something else that wasn't there last time I visited is the new permanent exhibit showcasing bits from the Dark Arts – Borgin & Burkes, Death Eaters, Voldemort, Umbridge, everything a Slytherin like Sara could dream of, right? ;)

To complement the Hogwarts in the snow experience, they have a kiosk situated in the middle of J lot with employees showcasing how filmmakers and creatives create fake fire, glowing embers, snow, and ice. I was amazed at how much detail went into something that you barely see in the background of scenes. They had 4 different methods for ice alone!

Whew! Still there? Onto the backlot for a sit-down break and some much-needed refreshments...

...of Butterbeer, obviously. Some people love it, some hate it. I generally like the first half (the foam topping is the best part in my opinion) and then feel a little over-sugared before reaching the bottom. This patented, JK Rowling approved version was first crafted for the theme park in Florida. In the books, Butterbeer is a warm, alcoholic drink much loved in the winter months. No one in their right mind is going to drink a warm beverage outdoors in Florida, so cold it is! At the theme park they actually sell a "frozen" version which tastes like a hybrid milkshake/coke float and is my favorite. It's one of those things you just have to try on principle, but I think they could make a warm version for the London tour – our hands got pretty chilly!

In addition to drinks and snacks, the backlot is home to Privet Drive, the Potter's house from Deathly Hallows, Knight Bus, the Hogwarts Bridge, Ford Anglia, Sirius's motorbike, and chess pieces from Sorcerer's Stone. It's one of my favorite areas in the entire tour – it's practically a playground! They were even blowing fake snow into the air every few minutes, but it wasn't really showing up on camera.

Onto studio K we go...

Setting aside a day to go out to Leavesden is a must for any Harry Potter fan visiting London – the amount of stuff to do and see is almost overwhelming, making sure you get your money's worth! The gift shop is the most comprehensive Harry Potter merch store I've been to (and I've been to a lot), the staff are some of the most polite, friendly, and helpful around. I can't imagine a happier place to work.

The site is about a 10 minute bus ride from Watford Junction, which is an easy train journey (if you do it correctly, see below) from Euston Station. If you're unfamiliar with the train system and don't want to faff around trying to figure it out, in 2012 I booked my ticket through Golden Tours, which departs from Buckingham Palace road right across from Victoria Station. The cost of a ticket with them includes your entry into the studio and a roundtrip bus fare, shuttling you right to the entrance. The only downside to the bus tour is that you do have a specific time you need to leave, but they allow several hours.

If you are taking the train out to Watford Junction, make sure you take the London Midlands nonstop train and NOT the Overground. Our trip from Euston Station was the slowest train I think I've ever been on, and it stopped about every minute, clocking our time in at nearly an entire hour. The return journey took about 15 minutes.

If you made it to the end of this post, 50 points to whatever Hogwarts house you claim as your own. And do let me know in the comments which house that is...


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