Harry Potter fans can now see the steam train from the films. Alice Vincent climbs aboard.
For all the flying Ford Anglias, broomsticks and Floo Powder, the mode of transport which plays the biggest role in Harry Potter is the rather prosaic train.
It was on a train, from Manchester to London in the summer of 1990, that JK Rowling first thought of The Boy Who Lived. Now, seven books, eight films, millions of pounds and 25 years later, Potter’s devoted fans can walk through the Hogwarts Express: the gleaming locomotive that transported Hogwarts students between their school and King’s Cross Station.
The 78-year-old steam train that operated throughout the film franchise has been installed at a new extension of the Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros Studios in Leavesden – although those wishing to ride will be disappointed. Known, off-set, as Olton Hall, the 4-6-0 locomotive was in service between 1937 and 1963.
It was rescued from a scrapyard in 1997 and was lovingly – and controversially – repainted from Great Western Railway Brunswick Green to the crimson red of Rowling’s imagination.
When filming began on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 2000, the newly rebranded Hogwarts Express puffed into Kings Cross, to the wonderment of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and the rest of the cast. A decade later, its white steam filled the final scene as Harry, Ron and Hermione, now adults, sent their children off to Hogwarts for the first time on Platform 9 ¾.
Mark Williams, who played Ron’s father, Arthur Weasley, remembers filming such scenes fondly – even though, as an on-screen parent, his first time on the train arrived with its installation at Warner Bros: “It was completely functional. It used to steam in and out with a driver and a fireman and everything.”
“We would film on Sundays in Kings Cross, and the rest of the station just used to carry on around us.”
As those familiar with Harry Potter will know, the only way to get on to Platform ¾ is to push a luggage trolley between platforms 9 and 10 – or 3 and 4, the architecture of which suited the film better. Tourists have been able to visit half a trolley attached to the brickwork in Kings Cross station since 1999 – some even getting engaged at the spot – but there are three dedicated trolleys for photo opportunities at the new studio installation.
Despite filming in a real location, Warner Bros have recreated a King’s Cross platform to give the Hogwarts Express context. Each brick, made from plaster of paris sheeting, has been meticulously painted to resemble that of the station, and a glass roof has been created overhead.
As if to honour the magical steam that emerges from the Express in Rowling’s books, white clouds billow from the train with convincing sound effects. It elevates the prop from being a transport museum extra. “They’ve done a brilliant job with the puffing,” Williams admires, “they’ve captured the rhythm of a real locomotive.”
The wooden-panelled corridors of Olton Hall are too narrow to capture some of the film scenes which took place there – such as Harry, Ron and Hermione’s first meeting and the dementor attack. While visitors can snoop around and spot props belonging to Hogwarts characters, the first opportunity to sit in a carriage comes at the back of the train. Here lies an adapted carriage, which faces a large space for a camera and lighting crew to capture the action taking place.
Williams delights in the attention to detail: there are old-fashioned signs, dainty light fittings and aluminium luggage racks. Radcliffe and other members of the cast sat on old British Rail model carriage seats.
Across the exhibition space, several more open carriages are awaiting visitors. Their windows open up onto a green screen, where mountainous landscapes, flying cars and more sinister things roll by.
For now, the Hogwarts Express is still under wraps: technicians tinker with the tracks and the laden sweet trolley looks gleaming and new. But in a few weeks visitors will be able to take in the train as part of their visit to the studios.
The story goes that magicians chose to use a Muggle-built train to transport their children to school to avoid being found out by the non-magical world. Now Warner Bros are attempting to do the reverse: making the ordinary the stuff of witchcraft. It’s not quite magic, but this smoke-and-mirrors concoction is still worth a visit.