Take a magical tour of England

As avid history buffs, we find England endlessly fascinating. When we meet a guide who can distinguish an Iron Age fort from animal trails on a hillside, or a genuine 14th-century house from a Victorian reproduction, it’s especially exciting. Throw in a little Harry Potter movie magic and a hint of Alice in Wonderland and you have the makings of a terrific week-long circle trip from London, through Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds, in the south of England.

The Cotswolds offer mile after mile of the serene green that you’ve seen gracing many tourist brochures. Tucked into the valleys and rolling hills (with many of the aforesaid Iron Age forts at their peaks) are villages that have changed slowly over the last millennium. A modern pharmacy in a 13th-century house seems appropriate, but a coffee shop blaring heavy metal from a 15th-century façade takes some getting used to.

Our stay at Owlpen Manor and the nearby village of Dursley, in the heart of the Cotswolds, let us glimpse the life of a country squire, from a 15th-century and a 21st-century perspective. (H.P. fans will, of course, twig that Dursley is also the family name of Harry’s nemesis uncle and aunt, and that owls play an important role for young wizards.)

Early mornings would find gentlemen in sturdy boots, carrying walking sticks, crossing the misty pastures – a scene that probably hasn’t changed much in 500 years.

The cottages at Owlpen are all converted out-buildings, and despite the modern conveniences, you quickly get a sense of how life was “back then.”

Gloucester has been a port city since Roman times. An hour’s walk around the city’s Victorian warehouses and boatyards is enough to bring a sense of recognition: this scenery has played a “stand-in” role for several films set in London. Poke your head into alleys and lanes as you walk around town. Maverdine Lane off Westgate Street is only a metre or so wide. Step into the lane and look up. The modern façade extends a metre back from the street and the rest of the building is 16th century.

Gloucester Cathedral has one of the largest stained glass windows in England. It was carefully removed during the war, and buried, for preservation. The cathedral’s cloisters will be a familiar sight to those who’ve seen Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the movie, they form the entrance to Gryffindor House, but you won’t see the stained glass window or the gravestones in the floor – they were covered to avoid religious overtones.

To meet some of the film’s extras we visited the National Birds of Prey Centre, 15 kilometres from Gloucester in Newent. It has one of the world’s oldest, and best known, collections of birds of prey, with about 300 birds from 85 species. Daily demonstrations see hawks or falcons swoop down through the crowd to find a meal.

Yes, we did ask if any of the owls were used in the film, but the bird handler was cagey. He did admit that the birds have done a lot of film work. The owls wisely said nothing, but we noted they preened excessively when the cameras came out. (If you’re keen to learn about birds of prey, the centre offers a one-day Falconry Experience, a five-day Falconry Course, and a three-day Owl Course.)

Fans of either Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland wouldn’t want to miss Oxford’s Christ Church College and Cathedral. It’s immediately recognizable as the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchraft and Wizardry, where initiates are “sorted” by the magic hat into their respective “houses,” and where they eat their meals

Christ Church is also where mathematics tutor Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and it’s easy to see how he was inspired. For example, Alice’s father, the Dean, would leave the dining hall each evening by a spiral staircase tucked behind the table at the front of the hall. Dodgson wove this into his story with the White Rabbit who disappears down a rabbit hole. With a good guide to point out places like the tree where the Cheshire cat played, you slowly conclude that Alice was more of a disguised documentary of life at Oxford than a fairytale. (The Picture Gallery has some of Charles Dodgson’s original drawings for the book.)

Each time we visit London we have a fixed itinerary in mind, but soon abandon it when we discover something totally unexpected. This time we were seduced by Regent’s Canal, a country waterway in the heart of the city with communities living the gentle life aboard houseboats. The only discord is the occasional crane peering over the trees, or a siren wailing just beyond the shady shore.

The canal winds through the London Zoo, and its huge collection of animals has vast child-appeal. The reptile house, where Harry meets the boa constrictor, is recognizable, but the shy serpent you’ll see behind glass was replaced with an animatronics body-double in the movie. Perhaps that’s an item best kept from the kiddies.

Carlson WagonLit Travel logoYour Carlson Wagonlit Travel consultant can help you select the perfect Trafalgar or Insight tour of England’s hidden treasures. Book a tour of 10 days or longer by June 30th, and SAVE and extra $300 per couple. Call your local CWT office today at 1-800 CARLSON (227-5766) or visit cwtvacationclub.ca/carp to sign up to receive CWT’s monthly newsletter on hot deals and special offers.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ rachel dewis