Expat Chronicles: A Trip to the Land of Wizards, Witchcraft, Brainiacs — and 5,000 Plant Species!

If there comes a point in life when walking around the local Botanical Gardens becomes one of the highlights of your vacation, then that point has finally chased me down. I can only assume this is what happens when you have either A) exhausted every other kind of vacation thrill; or B) you have kids, and much of your vacation time is spent doing family stuff: amusement parks, arcades, mini-golf, toy stores, museums, shopping, playgrounds, telling the kids not to argue.

Gardens provide a nice, chill respite from the hurly burly. There was a time when I found these moments planting myself in an empty bar or pub, but that option has mostly been put on hold until the kids are older. So, I stare at flowers whose names I can’t pronounce.

The Botanical Gardens were a personal highlight during our recent trek to a couple of English burgs northwest of London – Watford, and then Oxford. Our daughters are on their half-term school break, so we thought we’d take a short train hop to surrounding towns instead of piling into a plane and jetting off to continental Europe.

Since moving to London I’ve written often about our trips to the continent and beyond – Morocco to Denmark. But we’ve also taken a few shorter trips around southern England: Brighton, Canterbury, Cambridge, and now Watford and Oxford. These are ancient (by American standards) and charming places with very walkable villages, lots of history, handsome old buildings, excellent museums and bookstores, decent food options – and shopping malls, because shopping malls are universal.

Oxford, of course, is home to one of the world’s most prestigious universities. It is also home to Oxford Botanic Gardens and Arboretum, located a short stroll from the city center and surrounded by pretty campus buildings and wide fields. It’s a lovely area that borders a stream that feeds into the Thames. The Garden itself is about 4.5 acres and boasts around 5,000 plant species. The greater Arboretum area spans about 130 acres. The Garden was founded in 1621, making it one of the world’s oldest in terms of scientific and medicinal research. I had to look all that stuff up.

What mostly mattered to me was that it was peaceful and quiet. These two things have become increasingly important as I age: peace and quiet. Fresh air. Nature. Distance. Quiet – beautiful, soul-cleansing quiet.

The first day of our trip was spent in Watford, which is best known for being home to Warner Brothers’ UK movie studio. This is where they shot much of the “Harry Potter” movie series, which is the real attraction, and the main reason we took this trip in the first place. Our oldest daughter is a Harry Potter fanatic. She read the entire series of books in less than a year, including the last few in a matter of months. That’s a lot of reading – these are big, fat books of 700-plus pages. For her 13th birthday she wanted a trip to the Harry Potter studios, so that’s what we did.

Watford is a quick train ride from central London – about 20 minutes if you take the express from Euston Station to Watford Junction. Watford itself is a nice little village with the usual stuff (old buildings, a mall, chain restaurants, Starbucks). We shopped. We walked. We ate a very nice meal at a French bistro. We hung out in the hotel lounge and quaffed lagers and wine (well, the kids had water or juice).

I took the girls to a 21st century mini-golf/putt-putt place where you place your ball on the putting surface and it scans a code to let you know who’s putting. Each hole has a digital scoreboard, so you don’t have to keep score yourself. A far cry from the simple Putt-Putt courses of my youth.

After that we went to a game arcade at the local Hollywood Bowl. I have mixed feelings about these places. On the one hand, they are loud, and the machines don’t always work, and the prize tickets don’t always come out, and you have to wait a while to cash the tickets in for the prizes. On the other hand, the girls have fun, and it’s fun to watch them having fun. Every now and then I’ll get in on the action by playing Down the Clown or draining jumpers at the basketball hoop like Steph Damn Curry, yo!

To get to the Harry Potter Studio Experience, you take a shuttle bus from outside the Watford transit station. The shuttle bus was only a short walk from out hotel, but if felt like scaling Mount Everest because southern England was having one of its periodic shitkicker windstorms that are cold and uncomfortable and threaten to blow you sideways. These high winds remind you that the UK is an island, and all kinds of weather forces can collide at the same time.

Anyway, the Harry Potter Experience. I would say it’s worth the hefty price to enter (my wife bought the tix) and the piles of money you will spend inside for various souvenirs, photos, mementos, and knick-knacks. The tour itself takes about three hours, going from one set to the next. You start off being led by tour guides, but thankfully that ends shortly thereafter, and you are free to roam from set to set on your own.

I’m no Harry Potter expert, but the rest of the family are. Mom and Eldest Daughter have read all the books and seen all the movies. Youngest Daughter has seen all the movies. Dad (me) has read the first two books, seen maybe the first two movies, and likely will stop there. Not because I don’t enjoy them. I’m just not the world’s biggest fantasy/magic guy.

You do see some cool movie sets and interactive experiences. I particularly liked the scaled-down version of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley. Oddly, these sets reminded me of Las Vegas, where you walk through corridors made up to look like Paris, New York, ancient Rome, etc. I kept thinking we’d stroll into a casino any second and I’d join a poker game in progress.

The Harry Potter studios are worth visiting just to see the excitement in your kids’ faces. Plus, the souvenir magic wands are kind of awesome.

The one thing I kept thinking during the tour was that J.K. Rowling has a piece of all this action. Every admission ticket, all the merchandise, every trinket, clothing item, souvenir, ancillary fee – she gets a cut. This is simply amazing, what Rowling has created through her own imagination. I’m not sure any author outside of Shakespeare has cast such a wide net across generations and geographies. She spawned a global mini-industry and has personally helped prop up the book industry for a quarter-century and counting.

And it just keeps going on and on. There seems to be no end to Harry Hysteria. The kids who first read the Harry Potter books are now 30-something, with kids of their own reading Harry Potter books and watching the movies and buying the merch and dressing up as the characters. Rowling fundamentally changed the publishing industry, much of the entertainment industry, and popular culture. In doing so, she changed the world. Maybe just a little bit, and maybe just temporarily – though my hunch is that people will still be reading her books centuries from now, if humans last that long.

Quite a legacy, no?

Now: On to Oxford! Where we found….

….lots more Harry Potter stuff! Shops full of Harry Potter merchandise. Bookstores filled with Harry Potter books and toys. Harry Potter statues. Harry Potter here, Harry Potter there, Harry Potter around every corner. It makes sense, considering that part of the filming took place at Oxford University. We even saw a film crew at work while walking past part of the campus, and we suspect they might have been filming some upcoming Harry Potter spinoff.

As to the other stuff….

Two of my favorite vacation pastimes are visiting bookshops and eating, and Oxford, like many towns in the UK, is overflowing with excellent bookstores. We hit several of them. I bought a few books, even though my reading queue is already in double digits. But I just couldn’t resist. Books are my opium. Two of the books I bought are part of this series I’d never heard of called “Introducing Books,” which are very clever comic/text takes on various artists, thinkers, philosophies, and religions. One of my purchases was “Introducing Camus,” and the other was “Introducing Evolution.” I also bought Graham Green’s Our Man in Havana.

As to the food: We hit a couple of Asian fusion chains, including Sticks n’ Sushi, where I ordered an excellent seafood salad and maki rolls, and the others got sashimi, miso soup, chicken meatballs, and edamame. We did graze at a couple of local joints as well. One was Keepers Bar & Kitchen, located at the Mercure Eastgate Hotel near the Botanic Gardens. It’s a cute and cozy little place that serves very good soups, salads and sandwiches, and pizza that’s a little too greasy and cheesy. They also have entrees like fish n’ chips, steak, pasta, and dahl, but since we went there for lunch, we opted for lighter fare. The service was excellent – not something you find in abundance over here.

We also ate at Social Street Food at Westgate Mall. It’s one of those hipstery, industrial-looking food courts with craft beer and various food kiosks. Our family ordered burritos, Korean fried chicken, a burger, and some bevys. The Korean chicken was very nice, the burritos not so much, and the burger our youngest daughter ate looked way overcooked – which is something you do see in abundance here.

The university itself was about what you’d expect: gorgeous and stately old buildings in a green and serene setting, reminding you that many of the world’s biggest brains have been going to school here for nearly 1,000 years.

Oxford has many charming and narrow side streets to wander down, which is something I love about cities and towns on this side of the world. You never know what magical little shops, cafes, taverns, galleries, or coffee shops you might find down these streets. Photos of said streets accompany this blog post.

After our visit to the Botanic Gardens, we took a short boat ride down the stream I mentioned earlier. We hired one of the boat crew to “punt” us around in a circle. Punting means using a pole to power and steer the canoe-like vessel, much like a gondola. It was another nice, relaxing way to take a deep breath for 30 minutes or so.

These moments are worth their weight in gold when it’s the half-term school break, and you’re in the land of wizards and witchcraft, and the kids can only look at garden flowers for so long.

Daddy could have done it for much longer. But Daddy, he don’t call the shots….

4 Comments

  1. We also have a Potter-obsessed one here, with the little sister picking it up by association (even though she can’t read them yet). I’ve never been interested, though…but I recognise the attachment to the fantasy world. In my day, Narnia was probably my favourite series. (I’m still disappointed they made only a few movies in recent years.)

    The parks in the UK are amazing, so I imagine actual botanical gardens must be another level. Holland Park was the last ‘new’ one (to me) I experienced, +3 years back. I found the Japanese garden in there quaint, though the sheer size of the place itself was awesome (and a cause for trouble, since I got us lost 🤫).

    I very much see myself craving the same as you: peace and quiet…but such things are rare when visiting these places with wife (impatient) and kids (noisy) in tow. Perhaps, if I reach old age, I’ll be a wanderer when I have nothing else to do 👴🏽.

    I think I’ve also visited Oxford… though it may have been Cambridge. It was majestic, stepping in there. Though it still doesn’t compete with the University of Cape Town (where I studied and now work).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting that your kids have latched on to Harry as well. Our youngest, like yours, has not read the books yet, though she is a good and active reader. But she has seen all the movies (which maybe spoils the ending for the books). Our oldest had now moved on to Tolkien, I believe the first in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They have expressed interesting in reading my work, but I tell them maybe when they turn 20 or so. 🙂

      I love Japanese gardens as well, maybe even more than English gardens because of the way they integrate water and stone features. The Botanical Gardens in Oxford were not as artistic from a design standpoint. But still very relaxing.

      We’d love to visit Cape Town sometime, but it’s a long, long haul from here. I’m not sure I told you this but my niece-in-law is from South Africa. She lives in the States now, married to my oldest nephew with six kids. But they get back every so often to visit her family and she loves her homeland (and her adopted land). I hear Cape Town is breathtaking.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Has she read The Hobbit already, though? It is of course first in chronological order of events. We read it in Grade 6, after which I started (but never finished) LOTR.

    Yes, Cape Town is spectacular, and I think you’d really enjoy it. Maybe a long term plan? Some liken it to an independent state, a mini Europe, given how much better our local government is compared to the rest of the country.

    Liked by 1 person

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