Hertfordshire: Harry Potter and the Cheeky Half Pint

 

In St Albans I thought about two of its celebrated citizens, Benny Hill and Stephen Hawking.

Yeah, you got me. Just Benny Hill.

Colonised by the Romans, who called it Verulamium, it’s just north of London. It’s pretty and historic. When we lived there it had eighty pubs.

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On the way to Watford is the Warner Brothers studio tour. Once the decade of filming Harry Potter wrapped, someone gasped at the tracts of wizardy robes, giant spiders and the Great Hall, and murmured, “What will we do with all this lot?” In the first week of January, we found out.

Alex and Max loved the blue screen experience. Their Flying Ford Anglia zipped high above the Scottish countryside, and their racing broomstick swooped low over the Thames. As a mate noted,

Nothing is better named than the Nimbus 2000.

An enormous challenge was the Quidditch scenes. These were filmed with skydiving, industrial fans and Russian swings launching body doubles like bungy jump mishaps. I’m staggered by the collective imagination.

An inanimate star of the franchise is the huge model of Hogwarts Castle. When the time spent designing and building is totalled, it took seventy-four years to construct. That’s even longer than watching all of St Kilda’s footy trip highlights!

Lastly, of course, you are cast adrift in an oceanic gift shop, reminding you that while this is fun, it’s primarily commerce. As the mortgage is finalised on two wands and a Gryffindor scarf, I spot a man in the kit of the previously secret, fifth Hogwarts house, Fremantle.

The purple haze of the Dockers? Here, in this magical kingdom of spells and free-flowing football? As Hagrid would attest, the Geelong hoops are distinctly Hogwarts. After all, who didn’t love Cameron Ling’s performance as pureblood wizard Ron Weasley?

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One of my favourite patches on the planet fits on an Adelaide oval or two. Our tour begins at St Albans Cathedral, which is 551 feet along its immense and picturesque nave.

Alban earned his sainthood by sheltering and then substituting himself for a local priest. It was a Roman version of the Fine Cotton affair. Unlike the horse, which lived to the impressive age of thirty-two, Alban was beheaded.

Expertly detached, his noggin started a-rolling, and moving appreciably from leg to off, bounced to the bottom of the hill. At this spot, legend suggests, a well instantly began gushing, and is named Holywell.

Surrounding both the former monastery and Roman city is one hundred acres of gorgeous expanse, Verulamium Park. When the first shafts of pale spring sunshine coax the temperature into double digits, cider-guzzling locals strip down to their waists, and hoof soccer balls about with splendid inaccuracy.

The concluding locale in our painterly excursion is the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. Built in 793AD, it’s England’s oldest pub. It’s superb.

As an Australian Rules footballer I was a rover. Sorry, kids, that’s a primeval term for midfielder. So low is the pub ceiling that about a thousand years ago, if I was picked for the Verulamium Caesars, in the derby against the Londinium Scurvy Knaves, I obviously would’ve rucked.

I used to love walking in there, proudly but pointlessly ducking my head, and pretending I was Shaun Rehn, minus the knee braces. And this, before I’ve even had a beer, is every pub’s function: to help us feel unrealistically good.

With exposed beams, snug nooks and an enticing lunch menu, it’s like we never left. The boys sit by the dancing fire. There’s the Belgian strawberry beer, Fruili, to which Kerry utters, “Yum.”

Trickling by the pub and the ornamental lake is the diminutive River Ver. An energetic hour in the tavern means even from a stationary start, and into a breeze, most males would carry it comfortably.

But cathedral, park and pub make an exquisite spot and now, exploring with our boys, it still is.

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Inside the abbey we lit votive candles at the tomb of St Alban. Max immediately told Alex what he’d asked for. And vice versa. As kids do. Their innocence contrasted with the entrance’s Thatcherite ultimatum,

Your four-pound donation (each) ensures the upkeep of the cathedral.

Since the ninth century a cobblestoned square has hosted twice-weekly markets, offering fish, meat, olives and much else. Beyond the kaleidoscopic colour and movement, and sausage and beef wafts from Charlie O’Brien’s butchery, its soundtrack is bustling fun.

“Pound a bowl,” bellow the greengrocers. We’d often buy a bowl, and later home in the kitchen, wonder at its catholic contents: parsnip, carrot, ear of corn (no eye of newt or toe of frog).

The spruikers are still there, with voices rumbling about the fourteenth century clock tower, sounding like jauntier versions of Ray Winstone,

Get me the money for those potatoes by Wednesday, or you’ve got yourself a little problem. Me.

*

Who could resist visiting the house they lived in a decade before? Taking a left off Holywell Hill, the Peugeot halts, and I turn down XFM. Why, it’s tiny! Wasn’t it bigger? How has our world again shrunk?

I stole down the path, and looked over the gate like a burglar in a telemovie. The scruffy hedges have been replaced with charmless, pine fences. Also gone is the shed, in front of which, during warm mornings, our precious, now departed terrier Roxy would sun her honeyed fur.

Why are we always disappointed when cherished spaces change, even for the better? We walk under the barren tree. I put Alex and Max in the car, and drive away.

*

After twenty days in Europe, we make our glutinous, anticlockwise way around the M25, towards Heathrow. Farewelling the icy winds and trains and ancient cityscapes, our A-380 soars to Dubai.

Then, we skim down to the equator, and Singapore, in its muggy summer.

 

 

 

About Mickey Randall

Favourite film: The Shawshank Redemption Favourite song: Khe Sahn Favourite holiday destination: Gold Coast Favourite food: steak Favourite beer: VB Best player seen: Dogga Worst player seen: Frogga Last score on beep test: 3.14159 Favourite minor character in Joyce’s Ulysses: Punch Costello

Comments

  1. Another beauty Micky. I wonder if the Belgium Beer Cafe sells Fruili. Must find out!

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Keep ’em comin’ Mickey.

    We revisited our marital abode last time we were back in Adelaide. We sold it to the heirs of Adelaide’s chicken salt empire in the mid-90s, as we are reminded at each Crows home game. I suspect that they have since moved on.

    What was once a modest but neat dwelling in a well tended ex-Hickinbotham display village in cosmopolitan Para Hills (but since re-zoned to be the westernmost tip of Golden Grove) now occupied an area overgrown with weed(s) and unroadworthy unregistered unwheeled motor vehicles. I thought I had missed McIntyre Road turnoff and ended up in Elizabeth.

    I won’t be going back there again.

  3. Thanks Kevmak. I imagine the wife could be a visitor if the BBC stocked Fruili. Keep me posted.

    Thanks Swish. It was always a source of wonder to me when I was at Footy Park and saw the chicken salt hoardings. I had never asked for, nor bought chicken salt, and yet here it was, reminding me of the enormous culinary and cultural voids in my life. Who are these chicken salt consumers and purchasers? Is it a secret addiction? Are they now advertising at Adelaide Oval, or is it a chicken-salt free-zone?

    A positive former house story is our previous Adelaide home, which is only a few streets from our current one (obviously tenanted). The new owners have undertaken lots of external renovations, indeed the things we’d have done if we stayed. It’s tasteful and makes me happy as I drive by. And if it’s been financed by their meth lab proceeds, well, that’s not my concern.

    But, yes, I hear your disappointment.

  4. Chicken salt should be banned. It is a disgrace to potatoes.

  5. Mickey, another nomination for line of the year from you:

    Expertly detached, his noggin started a-rolling, and moving appreciably from leg to off, bounced to the bottom of the hill. At this spot, legend suggests, a well instantly began gushing, and is named Holywell.

  6. Also, the sign applies equally to the Almanac:

    “Your four-pound donation (each) ensures the upkeep of the cathedral.”

    Please consider becoming an Almanac member now. Your contribution will help the family life of all who d the yards to keep it going. https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/who-are-our-almanac-members/

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    There is an even bigger, brighter chicken salt sign behind the Torrens end goals (John Creswell is rolling in his grave, as they say)

  8. Great stuff, Mickey. A most enjoyable read.

  9. Dave Brown says

    Nice one, Mickey. Mitani – fabulous stuff. Is it a national thing or peculiarly South Australian to have it available in big shakers or little packets wherever hot chips are sold?

    We have the interesting distinction that, prior to our current abode, our previous three dwellings have been subsequently demolished within a short time of us leaving. Our current house looks nervous…

  10. Thanks JTH, Swish, Smokie, Dave.

    Chicken salt. Does the South Australian footy public love it like Glaswegians love Irn-Bru?

    Swish- I guess chicken salt moving to Adelaide Oval was an early part of the stadium negotiations. Is this Demetriou’s legacy?

    Dave- I don’t see a pattern there, although many would!

  11. Yep. That was a swell read, Old Bean. But it wasn’t very footbally.

  12. I reckon they did a good job at that Harry Potter world, Mickey.
    We were without car there in London Town and we’re surprised by the train-train-double decker bus shuffling required to get there, but really enjoyed it.
    I rode up a storm on the broomstick.

    Buds have an extra twinkle in their eye now over Harry Potter (even tonight as I’ve read Azkaban to them in their darkened bedroom). Making some serious memories there, even while revisiting your own.

    Well played.

  13. Thanks Trisha. Now I know you’re a fan, next time I’ll make it extra- footbally, just for you. Appreciate the effort.

    E.regnans- agree with you. More than a museum, but not quite a theme park; a pretty good mix really. Our boys are still buzzing. I respect, rather than love the novels (surely a function of demographics) but loved the insight I gained into the technique and art of film-making. That was fabulous. Thanks very much.

  14. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Thanks Mickey I admit I love the Harry Potter novels thanks for the insight in to the Harry Potter world ( loved the rover – midfielder line )

  15. Poofta Bear says

    Dear ”Old Bean”
    Chicken salt – yuk. It is evil. Fruili….yum. What is it?

  16. Thanks Malcolm. Glad you enjoyed reading of the Harry Potter experience. The novels have been great promotion for reading, especially for young boys (like yourself).

    PB- I’ve got this far without chicken salt; happy to keep going. Fruili is strawberry flavoured Belgian beer. A tasty novelty. I’ll buy you one! Thanks.

  17. Luke Reynolds says

    Another great installment in your European series Mickey. Fantastic writing. Must admit I’ve never read a book or watched a movie featuring Harry Potter. No doubt I’m missing out. More of a Batman and Sherlock Holmes man. Did you make it to Baker St at all??

  18. Mickey Randall says

    Thanks Luke. Years ago I found myself winding my way down Baker Street, but not on this trip.

    When you get to London pick up a rock music guide book and check out the landmarks including homes and clubs important to artists like the Beatles, Stones, Oasis, Hendrix etc. It’s great fun.

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