Archive | October, 2012

Happy Halloween

31 Oct

One of my favorite holidays, and one not much celebrated here in Camelot.  We’re doing our own part, with costumes, decorations, and — of course — some cute cupcakes.

Pumpkins carved at Mary Arden’s Farm, where we had a great time introducing a Tudor living actor in the finer points of American-style pumpkin carving (alas, no power tools were available).  Owl cupcakes made by yours truly and inspired by pictures on the internet, where all winning happens.

Wherever you are, however you celebrate (or not), hope you have a wonderful harvest holiday.  It’s only going to get darker from here on out, so light your candles brightly and hold your loved ones close.

Day out: Harry Potter Studio Tour

26 Oct

This was the big enchilada of days out.  One of the best days out we’ve had this past year, a highlight of the summer.  It is not cheap, and not something we’d do more than once … probably … but I expect our day at the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour to be one of the top memories of our time in England.  I’ve even used a photo of the kids in a flying car in our holiday cards.  Yes: it was that good.

The studio tour is a self-guided backstage look at the sets, costumes, design work, and creation studios as they actually were used in the filming of the movies.  I took three children, and we stayed about five hours — and could have stayed longer.  Okay, I could have stayed longer.  The five year old was ready to go.  Here are my few tips, before we get in to the photos:

  • Get your tickets online, well ahead of time, and select a timed entry slot as close to first thing in the morning as possible.
  • Bring your camera with an extra battery and extra memory card, because you can take as many photos as you like — and you will.
  • You may be tempted to get a coffee at the Starbucks just inside the doors (THERE IS A STARBUCKS!) but you won’t be able to bring the coffee on the tour. Wait.
  • The digital audio guide (narrated by Tom Felton/Draco Malfoy) has lots of extra material and is very worthwhile for older children (or adults).  Younger children will enjoy pressing all the buttons and looking at the digital photos, but probably won’t gain ten pounds worth of value from the devices.
  • You can purchase souvenir books ahead of time, but there’s no cost savings and the exact same books are available in large piles in the gift shop.
  • Check out the gift shop before you do the tour because it will be packed like a sardine can later in the day.  And then, if any of your little wizards and witches happen to not yet have their own wands, they can get their very own to wave magically around throughout the tour.
  • Plan to take a break about half way through for some butterbeer and a sandwich.
  • Expect to run home and re-watch all the movies, shouting “We were there!  We were there!” during half the scenes.  Because YOU WERE THERE.

So, here we go.

In case you’ve forgotten where you are, massive publicity photos gaze down at you just inside the main entrance.

Here’s that gift shop I mentioned — first thing in the morning, before it becomes TOTALLY INSANE.

And the tour begins in the beginning — under the stairs.

After a short film (the only place where no photos are allowed) and a short commentary, you enter the Great Hall.  The actual Great Hall.  Like … The Great Hall.

Mannequins stand in for actors — in movie costumes — while a guide comments on the room and various interesting trivia about building this set, and the filming.

Then move through another set of doors and the gigantic warehouse of sets and collections unfolds.  Here’s the table from the Yule Ball in Goblet of Fire.  Up close, you can see it’s all plastic — but it still looks amazing.

The tower room where Harry, Ron, Neville, Dean and Seamus bunked.  The audio guide notes that the beds were made with the young actors in mind, and as they grew they had to hunch over to pretend they could still lie down in these beds.

I was amazed to find that so many film elements which I had carelessly assumed were computer generated were in fact very real.  (If you’ve been to this blog before you might wonder if this is one my close-up shots.  No.  This clock is as tall as my house.)

Recognize any of these?

It’s hard to say, but Dumbledore’s Tower may have been my favorite set.  I thought any minute Fawkes would start moulting.

The potions classroom was equally amazing.  With strategic lighting, hundreds of small, detailed props, and some ‘magically’ stirred potions, this set was a huge kid-pleaser.

The viewer is left with the realization that no detail, no atmospheric element, was too small.

The Weasley’s house — The Burrow — was also magically enhanced with chopping knives and sweaters knitting themselves.

Portions of the epic Ministry of Magic sets remain, including the terrifying and tragic Magic Is Might statue.

A mantle-peice’s worth of Death Eaters hulks to one side.

The crime-against fashion (not to mention evil) Dolores Umbridge has her office to the other side.

Just before exiting this massive building, there is a chance to have photos taken — on broomstick, in the flying car, and as a prisoner in Azkaban.  We were very lucky to have almost no wait — it looked like waits could be up to an hour or more on high-traffic days.  Even if you don’t buy the photos, dressing in cloaks, sitting stride the brooms while a wind machine blows and you see yourself soaring over Hogwarts or through London streets is an experience all on its own.  (Of course, we bought some photos.  And the pounds keep flying into the Studio pockets.)

After the sets building and the photos, you exit outside into a small cafe area which happily provides butterbeer, small snacks, and tables and chairs for a much-needed sit.

And a view of the Knight Bus!

Not just the Knight Bus, but the Dursley’s house!  And Hagrid’s motorcycle!

Peek inside the bus!

Look down the length of the Covered Bridge!

See the house where Harry lived with his parents — still practically smoking from the destruction!

Pose with the larger-than-life wizard’s chess pieces!

This is where my mind started to go, to be honest.

I tried to play things cool in the creature studio — our next building — but when fetal Voldemort unpredictably moved, I totally screamed.

None of the creature heads were very impressed with me.  Aren’t the merpeople amazing?

I won’t say how long I stared at Dobby, waiting for him to blink.  (He didn’t.)

The descending Aragog terrified my youngest, so we swept through quickly and were rewarded by …

Diagon Alley remains just as it was during the filming.  Take out the raised platform, and you could film another Harry Potter movie there today.

It was like walking through the best Renaissance Faire market space in the history of ever.

When you think you can’t absorb any more, you walk in to a black and white room, two stories high, filled floor to ceiling with gorgeous OCD doodles and designs for sets, creatures, costumes, and buildings.

And then circle another room filled with accurate scale models — all made of paper — of almost every Harry Potter world building or large natural formation.

Then walk into another huge space, filled with Hogwarts.  I’d say a model of Hogwarts, but this really IS Hogwarts.  All those flying and swooping scenes over the castle — or boating or battling or walking approaches — are cameras flying and swooping over this 1:24 scale model.  The room turns from dawn to dusk in an endless loop, the lights come on inside the castle and then dim once again with each new day.  There are large touch-screen monitors allowing visitors to zoom in for more information on different sections of the castle, and a wide ramp slowly winds around the entire structure.

I would have been very happy to sit here, at the base of the walls, and watch the ‘sun’ rise and fall for hours.  It feels like magic.

But, exit one must, and in this case, slightly unexpectedly — through the interior of Olivander’s.  The name on each wand box is hand lettered.  Go ahead and look.  There are thousands.

Now, now that your mind is completely blown, but you need to pull yourself together to drag your children away from a second trip to the gift shop and all the way home, now you can go to Starbucks.

Don’t forget your souvenir.

Blogger’s Block

22 Oct

I don’t what has changed, but I don’t seem to be inspired to blog, lately.  Expat life in the UK is becoming more routine, less shocking.  That’s a good thing, I’m sure, but not so very interesting as a blog topic.  “Day was normal – again.”  Whooo-hoooo.  

I’ve also been doing things that haven’t made it to the blog, like preparing to participate in my first mud run.  But those hours at the gym and outside running don’t really fit with my crumpet persona.  A mud crumpet?  Sounds potentially salacious.  And no one is sitting still for me to take a weird macro shot of a muddy trail run — even if I could bring my camera along.  Though I do admit, I’m seeing a whole new side of Camelot in muddy rivers, grassy hills, and forested runs.  Mudders in Camelot?

All the wonderful day trips we took this summer feel a bit sad to look over, right now, as the sky slides into darkness and I look at my calendar, empty of travel plans but full of day-to-day routines.  And I am legitimately distracted by creating the yearly birthday books for my kids — 12 months of photos, all in one book, chronicling their birthday year.  Do you know how many photos that is to go through for each child?  Over twenty thousand, spanning our move from the US to England, and each a small emotional bomb as I see how much each child has changed in these short months.

So that’s it.  I’m blogging today more to keep the spirit alive than anything else.  Why don’t I share one quick recipe, just for the sake of it — some comfort snacking I made the other day, using leftover store-bought naan:

  • Take prepared naan and slice into finger-sized portions, place in large bowl
  • lightly drizzle olive oil or rapeseed oil over the bread (about 2 tablespoons)
  • sprinkle bread with spice rub (cumin, cardamom, paprika, garlic, cayenne, pepper, salt) and toss in bowl to coat
  • arrange bread in single layer on large baking sheet and bake in 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes or until edges start to look golden

Serve with: one cup greek yogurt mixed with juice of half a lemon or lime, tablespoon minced garlic, dash each of dill, turmeric, and cumin.

I made this because I was envious of the kids’ snack bags of crisps — which they immediately abandoned as soon as this came out of the oven.  Next time, I’ll make a bigger batch, and skip the store-bought crisps entirely.

Yarn bomb!

16 Oct

Have you heard of yarn bombing?  Go ahead and do an online search, if not.  It’s a fun bit of crafty street art that has been popping up all over the world, even in our little corner of the UK.  A slightly off-kilter sight met our eyes, as we walked home today past the remains of a recent town festival:

There may have been giggles involved.

The yarn pieces were all tagged with the group’s name, and a few “clues”.

This one is Pippi Longstocking — see it?

Can you guess these book references?  You can check out more information about this particular yarn bombing from one of the creators.

Posts, benches, bike racks, mesh, these small colorful treasures have weathered a few days of rain and are still providing a bright splash of charm for all passersby.  Gosh, it makes me want to knit a scarf for a tree.

Banana Muffins, Lemon Drizzle, Clafoutis, Brownies, and Popovers — Oh, my!

14 Oct

I’m not dead, I promise.  I know it’s been almost a week since I last posted, and that’s not up to my usual standards.  I’ve been wondering if I should go for NaBloPoMo — like I did last year in November — but then I finally got around to looking it up and apparently it is happening in October this year.  Or it happens every month, and isn’t special any more.  Whatever, I seem to have missed it.  So … yeah.  Maybe I’ll do NaNoWriMo this year, like I did a few years ago.  That was fun.  I have a whole two weeks to pretend to myself that there is even the remotest possibility that I will find time to do that. So … yeah.

It’s been a busy week of baking, of reading, of baking, of attending book talks, of baking, of fighting off a flu, of baking, of madly driving the children from one activity to the next, of baking, and of baking.  Oh, and trying to get ready to race in my very first ever 5k.  And … baking.

These mini Banana Muffins made with a Joy of Baking recipe.  I pretty much love every recipe from Joy of Baking.

For this Cherry Clafoutis, the Joy of Baking’s recipe is a good place to start, but I’ve developed my own version of this classic.  No, I won’t tell it to you.

Lemon drizzle.  Zzzzzzzzzzle.  Where from?  You know it: Joy of Baking’s Lemon Frosted Lemon Cake.  Only I add a cupful of white chocolate chunks.  Just because.

Sometimes you just need to go with the box mix.  I have no problem with Betty Crocker brownies, but I do like to add my own thing to spruce them up.  Added in this version:  two tablespoons of instant coffee, walnuts, white chocolate, and a generous dash of cinnamon.

Finally, a dinner-sized serving of cheesy popovers.  Recipe comes from my other joy:  the Joy of Cooking.  I modify the recipe about like this.

(PS – Going to be doing a lot of US-measurement baking in your UK kitchen?  Here, try these conversation charts.)

Dream a little dream

9 Oct

It’s a sadness in my life that I have little innate talent for design or decorating.  I wish I had a magic wand to take my dreams of cozy spaces out of my head and brush them over the world.  Or I could just take a walk:

So dreadfully impractical.  And so … perfect.

Next to this al fresco scene sits the Most Fantastic Camper In the History Of Ever And I Mean Ever:(In English parlance, this is a Bespoke [custom] Caravan [camper]).  I did not check the price.  Dreams are priceless, after all.


Next to the adult caravan is this beyond adorable child’s playhouse.  I’m trying to imagine these two spaces set up next to a silver shinning lake or babbling sparkling brook, with perfect birdsong, perfect fire-cooked meals, perfect flower arrangements, perfect light for reading or painting or swimming or finding mystical swords or whatever one might do in a ridiculous perfect world.  I assume the chamber pot would empty itself.  Maybe it would sing a tune.

These stop and smell the roses moments brought to you via the Applestore at Batsford Arboretum, and Riverside Shepherds Huts.  (Shepherds Huts?  Are you kidding me?  That’s the most elegant name that could be designed for these fractures of sugarplum dreams?  Maybe it’s ironic.)



Tivoli walk

6 Oct

A (mostly) bright autumn day, and a chance to walk with a knowledgeable guide through one of the many interesting and distinctive Cheltenham neighborhoods you might miss if you blinked while driving by.

Origin of the name?  Not known.  Although it is an area of tidy homes now, apparently when first established Tivoli was a dire slum.  Exciting!

The narrow roads are crooked — laid out according to the paths once taken by the hedges which encircled the agricultural fields here.  The blocks of fields became blocks of houses; the massive hedges because small off-grid roads.

My favorite thing about Tivoli is the pop of colors.

The archways added to simple doors.

The subtle detail of house numerals adding decorative quality to the street.

The persistence of so many Victorian elements, like these colorful entry tiles.

Or this former water fountain and seating bench, where legend says boys from a local orphanage would sit and wait to be given errands — and small tips.

It’s now a street lamp.

The variety of front gardens make these small spaces look amazing.

We were told that although this area was the smallest parish in Cheltenham, it used to have the highest ratio of pubs to population.

Some are still here!  This one celebrating the royal union — no, not William and Kate, but the union of Scotland and England under Queen Anne in 1707.

And here’s something fun:  one of the oldest roads in Cheltenham, a former pack road for folks walking, carrying handcarts, or riding in from Shurdington and points generally westerly.  Stand here in the small “Tivoli Green” and see the path going one direction out of town …

… and continuing as a foot path through town all the way to the Royal Well and the Parish Church of St. Mary.  (A post for another day and a fascinating piece of Cheltenham history.)

Tivoli was once a neighborhood filled with small home businesses (along with all the pubs), with a variety of commercial enterprises along the outer borders.  It is now very residential, but there are still small local shops, like Tivoli Butchers.  (Go there to grab some local honey!)  What fun to visit in a town where local historians are so excited about where they live.  For more information about this area of Cheltenham, check out the flyer put out by an area residents’ association: