Hidden in the streets of Edinburgh, disguised as your average cafe with a large mammal obsession, rests the entrance to the birthplace of your childhood.
Welcome to The Elephant House, the cafe where, many years ago, the one and only J.K. Rowling sat and wrote about “The Boy Who Lived” and began changing of the lives of billions of children and adults throughout the world. If there was ever a magical place, trust me: This would be it.
On our recent trip to Scotland, my sister and I sat in a grungy haggis-filled pub and wondered whether the cafe that J.K. wrote in was nearby. We knew the story, (everyone knows her story) but we never bothered to find out where this infamous little cafe might be. Turns out we’d already walked right past it and I’d taken a picture to send to my elephant-loving pals back home. (I told you it was cleverly disguised.) By that point we’d left Edinburgh not thinking much of it, and ventured into the Highlands in search of Hogwarts and James Bond and were bummed we hadn’t had the chance to stop. Therefore, on our return to Edinburgh a week later, the eve before we flew home, we made our bagpipe-filled way down George Street for a final pot of after-dinner tea on your typical rainy Scottish night.
In the grand scheme, it was for the best that it was the last part of the trip. For one, nothing could ever have topped it, and secondly, if we’d gone there first, we never would have left. Ever. I’m still wondering how I managed to fly home the next day.
Now I know what you’re thinking: Big deal, years ago J.K.’s butt sat at one of those tables. And I agree with you. I’m not a celebrity-spotter or the type to ever care much about famous people, because in the end, they’re just people like you and me. Even if something genius happened there, it’s not as if that brilliance is going to rub off.
The Elephant House however, has a charm that is all its own, separate entirely of its mystical “Harry Potter” elements. Large tables are crammed into a relatively small space devoted exclusively to pachyderms. The artwork is entirely elephant-oriented: There are elephant shaped chairs; there are bookshelves filled with elephant books; and yes, a percentage of every pound spent goes to, you guessed it—elephants. They let you linger over tea and pudding for hours without bothering you, and the tea is, in fact, delicious. The shortbread crusted apple pie is served with honey, which is bizarrely perfect and wonderful for those of us who loathe caramel deep in our souls. Mumford & Sons was piped through on repeat for three hours. People are put together randomly at the tables, forcing you to interact with your fellow coffee or tea snobs, or studiously ignore them with an erudite attempt at drafting your own novel in one of the numerous Moleskines that can be spotted throughout the place. Frankly, it’s just charming—the neighborhood cafe where we’re all dying to be regulars.
But deep in its bowels lurks a delicious secret of which only those with weak bladders and a deep sense of nostalgia may enter: the bathroom.
Or, as they like to call it, the entrance to the Ministry of Magic.
Yes, ladies and gents, their bathrooms will make you jump up and down with giddiness and simultaneously weep as they decidedly do not belong to The Elephant House. No, those lavatories are exclusively the ownership of the thousands of fans who have passed through those doors. The mighty legion of Harry Potter lovers.
The walls, sinks, lights, toilets, floors, toilet paper dispensers—every single inch of every toilet is covered in messages from Harry Potter fans. And it is beautiful.
From well-loved Harry Potter quotes: “Red hair, a hand-me-down robe… you must be a Weasley,” “You’re a wizard, Harry,” “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good,” to arrows over the toilet pointing to “This way to the Ministry of Magic,” and Deathly Hallows signs everywhere; to heartfelt letters to J.K. thanking her for giving kids who never felt like they fit in a world in which they did. And more than anything, notes of gratitude for defining our generation.
I started crying, which is a thing I do in the UK and nowhere else (don’t even get me started on the war memorials I stopped at [all 500 of them]). It stupidly touched me in a deeply nostalgic way. Standing in a bathroom, of all places, I felt connected to something so much bigger than myself. Everything that I had loved and cherished about the Harry Potter series—the characters, the sacrifice, the lessons, the abject tragedy and triumph throughout—was written on every wall around me. These people whom I had never and will never meet, at some point in time, felt the same thing I did. It was strangely poignant, powerful, and perfect.
There’s a quote from a magnificent play and fantastic movie called The History Boys (I cannot recommend it enough) in which the teacher says to his class:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.
The Harry Potter books had always reached out a hand to me. Each new book or subsequent reread felt like visiting old friends. Some of the best conversations I had in high school and college, and even after, were debating Harry Potter. I’m fairly confident you can step into most major cities in the world and make a friend just through those books. On those bathroom walls was the proof that it had been the same for all those people; their funny, awkward, and personal graffiti was that hand reaching out, connecting us all—an entire disparate generation—so different in every aspect of our lives except for this.
Except for our love of Harry Potter and the gift that J.K. gave to us all, and how oh-so-very thankful we are for it.
I’m going to remember that moment.
Tweet me @Tea_Imperialist and tell me your favorite HP moments!