England: Lacock offers a rich past and a Harry Potter present

A multinational pack of children roamed through the ancient cloisters and stone-pillared rooms of England's Lacock Abbey.

They hadn't come for the abbey's medieval architecture or the postcard-perfect historic village adjoining it.

They came for Harry Potter.

Scenes in two movies based on the wildly popular novels about the young wizard were filmed at the 13th-century Lacock Abbey.

"Look, look, it was here," squealed a French girl. She reverently touched a 500-year-old iron cauldron in a room that served as a classroom in Hogwarts, the wizards' school that Harry Potter attends.

Two giggling British schoolgirls peered into a courtyard where Harry was filmed with his magical owl, Hedwig, then skipped along the cloistered walkway around the courtyard, which served as a school corridor in the films "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (called "Philosopher's Stone" in Britain) and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."

Yet visitors don't need to be Harry Potter fans to enjoy Lacock Abbey. The medieval building, where nuns toiled and prayed, is one of the best preserved in Britain. A 16th-century country manor built into part of it is now a heritage-house museum.

And the adjoining village of Lacock, home to 350 people, is an immaculately preserved four streets of half-timbered and stone buildings that are little changed from centuries ago.

Some classroom scenes with Professor Snape, right, in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" were shot in Lacock Abbey.
Lacock, in Wiltshire in western England, can easily be visited on a day trip from London. Or stay overnight in one of the bed-and-breakfasts in the village and wake up to church bells and birdsong.

"It's a very back-in-time kind of little town," said Sarah Hinkelman of Bellevue who, with her husband and two sons, visited Lacock last month, exploring the 15th-century St. Cyriac church, poking around the village's pubs, and happily indulging in a traditional afternoon tea.

"It was great fun."

A rich history

Lacock has a lengthy history, with remains of an Iron Age settlement and Roman road nearby. The abbey came along in 1232.

Lacock Abbey's ground floor contains a secluded cloister and medieval rooms used in Harry Potter film scenes. The upper story was converted to an aristocratic house in the 16th century.

In the 1530s, King Henry VIII, infamous for divorcing and executing his various wives, ruptured his kingdom's ties with the Roman Catholic church and seized the extensive lands and buildings of monasteries and nunneries throughout England. Many, including Lacock Abbey, were plundered or sold to upwardly mobile gentry, thus swelling the royal coffers.

The upper floor of Lacock Abbey was converted into an aristocratic country manor around 1540. Its most famous resident was William Fox Talbot, a 19th-century academic and inventor who pioneered the photographic negative process. His earliest surviving negative, from 1835, is of a multi-paned window in the Lacock home.

Talbot's descendants donated the abbey, its outbuildings and lands to the National Trust in 1944 along with most of the village houses, which, in a feudal carryover, the family also owned.

Past lives

On a spring visit, while youngsters traced Harry Potter, I reveled in the abbey's spare and graceful architecture of arched windows, slender pillars and vaulted ceilings, made of pale stone that glowed gold in the afternoon sun.

The half-timbered, stone and brick cottages of Lacock are lovingly preserved, and few signs of the modern world intrude. The village, which adjoins the lands of Lacock Abbey, is home to about 350 people.

Walking through the half-dozen empty, echoing rooms that were part of the nunnery, I tried to imagine the nuns' life here eight centuries ago.

They would congregate in the Chapter House, so called because a chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict, fifth-century religious writings, was read aloud daily in that room. In the winter, the nuns would huddle in the Warming Room, the only room with a fireplace in the drafty, stone-cold abbey.

On the floor above, what were once nuns' dormitories and other abbey rooms were converted into the country house where Fox Talbot eventually lived. A dozen-plus rooms now are open to the public, and are comfortably crammed with books, paintings and antique furnishings. Multi-paned windows open to fields where glossy black cows graze by the banks of the muddy Avon River.

Walking into Lacock village, a few hundred yards from the abbey, I half-expected a horse and carriage to clip-clop around the corner or women in bodices and bonnets to scurry past. The village's historic character is stringently safeguarded by the National Trust, which owns almost every building. The stone, brick and half-timbered rows of cottages are immaculately preserved; modern buildings and signs are forbidden; all utility lines are buried underground. And unlike the over-touristed villages in the neighboring Cotswolds, there's no plague of ye olde souvenir shops.

For Lacock villagers, who rent their homes from the National Trust, it may feel like living on a "Masterpiece Theatre" set, although there is a small school, a bakery and — for the thirsty — four pubs. Indeed, the village is so well preserved that it's been used as sets for period TV dramas and films, including "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma."

These days, it's the link to Harry Potter movies, with some scenes filmed in Lacock in 2001 and 2002, that draw the tourists. "We've noticed more people visiting since the filming," said Margaret Miller Vaughan, who runs the King John's Hunting Lodge, a 13th-century inn where some of the film crew stayed. (However, the third movie, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," which opens June 4, was filmed elsewhere in Britain; see Page L 8 for more on locations.)

At the entrance to the abbey, a brusque, silver-haired ticket seller said the films' producer, Warner Brothers, forbids many details about exactly what was filmed where on Harry Potter sets, including Lacock, to be given out. My 13-year-old daughter, a Harry Potter devotee, was crestfallen, wondering if she'd be able to figure it all out from memory.

After sightseeing in Lacock, Robert Hinkelman, 9, of Bellevue, enjoys a treat of afternoon tea.

Fortunately, it wasn't quite as dire as the ticket seller implied. Tucked into a dark corner of the abbey's cloister was a poster board with five photos from Harry Potter scenes shot at Lacock. Peering at the pictures and at the various rooms, kids could figure out which served as the forbidding Professor Snape's classroom, where the magical Mirror of Erised (which shows your heart's desire) was located, and what actors went where in the cloister and courtyard.

Making it come even more alive, a kindly staffer surreptitiously showed us some snapshots he'd taken during the Harry Potter filming, with the ancient rooms decked out as Hogwarts classrooms and draped with cables, lights and cameras.

"Shouldn't have these, I suppose," he said. "But all the kids who come here — the French, Japanese, what have you — well, they just want to know."

Mad about Harry? Lacock is one of the most picturesque stops on the Harry Potter trail in Britain. But even if you could care less about a fictional boy wizard, go to Lacock for a glimpse of its rich past and tranquil, living history.

Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com