People dressed in black cloaks swarmed the Tube in London on Friday, the polyester swishing as they passed through the gates at King’s Cross.
In the station, children in plastic round glasses trailed behind their parents as they pushed through the crowds. A small girl fainted. Train passengers complained. Then, at 10.59, the countdown began.
Phones and wands were lifted in the air, and the announcement was made: “The Hogwarts Express is now departing from platform 9 and 3/4. All students are kindly reminded to stick to your ticket and board the carriage at once. All aboard.”
The annual “Back to Hogwarts” event brings together thousands of Harry Potter fans from around the world, all convening at the London train station to celebrate the day that Harry, Hermione, Ron and their friends would board the train to return to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for the year.
As described in JK Rowling’s books, the Hogwarts Express leaves from the King’s Cross platform of 9 and 3/4 – recreated as a year-round photo op for tourists – and which on this day in particular, shows up on the official railway station board.
It began years ago as an organic fan event, with a handful of people, many of them in costume, commemorating the 11am departure.
It has now been taken over by Warner Bros as an official, global event, with three days of butterbeer and photo ops on offer to take advantage of the continuing Pottermania.
There were even a bit of celebrity presence, with some of the cast of the Harry Potter-adjacent play The Cursed Child making announcements. But the real event was the community and sheer geeky spirit celebrating a moment of Harry Potter fiction making its way into real life.
Bryan Hewitt and his daughter Lindsey came down from Cumbria, in north England, dressed as Hagrid and a Hogwarts student.
Mr Hewitt made a remarkable groundskeeper: a man of a sizeable stature, he needed only his wig, beard and long brown cloak to be transformed into a ringer for the half-giant.
“We’ve been to comic cons before,” he said. “But this has been the best so far. Just the amount of people and the reactions we’ve been getting. Little children start looking at me” – pointing to his knees – “and then just keep going up.”
Children abounded, most of them with parents who had braved a rail strike to get them to the 11am train announcement.
“We travelled two hours for five minutes,” grumbled one mother from Teddington, normally an hour’s journey away.
Glitches also abounded: the announcement was difficult to hear and the actors were simply in the middle of the station, with no raised platform or screen by which any of the families beyond the front row could see them.
Everything went a bit better after the announcement was made. Fans were free to wander around taking pictures of one another, exchanging stories of how far they’d come (generally far) and how much they’d seen (generally little).
One group of four came from the Black Forest in Germany. They hadn’t travelled solely for the event but had worked it into their itinerary, along with the Warner Bros studio where the films were made, and had packed Hogwarts uniforms in preparation.
“It is just so cool to be part of the celebration of Harry Potter,” said Dennis Wiesner, in Gryffindor colours.
Others were repeat visitors, having first heard of the event in fan forums or via the Harry Potter website’s mailing list.
There was the inevitable gripe that the event had lost its soul, as the official organisers directed people to the Harry Potter gift shop in the station. But still they were there, with robes and wands aloft.
Two small fans from north London turned the event into a bickering session, with the sticking point being who was more of a fan – remarkable argument considering one child had read all the books, and the other had read zero. What was striking from their discussion is the durability of the Harry Potter franchise.
About a third of the audience was born well after the last Harry Potter was published and were younger than the event itself. These new readers might not have the luck of growing up in tandem with Harry, Ron and Hermione, but that hasn’t stopped a new generation of fans from convening online and, for one special day, in reality.