ON a recent Saturday wet with the residue of a late morning mist, I ambled along the George IV Bridge in Edinburgh and found myself at the top of Victoria Street. If you are up-to-date with your reading on J K Rowling, you know this is the street she supposedly used as a model for Diagon Alley, that wonderful cobbled creation familiar to all Harry Potter fans. Elephant House, the café Rowling famously used as her writing retreat during her ‘poor days’, is only down the road, and I had come up from there after a sumptuous—but sadly not inexpensive—breakfast, ready to partake in all the wonderful things the street had to offer.
The mist that covered Edinburgh had lifted and everything looked fresh and clean. Now that’s not something you can say about the city by the evening when the Royal Mile, the majestic artery of Old Edinburgh, transforms itself into a long succession of overflowing garbage cans. But let’s not spoil the moment with thoughts of that. Diagon Alley beckoned invitingly, curving sharply to the left between two rows of imposing 18th-century buildings with high bay windows and cream-coursed ashlar, all the way down to the Grassmarket.
There was not much traffic, so I walked on the cobbles. A Pizza Express stood to my right. It looked tragically out of place with the majestic sweep of architecture around, a little like a schoolboy who turned up to the opera in jeans. I could see another imposing structure opposite it, perfectly keeping with the décor of the street: India Buildings. I wasn’t quite sure why it was called that, but thrilled at having spotted an Indian connection to Harry Potter, I sauntered down the street happily. You might even say there was a joyous spring in my steps.
Victoria Street was originally called old West Bow. Then it became the Bow Street. In 1837 when an 18-year-old Victoria ascended the throne, the wise men in Edinburgh decided the young lady needed to be honoured adequately and a good way to do that was by naming a street after her. Which teenager wouldn’t like that? Thus came about the Victoria Street. In the years that followed, the street acquired some new buildings (including the imposing India Buildings built in 1864-66), and its splendid grandeur remained unspoiled till about the 1960s. Since then, though, Victoria Street has been—as the Scotsmen put it—“forced to ward of the threat of destruction”.
In 1967, the city planners persuaded themselves that the public would be better served if a modern office block came up in the space occupied by the historic Midlothian County building. The office block, which served as the headquarters of the Lothian Regional Council, has since given way to the marginally better-looking Hotel Missolini—the Pizza Express that caught my eye occupies a corner of the hotel building—and you see further evidence of similar thoughtlessness in the form of gaudily painted shop fronts.
But here’s the thing. Despite the misplaced modernity, there is a charm about the place that is simply captivating. It owed in part to the cobbled street, but it was more the elegant arch of the buildings that rose high above the gaudiness of the shops that did the trick for me. The way the street curved and the frontage of the buildings arched made it all the more imposing and looming, and you really had to crane your neck to catch sight of the rooftops. I looked up to see what looked like tiny white turrets against a bright blue sky. It was magical. I could totally see Rowling walking down this street one fine day, probably after a spell of writing at the Elephant House, and going, “Aha! Diagon Alley!”
I carried on towards the Grassmarket, keeping a beady eye out for a pub that resembled Leaky Cauldron. In the Harry Potter books, the entrance to Diagon Alley is through the Leaky Cauldron, but I couldn’t find any institution that fitted that bill. In fact, Victoria Street seems to have made a conscious effort to stay clear of all the Potter mania that engulfed some places in Edinburgh (things got so bad after the Harry Potter success, with many places claiming association to Rowling, that the Artisan Roast, a café in central Edinburgh, exhibited this signage: ‘J K Rowling never wrote here!’). I expected to see shops selling Harry Potter memorabilia. Perhaps an equivalent of Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC, or a Madam Malkin’s where I could get a robe or two; and certainly a place where I could ask for an assorted bag of Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans, Droobles Best Blowing Gum, Chocolate Frogs, Cauldron Cakes and Liquorice Wands, and be served a foaming mug of butterbeer while I glanced through the Daily Prophet.
But no. Victoria Street had curiously—even admirably—steered clear of such temptations. It did not even have a cauldron shop.
The closest it came to the magical world was in the form of The Cadies & Witchery Tours, which looked so forlorn and unpopular that I nearly missed it. It caught my eye only because I spent a considerable time on the pavement in front, staring at a bright shop called Oink, which promised the pleasure of a hog roast lunch. There was steaming pulled pork laid out appetisingly in the shop window and all sorts of wonderful aromas coming from within. I stood there a long time, rubbing my swollen stomach and deliberating. I would hog all right. But first I had to drag myself up the Granny’s Green Steps to take a look at the Edinburgh Castle, a potential inspiration for Hogwarts. Enthused with the thought of hog and hagris on my way back, I walked down the street briskly, turned right, and made my way through the Grassmarket towards the castle.
This post is for my not-so-little niece, Abhirami, with whom I plan to potter around Diagon Alley one day. Happy b’day!