A not so young anymore woman enters a coffeeshop. She’s with her infant daughter and finds a quiet corner. Looking straight back out of the window, she sees a dark Castle looming over this northern town she just moved to. To her left is an ancient Kirk and cemetery. The woman puts her cup of coffee down, intending to stretch it as long as they’ll let her. She’s unemployed, on welfare and she’s tired. Her personal life is a mess after a divorce from an estranged husband and emotionally draining custody battle. She did win that battle, and now, all she wants is to be with her daughter, have some peace and quiet, – and continue writing the story that so magically came to her on a train in England. It’s 1995, we’re in the Elephant House in Old Town Edinburgh, the woman is J.K. Rowling and her writing gave the world a young wizard by the name of Harry Potter.
Harry Potter in Alaska
When Harry dropped into our world with a huge bang, we lived in Alaska. I traveled to the UK every few months and brought back the first book “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. In the USA, it was called the “Sorcerer’s” Stone, American English that sounds, I dare say, harrumph, much more ominous & evil. Harry and our twins grew up at a perfectly matched speed. We took them to all the midnight Barnes & Noble book launch parties, seeing the kids and even some parents dressing up in HP costumes. We always bought two copies, so they wouldn’t have to wait for each other and put family peace at risk. My wife and I actually tried to beat each other to the next book by calling dibs on whichever kid we thought was going to finish their copy first! I even put a personalized NMBS2K license plate on my car: coolest Dad in the school parking lot for many years! An elephant never forgets and neither will I, the knowing looks and smiles of the little wizards, house elves and Dementors who understood what that plate meant at those midnight events, usually shivering in the Alaskan snow…
What’s in a name?
Hardly ever in the snow is Edinburgh’s Elephant House, a “Gourmet Tea & Coffee House and Restaurant”. Why the odd name? You’ll get it as soon as you walk in: hundreds of elephants small and large everywhere! Apparently, the owner started collecting them on a southeast Asia trip in the mid nineties. He opened the Elephant House in 1995 and created an elephant-with-cup logo. He kept collecting and adding and it caught on, with people bringing in and donating more. The count is said to be over 700 by now.
A Kirk, a Cemetery and a little dog called Bobby
The Elephant House is at 21 George IV Bridge, just a couple of minutes strolling off the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle. Around the corner is Greyfriars Kirk and Cemetery, and right at that corner is Greyfriars Bobby Pub and the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the legendary beloved little dog who stayed at his master’s grave for 14 years. Fun fact: Ms. Rowling actually walked around the cemetery on occasion, finding names and inspiration for characters in her stories!
Coffee, Lunch and T-shirts
While in Edinburgh for a few days in October, we stopped in of course, being HP and all that. It was really neat to look around and imagine where Ms. Rowling sat with her coffee and her daughter, and wrote. As it was after 1pm, we decided to have lunch here too. Quite a nice lunch actually: decent menu with good options, and they’re licensed too. They even have Amarula, the African cream liquor made from nuts that can put elephants in their cups indeed! Order and pay at the counter, get a number and the helpful staff will find you a table – it does get very busy here, even in October. They’ll then bring your lunch to your table when ready. My wife had a tuna sandwich and I went for the smoked salmon, accompanied by a baggie of – I couldn’t resist – Haggis & Cracked Black Pepper Crisps. Not making this up: they really exist, and they were tasty! Enjoy the meal, the views and setting, have cup of excellent coffee after that, buy the T shirt and Bob’s your uncle.
J.K. Rowling and butter beer
The Elephant House obviously plays to their being the “Birthplace” of Harry Potter. Big sign outside, T-shirts with the slogan, but can you blame them? A world phenomenon created right here, credited with bringing a whole new generation of kids into the world of reading. Add an impressive series of movies and the introduction of new words and characters to our culture, and reflect on how this was done by a destitute woman who wanted a nice cup of coffee while writing her stories in peace. Not so destitute anymore today, J.K. Rowling is Britain’s best-selling living author and inched into the UK’s top 200 wealthiest people list. In 2010, she was named “Britain’s Most Influential Woman”. Today, she keeps writing – as well as supporting a number of charities, using her considerable fortune, remembering her own struggles with Muggles. It doesn’t take an “Expelliarmus” curse to be disarmed and put under her spell!
Ms. Rowling still stops in on occasion, and in fact did an interview at the Elephant House about 5 years ago. Other authors have also frequented this spot, e.g. Ian Rankin, author of the Rebus detective books I love. Rebus is set in Edinburgh, but drams and pints play a considerably larger role in that series than tea & coffee – or Harry’s beloved butterbeer! Alas, the Elephant House does not feature butterbeer: you may have to go to the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade for that – if you can find it! I typed it into my GPS but it promptly sprouted two little golden wings and flew off….
We love Edinburgh and were tickled pink to cross the “Birthplace” of Harry Potter off of our bucket list – before those twins beat us to it! Edinburgh is worth visiting for tons of reasons anytime but if you’re HP, by all means, stop on in at the Elephant House for a nice coffee, spot of tea, or lunch. The views are cool, the food’s hot and the kettle’s on. Or is that a cauldron? Who knows what they put in their brew: maybe it’s something that will inspire the author in yourself… The world needs good books – as well as elephants! Thank you Elephant House for supporting efforts to save those magnificent animals as well as other charities. And most of all, thank you for letting a poor single mom with her little girl linger over her one cup of coffee. The world owes you. Mischief managed. All is well.
DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no clearing streets to get cars and trucks out of the frame, and no Photoshopping. It’s true travel. Note that my opinions and views are not necessarily shared by the company. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
(*) Photography by Robin Gabbert
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