Save the date – the Doctor is back!

Sunday 7th October 2018

Doctor Who returns next month after being off our screens since Christmas. Not long at all if you’re old enough to remember the ‘hiatus’ from 1989 to 2005. I have vague memories of catching a few moments of the Sylvester McCoy era when I was little, but I really fell in love with the show through finding the Target novelisations when I was at primary school. Later I devoured the Virgin & BBC range of books in the absence of actual programme. As much as I adore the show I’m sort of glad that I discovered the adventures of the Doctor and his companions on paper. I realised later when watching the original series on video or DVD that my imagination far surpassed any BBC budget!

With the new Doctor being a she – it seems to have shaken up fandom a little, and there’s the sense of anticipation for the new season that reminds me of when the show returned 13 years ago. When Jodie Whitaker was announced as the new Doctor I had friends who cried that their show was now ruined and they’d never watch it again! I am curious to see if they do tune in and watch it now they’ve had time to calm down a little. To me the Doctor has always been rather fatherly and asexual, and I’m curious to see how, or even if, anything really changes with a woman in the role. I’m going to watch the new Doctor with a completely open mind – I have no doubt Jodie will be brilliant, but to me it will all come down to the writing – Chibnall, I’m counting on you!

There’s been some photos appearing in the press and on the web of the new series being filmed on location in Sheffield and further afield in South Africa. I would love to see the show actually being filmed one day – I came very close once! I visited Cardiff in October 2016 when they were making the 10th Doctor story ‘The Lazarus Experiment’ and it just happened to be the day (and night) they weren’t actually filming. The location was the rather stunning Senedd building in Cardiff Bay, which is home to the National Assembly for Wales. The very large machine that was central to the story was covered up and looked rather intriguing. I liked that there was a very polite notice stuck to the barrier explaining what was going on.

“BBC Wales is filming an episode of the next series of Dr Who in the Senedd. You will be able to watch the episode next year. Thank you for your cooperation”

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I have friends who live and work in Cardiff and have accidently stumbled upon filming on their lunch breaks a couple of times! I used to follow fan sites such as Outpost Gallifrey religiously, following the latest filming spotted and pouring over grainy photographs looking for clues to what the story might be. I’ve not been so zealous in recent years, but I confess to having seen the leaked photo of the new console room which angered the BBC rather a lot…

The first episode of the new season airs on BBC1 on a Sunday rather than Saturday which I think will be great – it won’t be up against the big Saturday shows on ITV, and more people are likely to be at home to watch it. I won’t be able to watch it as it goes out ‘live’ as I will literally be time travelling myself. I’ll be crossing an ocean and time zones as I’ll hopefully be on a flight between New York JFK and Manchester Airport. I’m sure the first thing we’ll do when we get home at a ridiculous time of night will be to put the kettle on and sit down to watch “The woman who fell to Earth”. See you soon Doctor!

Ksar of Ai Ben Haddou

Some places look too perfect to be real, and the Ksar of Ai Ben Haddou is one of them. It’s absolutely stunning – a fantasy Arabian city rising up out of the desert. Like Ireland’s extraordinary Skellig Michael, it’s a place so remarkable that you’d easily believe it was the work of craftsmen and CGI wizards for blockbuster movie. I was fortunate to visit it on a tour of Morocco back in 2010 with Explore. We arrived shortly before sunset and were able to wander our way to the highest point for a stunning view as the light slowly changed.

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It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/444  and has been used so much in film and television that you’ve probably seen it without realising, or indeed known that it was a real place. The most recent film to my memory at the time was Russell Crowe’s “Gladiator” and there was the occasional bit of helpful graffiti pointing you the way.

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Having been there now whenever I watch any film with a desert location I’m always on the alert for it cropping up, and it usually does, just check out this list;  http://www.ksaraitbenhaddou.com/filmes-ouarzazate-aitbenhaddou_en.html  It was also used in Season 3 of Game of Thrones as one of the places Daenerys liberated slaves.

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There is a cheat though – apparently the impressive gate towers were built for a film and were left standing afterwards, they do look very in keeping with the location.

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Being Morocco it’s got tourists without being too touristy. You need your own transport or to be with a tour group to be able to get there. Staying in the village across from it means you get to see it in the early morning light and I don’t think you could ever tire of the view.

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There’s a film studio on the edge of the nearby city of Ouarzazate, http://www.cla-studios.com/crbst_32.html and in the city itself is a fabulous film museum that I didn’t get enough time to properly explore but would happily go back and spend hours playing on the standing sets and admiring all the old camera equipment. As it wasn’t in our itinerary I begged for a quick look and had a whistle stop tour by an enthusiastic museum guide who didn’t speak English.

 

Rather randomly just a short drive from Ouarzazate there is a derelict America service station. It was built for the 2006 remake of “The Hills have Eyes” . It’s just been left as it probably was on the last day of filming –  it’s one of the most unexpected and bizarre locations I’ve ever stumbled across.

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A brief adventure in London – how to bag a Star Wars location without even trying.

Or … I went to London Film & Comic Con and found myself on Scarif Imperial base.

The last weekend in July saw the mass annual pilgrimage of geeks to London Film & Comic Con at Olympia. With neither the stamina nor finances to manage the full three days we opted for just the Saturday and travelled in via tube after parking at Canary Wharf. For a Doctor fan it was rather thrilling to drive through security and go into the underground car park – the building is also known as Torchwood Tower

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I’ve been meaning to stop at Canary Wharf Underground Station for ages but have normally been just passing through on the Jubilee Line. Canary Wharf tube station was used as part of the imperial base on Scarif in the Star Wars film Rogue One. In the trailer we saw a glimpse of our heroes running through the station which didn’t actually appear in the final cut of the film (as with much of the trailer…) Check out this article with a link to the trailer; https://londonist.com/2016/04/what-the-heck-is-canary-whaf-tube-station-doing-in-new-star-wars-film-rogue-one

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I remember seeing the photos that made the newspapers during the filming there – a great picture of stormtroopers coming down the escalator en-masse. I just imagined a worried crew member guiding them off the bottom with haste so that there wasn’t an undignified pile up of bodies at the bottom. This site has some great behind the scenes pictures and background to the filming; https://www.buzzfeed.com/scottybryan/yes-star-wars-rogue-one-was-filmed-on-the-lond?utm_term=.gheLA4kko#.ojQvwlEEg

It’s easy to see why the location was used, it is still very new and shiny looking having opened in 1999. With some clever set dressing and covering of TFL signage it does look like a very functional imperial base, only those who regularly take the tube would immediately recognise it as a tube station. Shame it’s not on screen longer.

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Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs has its own film office – given how frequently is appears on film and television  I didn’t realise but it comes in a 14 of the 20 most used film locations in the world https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/film-tv-locations-mostused-top-20-central-park-new-york-city-a8214281.html

Another highlight of the day was seeing these awesome Rogue One costumers right as we walked into the show floor at London Film & Comic Con. Stunning work everyone!

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Bonus TARDIS at Earls Court as well! 

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On the way to Olympia we stopped at Earls Court tube to get some breakfast and joined almost a queue of fellow geeks grabbing a quick picture with the TARDIS just outside. Now this I have visited on previous trips but it was lovely to see that the police box has been repainted recently and looked particularly striking in the early morning sunshine. Check out the police box on Google maps, there’s a brilliant not so secret Easter egg – if you search for the location and then go on the street view – you can actually enter the TARDIS and see a 360 view of Matt Smith era the console room.

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LFCC was fun as usual and I got to catch up with friends, my boyfriend got his picture with Peter Capaldi and I was very impressed with the number of 13th Doctor cosplayers! 

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A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away…

…or five years ago, in Tunisia and a few hours flight away.

One of my strongest childhood memories is standing on top of a ridge of sand, staring wistfully into the distances as I watch the twin suns slowly set on the horizon…

Okay, I was posing on a sand dune on the beach at Fleetwood looking out as the single sun sank into the Irish Sea. I was geeky child with a great imagination. I’d seen Star Wars: A New Hope at a very early age, either on TV or VHS – I had to wait until the re-releases before the prequels came out to finally get to see it on the big screen

Luke was the character I most identified with when I was a kid, waiting for adventure and excitement, feeling that something was just out of reach yet calling to him. As an adult with wanderlust and a disposable income I knew that one day I would visit Tatooine and the Lars Homestead where Luke was raised and where he met a couple of droids that would start his hero’s journey.

In April 2013 I joined an Explore trip to Tunisia which as well as visiting Tunis and Tozeur, and historical sites such as Carthage and El Djem, would take in two Star Wars filming locations; The “Lars Homestead” in Matamata and the standing sets that formed Mos Espa in the prequel films.

Sand…lots of sand…

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The Mos Espa location is in the middle of nowhere, a place called Chott El Jerid. This site is great for pinpointing exactly where http://www.losapos.com/starwarstunisia.  Either by accident or design the very large and quite substantial set built for The Phantom Menace still stands and is slowly being smothered by the desert. In fact, the encroaching sand dunes are being used by scientists to study how the Sahara is spreading; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23375344

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Built in 1997 so were 16 years old by the time I got there, they seemed in very good condition. It’s an area you wouldn’t get to without a 4×4 and a guide so it’s not open to vandalism and damage you might get somewhere else. A nearby town had a shop with a couple of items that looked like they’d come from the set, and the entrepreneurial shopkeeper would try and tempt tourists in to see more items he’d acquired.

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Coming home

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I remember feeling very slightly cheated when I discovered that when Luke’s Aunt Beru shouts up to him to as he looks over the edge of the homestead – they were actually in two separate places. The internal courtyard is in reality a traditional troglodyte dwelling – now the Sidi Driss Hotel in a small town called Matmata. Not much has been altered as the locals are well aware of the power of the geek pound. The location was reused when they filmed Attack of the Clones and they left all the set dressing behind. It’s a very strange and familiar place, you can sit in the cave used for blue milk scene, it has a very recognisable painting on the ceiling.

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I’m sure there are many fans who stay the night there, though I stayed in a similar hotel nearby. I tried to watch the sun set from the roof but it lacks the romance of the desert –too many satellite dishes and aerials.

I didn’t get to visit the external Lars Homestead structure that was restored by a group of fans in 2012. I did though get to see how they did it at Celebration Europe in 2013 when    they gave a great talk about their “Save the Lars Homestead” project. I also got a patch!

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I got my Tatooine sunset on our last day in desert region before we headed back north. We walked over dunes to a beautiful vantage point. As the sun sank lower in the sky I could hear the classic John Williams score in my head, and for a moment lost myself to a wonderful sense of nostalgia. Magical, just magical.

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Finally – a Doctor Who quarry!

A classic Doctor Who location – Winspit Quarry, Dorset.

Being a child of the 80s and the younger sister of a child of the 70s, I have fortunately had a strong upbringing (or brainwashing – depending on your point of view) on what is now considered classic British sci-fi. We’re talking Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, Sapphire and Steel, Space 1999, The Prisoner, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, The Tripods to name a few – shows which are fondly (and for the most part – wrongly) remembered for the wobbly sets, silver painted wellies and the imaginative use of quarries as alien landscapes. The last of which is even a TV trope.

One summer I was down in Dorset and staying a tiny town called Wareham. My main reason to be down there was to visit Bovington Tank Museum and also Clouds Hill, the last home of T.E. Lawrence (I may do a future blog about visits to sites related to Lawrence of Arabia).

When planning my trip I had remembered a reference to Wareham in a book by Bob Fischer called “Wiffle Leaver to Full”. He’d spent a year travelling the country attending all manner of geeky events and conventions. One such event was an annual water pistol fight between Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fans and Blake’s 7 fans. They’d met members of the group at Wareham Station and headed to a quarry which was used as filming location in the seventies. http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/dorset/hi/people_and_places/arts_and_culture/newsid_8159000/8159280.stm

I found this excellent site http://www.doctorwholocations.net/locations/winspitquarry which confirmed my theory that I could sneak a trip to an actual quarry used in the original, classic Doctor Who. My brother has never been jealous of my travels until I told him I was going to be visiting Winspit Quarry – he knew instantly of the place and I had to promise to take a lot of pictures (and I even ended up taking a 360 degree panoramic film!).

I got the bus to the tiny village of Worth Matravers. There’s a pub, a village green and pond…and that’s it. There wasn’t even a bus back – I had an OS map and sturdy walking boots – I would have to walk a mile or so towards Swanage to get on a main bus route back to civilisation.

But it was worth it. I never though you could have sentimental attachment to quarry but when the new series of Doctor Who finally filmed in one in 2005 – for ‘The Impossible Planet / Satan Pit’ – fans rejoiced – it felt like it was finally ‘proper Who’.

Winspit Quarry was used for two Doctor Who episodes and also an episode of Blake’s 7. The most famous and memorable of these was the 1979 story ‘Destiny of the Daleks’ where it is used as Skaro – planet of the Daleks.

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Only a short walk from the green the quarry is easy to find, perched right on the edge of the coast (it’s just along the coast line from the rather more famous Durdell Door and Lulworth Cove). The quarry has been disused since the 1940s and there are remains of industrial buildings that were derelict when the BBC were filming. They’re in an even worse state now, through time and exposure to the elements (and no doubt a bit of vandalism as well). You can go into the caves should you wish but frankly they looked either too unsafe or too dirty to make it worth venturing into the darkness. The iconic pile of fallen rocks is easy to find, with the large plinth the TARDIS once perched upon easily climbed up on. So unchanged it’s not hard to imagination the Doctor and Romana stumbling over rocks and Daleks appearing around corners…

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I saw only two other people as I was leaving, it’s not a tourist trap by any means. But with the blue sea, blue sky and stark exposed rock it’s quite a lovely place. It was probably the closest experience I’ve had to visiting Skellig Michael in a sense – it’s somewhere I wouldn’t even have considered going to had it not been a filming location, and it’s a more rewarding an experience because of its remoteness.

After taking probably more photos than necessary, I returned up the path and paid a visit to the lovely pub back in Worth Matravers – The Square & Compass Pub – famous for its real ales and fossil museum. (My kind of pub!) I like to think the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker would no doubt have enjoyed a pint or two while filming Destiny of the Daleks. As I enjoyed my pint in the sunshine I was pleased that I had made the trip to such an unexpectedly beautiful place purely because it was used in an old TV show as an alien planet.

New Year, New Doctor, New TARDIS

Out with the old.

Christmas saw the swansong of Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor and a gave us a brief glimpse of the incoming 13th Doctor – Jodie Whittaker – being thrown out of the doors of an exploding TARDIS. Very dramatic and a clear sign that the new series will bring us not only a new Doctor but new console room.

A time-lapse video of the careful dismantling of the TARDIS console room set from its home at the BBC studios in Cardiff Bay popped up on Twitter a few weeks ago https://twitter.com/bbcdoctorwho/status/947422346607861760 . It was very sad seeing it go, more so because that was the Doctor’s TARDIS I finally got to step on to…

Back in April 2017 – between the end of the latest season of filming and before the start of the production of the Christmas special – the BBC kindly opened up the set to fans to visit for an additional fee when they visit the Doctor Who Experience (link to my blog about my final visit).

I’d already been to the Experience earlier that year in January having taken my boyfriend and fellow Who geek for his birthday. But when they announced the set tours and knowing that the Experience would be closing sometime that year another trip to the ‘diff was hastily arranged!

I’ve lost count of how many times I’d been to various incarnations of the Experience over the years and have enjoyed watching it evolve (thanks to good friends in Cardiff!). To be able walk on an actual in production, and screen used TARDIS would be the ultimate experience for a lifelong Doctor Who fan.

After an uneventful road trip down to Cardiff and an overnight stay at a friend’s house (whom we introduced to Cards Against Humanity…) we headed down to the bay early on a sunny Sunday morning. Our tickets gave us entrance to the Doctor Who Experience before the set tour and after enjoying that we skipped out of the museum to grab a much-needed coffee and bacon buttie. With mounting excitement, we met our guide in the entrance. There were about twenty of us proudly wearing our official tour lanyards, and after leaving any unnecessary bags behind, we were led to the studios.

The BBC studios are practically across the road from the Experience, barely 5 minutes walk. They were actually built after the Experience was – previously the studios were located outside Cardiff at Upper Boat.  Given the proximity now it’s easy to see why sometimes actors have made special impromptu appearances to the great delight of fans.

Going through security was a geeky delight in itself. This wasn’t a normal security check – this was Doctor Who security! It looked familiar from having seen that part of the building and the corridor between studios in Peter Davison’s fabulous ‘Five(ish) Doctors’ special done for the 50th anniversary special. With another special BBC Visitor lanyard, we went sharp left then first right and we were outside the Doctor Who soundstage.

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The unassuming set door was opened and we walked into a vast soundstage, empty but for a familiar blue box in one far corner – and a massive wooden structure that took up nearly a third of the space. Looking like a cross between a wasp nest and a yurt, the TARDIS console room structure is huge. It reached almost to the ceiling. Three floors and completely enclosed except for a few doorways which offered us tantalising glimpses of what was inside.

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A set of wooden stairs led us up to the main entrance to the TARDIS – familiar blue doors surrounded by green screen. We went through those doors and into the TARDIS!

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It’s a complete 360 degree experience – no imagination required – you are actually in the TARDIS. We learned that wall panels are taken out when required to allow for filming from almost any angle. I don’t think I truly appreciated how sophisticated and vast the set was until I got to step foot on it. It’s a sturdy construction and was built to look fantastic in HD and to survive the rigours of filming.

We had a brief talk then were taken out again. It was very nicely arranged for everyone to get a moment on the TARDIS without everyone else. A chance to have some quality time for photos and generally geeking out without everyone crowded round. So while some went inside again the rest of us looked at the props, posed with the TARDIS and generally took in the atmosphere of actually being were the show got made. There were a few costumes and pieces from the new episode that had aired the night before (Season 10 – ‘Smile’) and a topless dalek.

 

Finally, it was our turn to take a step into the TARDIS and it was everything we had hoped. It was a surprisingly moving experience – this was the actual TARDIS, not a replica or an old prop, the Doctor’s TARDIS! Some parts of it were blocked off so we didn’t have complete free reign to wander. We couldn’t go up to the upper level or walk all round the console but more than enough to see.

We had a ‘minder’, a lovely young woman who worked on the series and was happy to chat and tell us some stories. She was the one who confirmed that there would be a new set with the new Doctor (this was long before we knew about Jodie’s casting).

We took so many photos! We’d even brought our own sonic screwdriver! There was a lot of shameless posing, but everyone was the same. It was lots of fun, and we could see that everyone was trying to absorb as much of it into their memory as possible.

The Doctor’s guitar and amplifier were to one side, a pot of sonic screwdrivers was on a console. We even spotted the mini bar! (We didn’t realise then how much it would feature in the Christmas special – we didn’t have a tipple honestly Doctor!)

 

It was very trusting of the BBC to allow fans onto a ‘live’ set. But I’ve found that most fans are almost reverential in their respect for props and costumes. Saying that it still took a great deal of will power to not touch any of the buttons and toggles on the console…

We almost had to be dragged out as they had to get ready for another tour to come in. I guess we had about an hour to soak it all in and take as many photos as we wanted – it was well worth the extra cost and the return trip.

Reluctantly handing back our BBC Visitor passes we returned to the Doctor Who Experience to finish off our visit with a walk around the museum. It was an amazing day out which will never be forgotten and I’ve no doubt we’ll bore friends and strangers to tears with our tale of when we visited the TARDIS, but that’s part of the fun isn’t it?

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Jump forward to December 2017 and we’re sat in a derelict bingo hall in the freezing cold basement of abandoned cinema in Bradford watching a special BBC preview screening of the Doctor Who Christmas special ‘Twice Upon a Time’ .  My boyfriend nudges me and we share a smile as we watch the fabulous David Bradley as the 1st Doctor walk on board *our TARDIS*.

 

Pitch Black in Coober Pedy

Location spotting Down Under.

Everyone should try fossicking in Coober Pedy. Sounds rude but actually it’s quite innocent – it’s the hunting for opals in the spoil of opal mines in a remote town in central Australia. Sadly I didn’t make my fortune but I did find a spaceship…

Back in 2007 I travelled a bit around Australia and one place I found utterly fascinating and unique was Coober Pedy. It’s not a pretty touristy town, it’s desolate and barren, but in a way that is quite striking in the bright Australian sun. Most of the town’s inhabitants live underground in subterranean dwellings – it’s the only way to deal with the harsh conditions out there – too cold in winter, ridiculously hot in summer. Even the hotel I stayed in was carved out the earth. But the reason the original settlers started to live such an existence was to mine for opals – check out some of the pieces in the Australian Museum (https://australianmuseum.net.au/australian-opal-samples ) – they are stunning. Tourists get a chance to rummage in the spoil heaps in the vain hope they find some, failing that you can of course buy some genuine Coober Pedy jewellery before you leave.
When I had been looking at accommodation in my travel guide one of the backpack hostels was apparently easy to spot because it had a spaceship out-front. Turns out they used the area for filming the 2000 Vin Diesel sci-fi movie Pitch Black http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0134847/. For whatever reason the props were left behind – and I did indeed find a spaceship!

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I hadn’t seen the film at that point but was still suitably impressed to see an actual full scale prop left just off the main road. Coober Pedy has also the most creative use for left over props I have ever seen. Tucked away on a hill was (and hopefully still is) a fabulous art installation called the ‘Petrify forest’ which used further left over set dressing from the film.

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It was rather surreal, walking around in the fresh morning air beneath a brilliant blue sky with no-one else around. Weird twisted yellow towers, distorted shapes with seemingly random assortment of recycled computers and brick a brac stuck on. Made from foam, fiberglass and wire frames and out of context utterly bonkers. Really could believe I was in a strange alien landscape.

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Other than a donation box and a plaque saying the artists name was ‘S. Eger’ there is nothing explain what it was for or about. I loved it even more for that!

I was leaving the town the day the final Harry Potter book was released and was dreading the fact that probably everyone else in the world would be reading it and I was genuinely in the middle of nowhere. But I was delighted to find that there was indeed a little bookshop in the town and that I was the second person that morning to buy it (no midnight opening here!) I had practically finished Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows by the time my coach had reached Adelaide.