The Elephant House, The Cafe That Lived
Today, I’m thrilled to share some magical news for all Harry Potter fans around the world. It’s time to get your floo powder ready because the iconic Elephant House Cafe is making a triumphant RETURN, unveiling a new venue on Victoria Street. Additionally, the original cafe on George IV Bridge which has been shut since the tragic fire on 24th August 2021, is also on track to reopen its doors by spring/summer of 2024.
If you believed all was lost in the fire, you’d be pleasantly mistaken. In December the BBC published an article featuring an interview with David Taylor, the owner of the cafe, it has been revealed that “The table JK Rowling used to lean on to write part of her books was salvaged from the fire and restored. It is currently in the new Elephant House in Victoria Street. The table will be moved back to the original cafe in George IV Bridge when it reopens next year.”
I remember the day of the fire so clearly. Marching towards the National Library of Scotland preparing to meet my clients for my summer Harry Potter, Haggis and City Sunset walking tour. Before I got there the flashing lights of the fire engines further down the street sparked my attention. Bollards blocked traffic and police stopped any stragglers trying to access the footpath. Then it was clear. To my horror, 12 hours after it had started, smoke was still spewing out of the same building as the Elephant House Cafe. It was a really sad day as a Harry Potter fan. And at that moment it felt like the city had lost something. A bit of quirkiness, a bit of character and of course a bit of magic.
The 'Birthplace' of Harry Potter
Some of you are probably wondering how on earth does this cafe have anything to do with the series. Well, the Elephant House Cafe proudly touts itself as the ‘birthplace’ of Harry Potter above the front door. This claim is slightly controversial, as the sign alludes to the birthplace of parts of the books, not necessarily the beginning. To confirm this in her own words, Rowling stated, “I’d been writing Potter for several years before I ever set foot in this cafe, so it’s not the birthplace, but I *did* write in there so we’ll let them off!”
So where was the birthplace of Harry Potter? Well, it all started with a vivid image on a delayed train from Manchester to London in 1990. An image of a “school for wizards to which this little boy would go, who doesn’t realise he’s a wizard until he gets the letter which says his name has been down since birth.” This idea quickly developed into an incredibly ambitious plan of a 7 book series leading right up to Harry’s wizarding graduation at the age of 17.
From here it wasn’t all fun and quidditch, Rowling’s journey faced challenges. Her mother passing away started the most difficult period of her life. She searched for happiness, inspiration and a new start so headed to Porto, Portugal to teach English. She experienced her first marriage and her first child, Jessica. However, the marriage went sour so she packed her bags and returned to the UK to be closer to her sister in Edinburgh. Now as a “single parent, recently divorced, not working and very very broke” she would wander the streets of the Edinburgh old town. Usually, it would be around her brother-in-law’s coffee shop, Nicolson’s cafe and “Every time Jessica would fall asleep in her pushchair, I’d dash to the nearest cafe and write as much as I could.”
After years of relentless dedication, the good news arrived: Bloomsbury was going to publish “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” Rowling described the moment as “second only to the birth of my daughter, was the happiest moment of my life“. As the book gained popularity faster than the firebolt, interviews were conducted in Nicolson’s Cafe, commemorated by a plaque on the building.
In an attempt to be more discreet and to hide from fans Rowling mixed things up, and this is where the Elephant Cafe entered the picture. Drawn to the window seat, secluded and with a breathtaking view of Edinburgh Castle, George Heriot’s School, and Greyfriars Kirkyard, the Elephant Cafe became a crucial part of her journey. People became aware of these writing sessions once again after an interview of her in the building. By which point she had just finished the second book, “The Chamber of Secrets”.
Since then crowds of Potter heads or curious travelers came to visit the cafe and it became well loved around the city. With its cool view of the Castle and the funky girl toilets. Not for Moaning Murtle more for the fan graffity. As well as this the Elephant House also claims to have hosted fellow winners of the Edinburgh Award and famous writers Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall-Smith.
The New Elephant House Cafe
Much to everyone’s delight in December 2023 the New Elephant House Cafe venue opened on Victoria Street. The street which many fans think helped to have inspired Diagon Alley.
Personally, I absolutely love the new cafe, and while this may stir some controversy, I find myself preferring it over the original! It masterfully incorporates numerous Harry Potter elements, making the experience truly magical. Upon entering, guests are welcomed by the iconic Cupboard Under The Stairs. The cafe is ingeniously divided into four sections, each named after the four houses of the local school, George Heriot’s. The atmosphere, with its old Craigleith Sandstone walls, evokes the cozy ambiance of the Gryffindor common room. Not to mention, the offerings include the splendidly crafted butterbeer and basilisk blood, both absolute delights for the senses. Who wouldn’t want to come and experience this for themselves?
Beyond the Elephant House, Edinburgh holds a treasure trove of other Harry Potter secrets. If you’re eager to uncover these hidden gems with an Edinburgh expert and fellow Potterhead, join us for a fun-filled, interactive, and educational experience on one of our Harry Potter and Horrible History walking tours. I trust you’ve enjoyed this blog and found it exceptionally informative. Honestly, putting this together was a joy, as Harry Potter and butterbeer hold a special place in my heart!
See you at the next one!