This work is based on a good understanding of Southern England (the author’s home territory), along with solid knowledge of the County of Surrey, the history of Great Britain, and British domestic architecture. It is an attempt to probe beneath the surface of the Potter books and to fit, where possible, the written words (and some words from interviews) of the author to the actual facts, geographical and historical.
Although any Muggle readers may find this both pedantic and, perhaps, laughable, it may, to others, add a small amount to the enjoyment of the wonderful Harry Potter World of J K Rowling.
Where is Little Whinging?
Little Whinging is in Surrey, a county of Southern England, to the south and west of Greater London. Surrey is bordered by Greater London to the east, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire to the north and Hampshire, Sussex and Kent to the south.
Although the bulk of the County lies to the south of the River Thames, a small area lies to the north. It is here that Little Whinging lies. There have been many boundary changes to Surrey, and the major ones are shown in the map above.
However, the most recent changes to the County boundary that are not shown (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Surrey County Boundaries Orders of 1991 and 1994) leave a certain fog over that small portion of the County to the north.
Surrey became, in the twentieth century, a place of great prosperity as more and more people moved there, many of them commuting to work in London. There was an ever-greater demand for housing and large areas of countryside were covered in new developments. The London suburbs had arrived.
These rapidly created new communities had a pleasing orderliness and uniformity about them and they became a Muggle Paradise, pleasingly ordinary and normal, as were the Dursleys and all proper people.
It is this predictable order that allows us to discover more about Surrey, Little Whinging and, most especially number four Privet Drive.
But where exactly is Little Whinging and Privet Drive?
Well, let us begin by listing all the facts that we know from the books…
- Privet Drive is part of a co-ordinated development of quite opulent detached houses consisting of at least six streets. The uniformity of the street name style demonstrates this. The houses probably were built in the 1930’s.
- Near to Motorways (OP3).
- Privet Drive is on the outskirts of what I would call a “satellite” town to London.
- It was, in summer 1991, on a direct Rail Line to Paddington Station in London (PS5).
Not a lot to go on, perhaps, but I believe it is enough. Paddington Station is the key to the mystery.
In 1991 Britain’s Rail network was operated by one Government Controlled Company called “British Rail”. In the mid 1990’s this all changed and the Network was operated by many different companies. This has made it rather difficult to identify rail-services from Paddington in 1991 (perhaps, again, as the author may have intended). However, a most dear friend found for me the relevant British Rail timetable.
Unfortunately, this caused me problems! There were no Trains from Paddington to any Station in Surrey!! All Trains from London to “Surrey Stations” came from Waterloo Station or Victoria Station. The only trains from Paddington are the ones to “The West Country”, Wales and, of course, the Reading Line… hmmmm…
Ah, but Harry’s Station need not be in the County of Surrey. All that is necessary is it to be the most convenient station for Privet Drive. Perhaps as Harryreturned from London late on the afternoon of 31st July 1991 he walked a mile and a half…or (with his packages) may have caught a local ‘bus. In that case, three stations could fit, but the overwhelming favourite is Langley in Southern Buckinghamshire.
I suspect that (because of the return from work rush-hour) his train from Paddington would have been the 16.20 Reading Train.
And this is why Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey, is shown as it is on the map, in the farthest north of Surrey, to the west of Heathrow Airport and to the northwest of Staines.
Interestingly, this location is only about 9 miles from Martin’s Heron, Bracknell, Berkshire that was used as Privet Drive in the films.
So, what is the house, number four Privet Drive, actually LIKE?
We know, now, where it is. But to work out what the house itself is like we need to work out when it was built so that its architectural style can be understood and workable floor plans constructed.
As has been said, the development of the Surrey suburbs took place in the twentieth century. There were a number of main periods of building, all with their individual characteristics of both house and type of development.
Let us list the general facts that we know about the immediate area that concerns us:
- Large Square detached houses (PA3, OP1).
- Four Streets are named. Probably at least ten must be included to make maps “work”. (General)
- Privet Drive has twelve lampposts…so probably a street of about twenty-four detached houses (PS1).
- From all the above, the development must be of at least 250 similar houses, maybe a lot more!!
- Fireplaces to at least living room (lounge) and kitchen (i.e., before central heating) (General)
- Gravel driveways (PA2).
- Garages. Although only one garage is actually mentioned, most houses of these sizes would have a garage in any of the possible building periods (PA3, OP1).
- Front gardens with flowerbeds and lawns. Low front garden walls (certainly Privet Drive, PS1, OP1, and Magnolia Crescent, PA3)
- Substantial back gardens, with enough space for lawn, greenhouse and trees (General, but PS3, CS1, PA2)
- Play park, with swings, behind railings (OP1).
- Possibly the house walls are finished with “pebble-dashing”… at least number two Magnolia Crescent was finished in this way. This is not a commonly used “finish” in building in recent years and would not have been used for any renovation. Therefore it is likely that all or much of this area was originally “pebble-dashed”. (PA3)
- The streets are generally wide enough for parked cars outside the houses (OP p24 et al.).
- Properties are separated by both (or either) fences and hedges.
- “Muggle” Order and Uniformity rule within this area!!
So, where does this all bring us to?
In the UK, before the First World War, large-scale domestic building projects produced town- and city-based mass housing. Closely grouped streets of terraced or semi-detached houses were the norm. Larger, detached houses, were built individually or in small groups. Mass housing development in the countryside took only one main form…the experiments of the “New Towns” (such as Letchworth, Hertfordshire, 1903 and onward).
These do not match with north Surrey and Privet Drive, as we know it.
Since the 1930’s there have been many mass-building periods in our chosen area of northern Surrey, and many more houses are still being built today. So when was Privet Drive built?
Ah, we have a good “clue”…the kitchen chimney… (PS3, OP2 and onward).
Very few houses (of a good quality) in the 1950’s would have been built with a fireplace in the kitchen. And, most certainly, since the 1950’s, no houses, of this quality, would have had that kitchen chimney. Since then, perhaps to an increasing extent, fireplaces are added to the living rooms of modern houses as a luxury feature. Therefore, there is a single chimney on the roof of the 80’s / 90’s house in Bracknell used in the films as Privet Drive, but no chimney to the kitchen…IMPOSSIBLE!!!!
And the 1950’s, in the UK, there was a period of great post-World War Two austerity. There was rationing of many materials and most building development was aimed at the inner cities, repairing bombing damage. Large scale housing developments were of lower cost housing for the masses. There certainly was not a development of well over 250 detached opulent square houses.
Number four, Privet Drive has to be a 1930’s house, perhaps with its period “pebble-dashed” walls.