Where is Little Whinging? What sort of place did Harry Potter grow up in? The books in the canon give us several clues, mostly in Books 1 and 5 (Philosopher’s Stone and Order of the Phoenix), but beware . . . there may be a red herring!
In Book 1, the first letter from Hogwarts (and presumably the others), is addressed to Harry in “Little Whinging, Surrey.” Moreover, in Book 5, the charge sheet read out to Harry at the Wizengamot also identifies Little Whinging as being in Surrey. Other possibly relevant information is to be found later in Book 1, describing where Harry went after his visit to Diagon Alley on the afternoon of his eleventh birthday, and the description in Book 5 of the broomstick flight to Grimmauld Place, four years later.
Surrey is a county in England—the name is a corruption of “South Region,” from its location south of the River Thames, which divides it from London. The boundaries have changed over time, mainly as a result of the expansion of the conurbation of London. Surrey and Middlesex both lost territory to the new County of London in 1888, and again when “Greater London” was formed in 1965. Middlesex ceased to exist as an administrative county in 1965: most of it became part of Greater London, but a small part in the extreme west, around Staines, was instead transferred to Surrey, giving that county territory north of the Thames for the first time. Minor boundary changes have also taken place more recently, particularly in the area of Heathrow Airport in 1994 and 1995.
First, we must recall that the identification of Surrey as the location of Little Whinging is given by the address on a letter (PS3). Official Post Office addresses still use the pre-1965 counties—thus a large swathe of Greater London, from Croydon round to Richmond, (including my home town of Kingston) still has Surrey postal addresses, but the area north of the Thames, around Staines, although administered as part of Surrey, still has Middlesex postal addresses. Although we cannot be sure that the wizard who addressed the letter would appreciate this distinction, we can, I think, be fairly sure that Uncle Vernon would have seized on any anomaly in the address on Harry’s letter as evidence that the letter was not for him. Professor Dumbledore was no less astute than Uncle Vernon, and would have challenged any hint of an anomaly in the charges made against Harry at the Wizengamot in Book 5. Thus I think we can be sure that Little Whinging is in the postal county of Surrey, and is south of the Thames.
The next evidence I want to consider is the account of the broomstick ride in Book 5.
“If they take out all of us and [only] you survive, Harry . . . keep flying east . . . .”
He wondered how long they had been flying; it felt like an hour at least. . . .
“Time to start the descent!” . . .
They were heading for the largest collection of lights he had yet seen . . . .
This last passage indicates that the lights of London only came into view towards the end of the ride, so there must be a significant distance between Little Whinging and the edge of the London conurbation. But how far, exactly? We must bear in mind that the flight time of an hour was only Harry’s subjective impression. We have never been told the cruising speed of a broomstick, but as the rider is exposed to the elements (note the difficulty Harry has seeing when playing Quidditch in the rain, and the reference, during the broomstickride itself, to Harry having to screw his eyes up against the rush of the wind) it cannot be much more than about 30 mph. However, for the lights of London to only come into view towards the end of the flight, the journey must have started some distance from London—it cannot have been much less than 30 miles. Given that Surrey is only about 30 miles across, and lies to the south and west of London, this puts Little Whinging near the border with one of the neighbouring counties to the south or west: Sussex, Hampshire and Berkshire.
The directions given by Moody, together with Tonks’s insistence that they do not double back, indicate that they were flying generally eastwards rather than northwards. We must therefore look to the western edge of the county, in or near the towns of Camberley, Frimley, or possibly Farnham. These are dormitory towns for London (I have already mentioned that they have regular train services to Waterloo station), and also support some light industry, like Dursley’s drill company, Grunnings.
You cannot go far in Surrey without finding a street named for a plant of some kind—Mychett, between Camberley and Farnham, has both a Hazel Road and a Poplar Close, whilst Camberley itself has a Larchwood Glade, Lime Avenue, Maywood Drive, Chestnut Avenue, Linden Court and Amberwood Drive. Of the street names used in Little Whinging, there are several Magnolias in the Surrey street atlas (including a real Magnolia Close, not far from my home in Kingston-upon-Thames). There are many other streets named for shrubs (about twenty each named after Hazel, Laurel, Laburnam, and Poplar) in Surrey, but sadly I can find none named after either Privet or Wisteria (although both can be found in nearby Hampshire)
Incidentally, if Little Whinging is in the Camberley area, the zoo visited for Dudley’s 11th birthday (PS2) is probably Marwells, near Winchester, in Hampshire: easily reached from the area using the M3 motorway. London Zoo is ruled out as until his visit with Hagrid “Harry had never been to London before.” (PS5) Chessington Zoo, although in Surrey, is part of a theme park. If they had gone there, they would have had plenty of other things to do when “Dudley had got bored of the animals by lunchtime.” (PS2)
But what of the evidence of Harry’s return to the Dursleys, after his first visit to Diagon Alley, from Paddington railway station? (PS5) Here we have a problem, because no station in Surrey has had a direct train service from Paddington since the service to Richmond via Hammersmith was withdrawn in 1906. Nearly all railway stations in Surrey have direct services from London, but they all use either Waterloo or Victoria stations, both of which are more accessible from the Charing Cross Road than Paddington is. (Waterloo is three stops on the London Underground from Leicester Square station.)
Between the boundary changes of 1965 and 1995 the extreme northern tip of Surrey was Poyle, a suburb of Slough. After it lost its own branch line from Paddington in 1965, its nearest main line railway station became Langley, in Buckinghamshire, on the main Paddington to Reading line. But there are several difficulties with this. In particular:
- although Langley is indeed the nearest main line station to Poyle, the Heathrow terminus of London Underground’s Piccadilly Line is nearer. That line calls at Leicester Square, which is on Charing Cross Road and therefore convenient for the Leaky Cauldron. If Little Whinging was in the Poyle area, Harry would surely have gone home that way.
- Poyle has a Middlesex postal address, and by the time of the events in Book 5 the 1995 boundary change had transferred it from the administrative county of Surrey to that of Berkshire.
- Poyle is too close to London to satisfy the description of the broomstick ride.
Harry may have changed trains at Reading, to get to Blackwater, Farnborough North, or North Camp, which are on a cross-country route with no direct service to London and all within yards of the Surrey/Hampshire border near Camberley and Frimley, although only North Camp is actually in Surrey. It is possible, but rather unlikely, that Harry might have chosen to travel to Privet Drive this way, if the circuitous journey via Paddington avoided a long walk to Privet Drive, encumbered as he was with all his purchases, or if the direct line from Waterloo was closed for some reason that day.
However, a much simpler explanation is possible. Let us look carefully at the antepenultimate paragraph of Chapter 5 of Book 1 —“Hagrid helped Harry onto the train that would take him back to the Dursleys. . . .” (PS5) Note first the lack of an apostrophe—it is taking him, not necessarily to the Dursleys’s (house), but to the Dursleys (the family). We have ample evidence in both Books 1 and 5 that Harry is not trusted in the house on his own—he would not have had to “spoil” Dudley’s birthday treat by going with them to the Zoo, for a start—so he will not have been allowed a latchkey and could not go to Privet Drive unless the Dursleys were at home.
But have we any reason to suppose the Dursleys were NOT at home that afternoon? Well, yes! They were last seen that morning, shortly after midnight, retreating into the back room of the Hut-on-the-Rock (PS4). Since the boat was still there in the morning, they cannot have left before Harry and Hagrid. And since Hagrid took the boat, they cannot have left afterwards: not until somebody came to fetch them! Uncle Vernon had especially chosen the place for its lack of communication, so it would be difficult for the Dursleys to summon help. And no-one, apart from Harry and Hagrid, knew they were there.
So Harry couldn’t go to Privet Drive after his visit to Diagon Alley—first he had to go “back to the Dursleys,” to get them off the Hut-on-the-Rock. (In a future essay I shall explore the location of the rock in more detail.) And so his train from Paddington was not taking him to Little Whinging at all!