Day Forty Eight

Chris wakes me with the news that he has a train trip planned. It’s a
trip he remembers from the last time he was here and he recalls it
was worth doing: great scenery, through the mountains, quite long.
As we both faff around getting the morning on the way, it occurs to
me that if this journey is so long, getting onto it might be a
problem. As a long round trip, its unlikely that they run every half
hour. So whilst Chris is off doing his stuff, I google to find the
timetable…and stumble onto something interesting…very
interesting, as a matter of fact.
Sure enough, it’s an iconic journey, deemed one of the world’s best:
an 84 mile round trip by steam train (steam train!) through the
mountains, a series of costal inlets and lochs, all in all, spectacular
scenery. And as I wander through the webpage looking for the
timetable….I spot pictures of the steam trains…and do a double
take. It’s only the Hogwarts Express, complete with the viaduct pass
as part of the journey, as seen in the Harry Potter films. Now, I was
keen to take a train ride, and I was doubly keen to take a real steam
train ride…but to ride the Hogwarts Express? Let’s go, let’s go, let’s
As this all starts to sink in, it also occurs to me that it’s probably not
going to be easy to get tickets. I’m not the only Potterphile, and it’s
school holidays.
There are two runs, morning and afternoon a total of 4 hours round
trip with a few stopovers. We decide to drive into Port William
(where it sets off) to try for tickets for tomorrow. With everything
When we get there, the nice lady at the train station explains very
patiently, as she must, many times a day, that, yes,the train does run
from the station, but, no, she can’t sell us tickets. It’s owned
privately and tickets can only be bought online or via the special
phone line – as the government train station, all she can offer us is a
diesel train that runs on the same line.
We call the booking line, only to get a message. So I get online
again. It’s book, booked, booked. Right up until 19 August, by when
we will be long gone.
Chris offers me the diesel option. Same journey, he says, just not the
Hogwarts Express. Crestfallen. Um…no…not the same. Much
dashing of hopes. Still, where there’s a will, there is usually a way.
We grab brochures and set off into the town for lunch to mull it
over. At this stage the options look bleak…but we see that there are
some seats available on a first in best dressed basis, when the train
rolls in. We decide to test this for the afternoon run at 2.30pm and
then assess our options if that fails. Off to town we go.
When we get back less than an hour later and a full hour before the
train is due….there’s a line where there was none. A disorderly, ever
increasing line 😦
We join in, and in a short time it snakes around the station, and to
our dismay the front of the line, ahead of us, starts to fill out as
random newcomers seem to join those “who were already in line”.
A Scottish couple take fabulous loud exception..and the offenders
have the cheek to call them English. Had to love the reaction. The
wife drew herself up to all her 5’2″ and let them have it in her best
brogue…“ENGLISH!!!! WE’RE SCOOOTISHHH”. Clearly there are
lots of people as keen to get on this train as I am. Chris starts to
make gentle then less gentle noises that it’s not looking good, that
the line is out of control, and that when they open the gates it will
be a mad dash etc. I’m not budging…someone has to tell me “no
tickets left” before I’ll give in.
So they open the gates and there’s a mad dash, and the Scottish
woman is still letting the tourists have it…and then we queue and
wait again. Finally a lady comes out to confirm that the steam train
is running (apparently they can change it to diesel at their will) and
slowly the line starts to disappear into the train. Cash only. And
clearly someone looked kindly on us from above…Chris has
cash….and we’re in. Omg…we’re in, with minutes to spare. Chris
shots off to shoot a picture of the steam engine, as do I, but I’m
paranoid about missing it and being left on the platform, so I
manage to cock mine up. It’s beautiful though, shiny black enamel,
with maroon and white trim. Coal laden, an engineer with a proper
train drivers cap and a man set to shovel. Love it!
Still, we’re on, and with steam billowing and much tooting, off we
set. It’s fabulous. It sounds like a real train is meant to, much
chuffing and steam blowing, and the tracks make sounds like train
tracks do in old films. Chuggachuggachugga…love it. Hogwarts
Express or not, diesel doesn’t have a patch on this.
Havering passed the hurdle of getting on, we can finally relax and
explore. The trip is officially known as the Jacobite Steam West
Highland, Mallaig Extension that runs from Fort William to Mallaig.
Started in 1894 and commissioned in 1901, it took 3,500 men to
build it, has 11 tunnels, the (then) world record length for a single
concrete bridge span, and of course the famous viaduct with 21
arched spans of 50 feet running over 416 yards at 100 feet high.
There is also a second viaduct, and there are three stops along the
way. We will cross four major lochs, all of which run out to sea, and
end in the fishing village of Mallaig.
The views that we pass are just stunning. For once Chris can relax
and enjoy them, without having to concentrate on driving, and we
both love this scenery. The lochs are serene, the mountains majestic,
and the train is chuffing along and steam streams past our window,
adding to it all. And if that wasn’t authentic enough…we get
covered in little coals chips as the engine blows them back, and
each time we go thorough a tunnel the carriage fogs in. Love it.
As the viaduct looms the whole train is determined to get a photo –
it’s amazing that it doesn’t plunge off with the weight to one side.
Still, we manage great shots as it’s curved – we get both the train
and the viaduct..and steam billowing away. Yay! We stop for lunch,
and then the conductor comes along to explain with good humour
that “his” famous viaduct is now more commonly known as Harry
Potter’s bridge, and one thing that we didn’t know, that
Dumbledoor’s tomb was placed on an island on one of the lochs…
the train lurches to the other side as we all try to see and capture
We finally pull up in Mallaig where we have 2 hours to explore the
harbour and views. Joy of joys…there’s a seal in the harbour. A few
local lads are there on the pretext of fishing, but what they are really
doing is feeding the seal. He’s lovely. Pale grey and a bit spotty,
with a rather longer nose than our fur seals, which makes him look a
bit melancholy – he’s actually a Harbour Seal. He teases us with
surfacing then disappearing and I hear one of the boys, poised with
fish in hand…och…he’s hiding!!! Ha…fishing, my eye. Pet seal, more
like. The boys give up, but not before leaving all their fish at the
bottom of the pier for him. I wait for a while and give up (get
dragged off) too.
Seal gone, we set up the hill to scope the view. The isle of Skye is in
the harbour and the ferry runs from here. It’s a perfect day and the
view is clear and beautiful.
We get back in plenty of time for the return journey and do it all
again, viaduct shots, trying to spot the island where Dumbledoor
was laid to rest, but with a few extras too. Chris finds red deer
grazing, and this time I see them too (red dots in the distance) and
we both spot different birds of prey hovering. I also brave the
connecting carriage and hang my head out to be sooted so I get
some good shots. A dangerous pastime as the sides are often very
close. Chris, being braver than I, did it on the way up and got
smacked by a branch. He offered me the sage advice of “look
forward, not back, so you see what’s coming”. In the end, we
exhaust the battery in my phone camera and the camera…and still
could have shot dozens more.
We finally roll in by 8.30pm, it’s still completely light.
A great day and one that will always be special for me. I just love
the Harry Potter books and whilst this was a great train journey in its
own right, the fact that it was the Hogwarts Express was the
exceptionally large cherry on top. Bliss.