Diehard Potterheads will surely know, but for those of you who don’t, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is actually in Scotland. The real life Hogwarts Express leaves from Fort William, not Kings Cross Station. Have you figured out what train we were catching?
It’s actually called The Jacobite Steam Train and it runs from Fort William to Mallaig. And I got to ride it! Not only did it feed my nerdy obsession, it also appealed to my newfound love of trains, as you might recall. We showed up early so we could get some photos and learned quickly we weren’t the only ones. We struck up a conversation with a gentleman on the platform and he informed us that many of the people there didn’t even have tickets. They were there just to take photos. It wasn’t just at the station either. During the whole trip we saw people out with their cameras on hillsides and street corners and at other stops. Photographing the train was a regular event for some people.
After waiting patiently for a bunch of annoying tourists to get the hell out of the way, we got our pictures and boarded the train. The interior was nice but you could still feel the age of the car. The upholstery was worn and not as bright as it’d once been. The woodwork didn’t have the same sheen to it. The train has been in operation since 1984 so it’s been well loved. One of our seatmates was already present when we arrived. They stood so we could scoot into our seats, and then we waited for the train to leave.
Train rides, to me, are the epitome of the “It’s not about the destination but the journey” idea. The trip to Mallaig was the second train ride I had taken to a place that didn’t really hold much in the way of interest to me, but I went anyway. Being on a train is quite therapeutic I think, and it didn’t hurt that it was also the freaking Hogwarts Express. The horn sounded a long drawn out wail and the train lurched into motion. We were off.
The first twenty minutes of the journey took us out of Fort William, past outlying homes and large warehouses and work fields. There were several tunnels we passed through early in the trip. They plunged us into darkness for a brief moment, their stone walls reverberating the sounds of the train and sending them back at us in a full on grumbling roar. Then light erupted through the windows again to reveal a thick white fog obscuring the view before the wind and motion of the train whisked it away.
Before long we were in the countryside with nothing but the shrubs and brush of the Highlands spread out all around us over valleys and hills. Our car was relatively quiet. Groups of people had soft-spoken conversations amongst themselves as the scenery swept by. I was in my usually position: body angled towards the wall, arm resting against the windowsill, either leaning forward in my seat or my head against the glass. I was perfectly content to sit in silence the whole trip and watch the world go by.
(For my fellow Whovians: There were a few Doctor Who goodies on the train. I had to take a photo.)
The train only made a few stops before the long non-stop trek up to Mallaig. Mom and I got off at one of these just long enough for her to try and use the bathroom. But the line was too long and our stop only lasted a few minutes. There was only time for a quick look around the platform and then it was back on the train. Just after our last stop till Mallaig, we passed over the Glenfinnan Viaduct. It is a large, cement structure with 21 arches. It’s quite a feat of engineering and a beautiful sight to see from the train. I didn’t manage to get a picture on our way out but I did manage to get some great shots on the way back, no thanks to the other incredibly slow picture takers on the train.
We left the viaduct behind and I sunk deep into my own head and was consumed by my thoughts. My eyes were still fixed out the window at the land but my ears were paying close attention to the train. Every time the whistle sounded, its raspy wheezing voice made me think of an old accordion that was gasping for breath. The constant cloud of billowing steam hung just above the roof of the car, fluttering and swirling just out of reach as we chugged away down the tracks. There was an occasional crackle of branches against the windows when we passed by long-fingered trees too close to the tracks.
The wheels or the engine, maybe both, I’m not sure, kept a stiff beat like maracas or a cabasa, but the sound was more like shifting sand over metal trash can lids. The tempo quickened or slowed with the speed of the train but the beat was always steady and even. The clatter of the wheels over grooves or breaks in the tracks had a rhythm of their own. A short-long pattern of “thud-thud” created a waltz in my head like slow rock ballad. Other times the train was fairly quiet, its music reduced to no more than vibrations in your feet, quivering up your legs and into your chest. Sometimes it was stronger, other times subtle, almost secretive. For longs chunks of time I was mesmerized. The train was alive and I was listening to it breath.
The landscape changed and became wilder. Rocky crags overran the sides of hills, scattered about like clumps of ash. The trees thickened into forests and we caught our first and only glimpse of heather on the ever-present hills in small bunches barely noticeable if you weren’t looking closely. The lakes were still, some of their waters dark, others so clear and bright they were like mirrors, almost perfectly reflecting their surroundings and the sky above.
The returned presence of man-made structures told me we must be close to Mallaig, and sure enough we were soon pulling into the station. Mom and I stayed put as the rest of the passengers filed off the train. The platform was still full of people when we finally alighted. We broke away from the crowd and exited the station. The staff had provided us with a map that had a list of shops and restaurants to visit in town. There were two bookstores on that list so mom and I at least knew two places we were going to. And yes, we did buy some books.
In addition to the bookstores we stopped in a few gift shops and picked up some souvenirs. Mom got her Highland cow calendar and a cute Puffin statue and I got a postcard with a red deer buck, since I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be seeing one in person. When we’d done all the shopping we wanted, we walked down to a café near the water to have a bite to eat before the journey back. We lunched on homemade tomato soup and bread and took a few minutes to enjoy the wifi before heading back to the train. Most of the trip back was spent playing with my newly acquired Harry Potter playing cards. The perfect accessory for any nerd.
Once we had returned to Fort William we only stayed in town long enough to get some whisky, in liquid form this time, and accost our waiter from the other day, which I mentioned earlier. We stopped in the aptly named Whisky Shop and picked up a dram of special whisky only available there in Fort William. Pretty hoity-toity, eh? Whisky in hand, we drove home ready for another meal.
That’s when we realized we had bought too much food for our stay. That, or we just didn’t eat enough. Regardless, we had a lot to shove down our gullets that night. We used up pretty much everything by putting it all together into a wrap that was actually pretty darn delicious if I do say so myself. We ate on the couch while watching Top Gear before switching the channel over to a showing of Marley and Me. This was our first bad decision of the day, but to be fair it was also our only bad decision.
If you’re not familiar with Marley and Me the only thing you really need to know is that it’s a story where the animal dies. I was sniffing before the credits started rolling. An exciting and fun-filled day ended on a somber, melancholy note. I let the sadness slip out of me as I got ready for bed and packed up everything that I wouldn’t need to get ready the next morning. Tomorrow we were headed back to Edinburgh. Tomorrow we would get to see Peter.