The Jacobite Steam Train, better known as the Hogwarts Express, is an absolute bucket list activity in the Scottish Highlands. So, after hiking along the West Highland Way for four days, I found myself at the train station in Fort William, ready to be bewitched. Only, not everything went according to plan…
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I can’t remember when I had ever been so excited to board a train. Probably never. Not even that time I took a night train to Venice and should wake up surrounded by narrow canals and singing gondolieri.
Finally, my letter had arrived – never mind, that it had come in the shape of a email, rather than being delivered by an owl. 20 years I had been waiting for this day – ever since the first Harry Potter book had hit the shelves, I had dreamt up my magical alter ego. One day I would go to Hogwarts, or well, at least ride the Jacobite Steam Train aka. the Hogwarts Express in Scotland.
With the booking confirmation on my phone, I made my way through the train station and towards carriage B. 23F, 24B, 24F – those were out seats. But as we arrived someone had already taken these seats, and they certainly didn’t look like us. A quick comparison of their and our booking confirmations revealed – the seats had been double-booked!
Together we sought assistance from the train conductor. In an instance, she found the other groups’ names on her list and told them to return to their seats. Relieved they buggered off; only my name was nowhere to be found.
Because Visit Scotland had assisted us by booking the tickets, I tried a few names from their marketing team, but the conductor could still not find us. Rather abruptly she told me, that if we’re not on the list, we can’t board the train – “fully booked”. Somehow my letter – sorry – my booking confirmation had lost all its value. Too bad, flying cars aren’t real…
In the end we were lucky – a few phone calls were done and all of a sudden, she had us on her list after all. Apparently our seat numbers had changed without prior notice. Off to carriage F!
Arriving at our new seats, I was shocked to find out, that we were now sitting on the other side of the train. Of course the views along the route are gorgeous on either side of the railroad tracks, but in order to get that money shot of the steam train bending left as it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct, you need a seat on the left.
I was frustrated – after struggling to get on the train in the first place, now I wouldn’t even get that iconic picture of the Hogwarts Express to prove that magical moment?
As we rolled out of the station and eventually crossed the viaduct, I was so disappointed, I had tears in my eyes. No matter how much I travel, I still hate it when things don’t go according to plan – especially when they ruin my photo plans. It was only after we left Glenfinnan station, that I took a walk towards the front of the train, found an empty section of hallway and stuck my camera out of the window in the door. Finally, some nice photos.
The scenery along the train tracks is incredible. The train soars by many lochs and gorgeous views on the surrounding hills, close by the tracks we saw huge bushes of purple rhododendron. By the time you reach the coast you think you’ve traveled into a different world – the landscape changes so much. I see why the steam train has the reputation of being one of Britain’s most beautiful train rides!
Satisfied I returned to my seat and showed my friends the beautiful photos I managed to take. After just over 2 hours on the train, we arrived in Mallaig and took a few more shots of the Hogwarts Express releasing steam at the platform.
If you’re coming from further afield, you could combine riding the Hogwarts Express with an overnight journey to Scotland with the Caledonian Sleeper!
My ride on the Hogwarts Express might not have gone according to plan, but it surely would make for a boring
movie story, if nothing ever went wrong in the Muggle world!
So while I was disheartened at first, I still think this train ride should be on anybody’s Scotland bucket list – Potterhead or not!
Did you know there are more Harry Potter sites in York?
On a past trip, I was one of many photographers waiting for the train as it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
Top tips for riding the Hogwarts Express
1) Book your tickets well in advance and arrive at the station in good time. Accidents like double-bookings can happen, but the earlier you get there, the more time you have just in case you need to find new seats.
2) For the best photo position, try to get seats in the back of the train and on the left side on your way to Mallaig, or on the right side on your way back to Fort William.
3) If you can afford it (and you’re not in it for the kind of photos I took), upgrade to First Class tickets – the carriage is all the way in a the front, but has a real vintage feeling!
Now, I’d love to hear from you – have you ever had a bucket list experience that just didn’t go according to plan?
Share your story in the comments!
Disclaimer: This trip was supported by Visit Scotland; all opinions expressed are my own.