The Hogwarts Express train in the Harry Potter books/films was possibly one of the most magical aspects of the world built by J. K. Rowling. The idea that an invisible platform could exist unbeknownst to all those passing through King’s Cross Station in London was something so simple and so extraordinary it awakened imaginations all over the globe.
(I am sure that those of you who have frequented King’s Cross during the dreaded commuter peak hours can attest that a secret train platform to escape to would be a welcome addition to the chaos. )
While the world of Harry Potter may be fictional- many scenes in the movies, and in fact Hogwarts Express itself, were filmed in real locations throughout the United Kingdom. If you want to take a ride on the magical train that took Harry and his classmates from Platform 9 3/4 to Hogwarts School- you only need to head to Scotland.
The train portrayed as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter Films is actually a vintage steam train called The Jacobite. The train runs from Fort William in the Scottish Highlands to Mallaig, a small fishing village on Scotland’s Western Coast.
The route is more commonly referred to as the West Highland Line, often earning accolades such as the most beautiful railway route in the United Kingdom. In 2009-2013, Wanderlust magazine voted the West Highland Line the top rail journey in the world- even beating fan favorites such as the Trans-Siberian line and my favorite the Bergen-Oslo line in Norway.
When I found out that the train left from Fort William, where I would be camping for a few nights before walking the Great Glen Way, I knew this was one experience I could not pass up.
The Jacobite Experience
The Jacobite leaves from Fort William’s main train station. Upon arrival there is a line of passengers anxiously awaiting permission to board, as the conductor checks tickets. The crowd was a good mix of train enthusiasts like myself just interested in a beautiful ride through Scotland and die-hard Harry Potter fanatics that are easy to spot in their head to toe fan-gear.
There is time for pictures before the train departs, so if you want a selfie with the guy loading up coal in the fire (Sorry, I don’t speak in train terminology.) – this is your chance.
The Jacobite has two classes on-board, the first-class and standard carriages. The first-class is fancier, with vintage furnishings such as lamps on the tables, larger seats, and complimentary tea and coffee. In the standard carriage, seats are four to a table and any drinks purchased are served in disposable cups. The first-class carriage gives off a more authentic steam train experience, but they have the same view as those in the standard carriages so if you are on a budget I don’t think you would miss out on much.
On-board the conductor goes up and down the carriages with timetables and maps so everyone is aware at what time the train will be passing the more famous landmarks such as the Glenfinnian viaduct. The train also slows down in some areas so that passengers are able to get plenty of pictures and videos.
After passing the Glenfinnian viaduct, The Jacobite stops at Glenfinnian Station where there is a small transport museum that explores the history of the line. You can buy a ticket on the train, but keep in mind that the place is very small and will be very crowded. I would have liked to look around on my own, it wasn’t worth the cost with all the people trying to look in such a short amount of time.
The train reaches Mallaig in approximately two hours where you get another two hours to explore the tiny village before getting back on the train and returning to Fort William. Mallaig has an adorable harbour where you can watch the local fishermen on their boats, take in views of the Isle of Skye, and spot seals playing in the water. There are some nice pubs around Mallaig where you can grab a drink and meal before returning to the train. We stopped in at The Chlachain Inn Restaurant which served great beer and french fries.
The two hours was more than enough time to explore Mallaig. We grabbed some snacks and drinks at a local supermarket to have on the return journey to Fort William.
Ten Things You Need to Know Before Your Trip on the Hogwarts Express
1. Don’t expect it to be referred to as the Hogwarts Express.
Although The Jacobite became more famous after the Harry Potter film showcased it and the beautiful Highland scenery, they don’t really try to monetize off of this. Besides a few Harry Potter souvenirs in the gift shop which have nothing to do with the train, only the Harry Potter fan girls on-board give you any inclination that The Jacobite is somehow connected to the Hogwarts Express.
2. One side is better than the other.
The train turns around in Mallaig, so whatever you see out your window on the way there, you will see the same things on the way back. Although you can’t actually choose your seats, you want to try and be on the left side of the train. The left side gives the best views, especially when you come to the Glenfinnian viaduct. We were lucky and didn’t have to deal with this issue. The passengers in our carriage were good about letting people take pictures from their windows, so if you get stuck on the ‘bad’ side you can always rely on the kindness of strangers.
3. The food and drink selection on-board isn’t great.
While we were pretty happy drinking our Glenfinnian Whisky, the food and drink selection on-board is not very extensive. You can, however, bring your own. I would recommend grabbing a bottle of bubbly and some good snacks before you depart.
4. The journey is long.
The entire journey is going to eat up around six hours of your day. This isn’t a bad thing as it is truly a once in a lifetime experience, but you shouldn’t plan any other activities the day you book your journey. The train leaves Fort William twice a day between May and October, and takes approximately six hours from start to finish.
5. Things get steamy.
The best part of riding on an old steam train? The steam. When the train goes through tunnels there is nowhere for that steam to go but inside. It is kind of awesome. Don’t be lame and put up your window, breathe in that vintage style pollution.
6. The scenery is exquisite.
The Scottish Highlands are incredibly beautiful, if you haven’t seen the region in person you are missing out on one gorgeous place in this world. The time goes very quickly on-board because you get so wrapped up in the scenery outside. Don’t forget your camera.
7. Weather in The Highlands in unpredictable.
Speaking of cameras, keep in mind it may rain heavily the entire time. I say this from experience. Sadly we can’t control the weather and Scotland is one of those places where you never know what Mother Nature is going to give you. My pictures suffered because of this, but it didn’t make the experience itself any less unforgettable.
8. You don’t get to sit in the Harry Potter seats.
You know those cute old timey compartments where Harry and friends ate gross jelly beans on The Hogwarts Express? Yeah, don’t expect to sit in those. While they do exist, they are not bookable. I was told that late comers who book tickets on the day can sometimes get the cool seats but in general you won’t be so lucky.
9. Expect paparazzi.
The Jacobite is a beautiful locomotive and everyone who sees it seems in awe. Expect random folk who didn’t buy a ticket to be taking pictures at every stop. Although I did have a ticket, and couldn’t stop taking pictures either…
10. It is worth the money.
Whether I agree or disagree that The Jacobite is the best rail journey in the world (I still think Norway takes the crown..) it is without a doubt way up there on the list. Admission (as of 2014) for adults is £ 34.00 for standard and £ 58.00 for first-class. Child tickets are £19 and £ 31.00 respectively. A steal for the best six hours of your time spent in Scotland.
You can book your tickets for The Jacobite on the West Coast Railways website.