Everyone should take a ride on an old steam train along the scenic West Highland line in Scotland.
The Jacobite — www.westcoastrailways.co.uk — runs from Fort William to Mallaig and back again, between May and October and twice a day in summer. A jolly good place to get information is the Scottish Tourist Board, www.visitscotland.com
The film series may have come to an end after a decade of enchantment but the influence of Harry Potter still spreads its cloak far and wide. This month sees the opening of the Harry Potter attraction at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour near Watford in the south of England, but there is another location right at the other end of the country where the boy wizard’s magic has been instrumental in pulling in more adventurous punters for some time now, and it's produced a minor economic miracle for a small and pretty fishing and ferry port that was previously in sad decline.
The story of a young girl in her twenties, J.K. Rowling, writing her stories in pencil, on loose sheets of paper in a little coffee shop in Edinburgh with her new baby at her feet, with no money, and hungry, living in a bedsitter with no hot water made people cheer when they heard of the success of the book. She is now reported to be worth more money than the Queen of England.
When I was home in Scotland some time back, I read about another young, single mother with a child who befriended J.K. and let her take a bath regularly in her flat which had hot water. Once J.K. got a sizable check from the publisher for the book, the first thing she did was to buy her friend a house, as a thank you for helping her during her time of need. J.K. is now married to a doctor, with children, and living in Edinburgh. Happy ending to a wonderful story!
The port of Mallaig in the West Highlands from where the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry still sets sail for the romantic island of Skye (where my grandparents had a home), is no stranger to great storytelling. It wasn’t far from here that Bonnie Prince Charlie first landed in 1745 to start his march on England. It ended in a horrible battle with the Scottish clans being nearly wiped out in Culloden.
The star is now an old puffer, for Mallaig is the destination station of the only scheduled steam-hauled train still working in the United Kingdom, the Jacobite. The train played a big part in every Harry Potter film, the part of the much loved Hogwarts Express.
I think this route is one of the most scenic in the world, starting under the shadow of Ben Nevis (a mountain I used to hike up each summer), steaming over the Caledonian Canal, then chug chugs alongside the shores of sea lochs and into a succession of mountain walled glens to arrive eventually in Mallaig, a journey that takes just under a couple of hours.
The train travels through forests of ash, carpeted in bluebells and bracken turning this way and that as it passes from glen to glen. The highlight camera opportunity is the Glenfinnan viaduct with 21 arches.
The last part of the journey into Mallaig is through some of the country's most picturesque coastal scenery. Arisaig, where Bonnie Prince Charlie came ashore for his ill-fated adventure is a boating base with regular summer services out to the “cocktail isles” Rum, Eigg and Muck. We call them that because they all sound like the ingredients of an unlikely tipple.
Mallaig itself is a lovely location. Prawn and white fish trawlers collect in the harbor within a minute’s walk of the railway station.This is a great place for fish and chips! Getting 300 passengers off the train has brought new life to the town of 200 people. The Jaffy Fish Bar in the station itself can serve more than 100 fish and chips suppers in the train’s 90 minute turnaround time. It used to be a herring fishing village, but that boom ended when the silver darlings disappeared.
Thanks to that holy trinity, a boy wizard, magnificent scenery, and a national nostalgia for steam trains—long may the magic last!
I feel homesick just typing this article. Put the West Highland line on your list if you have children who are Harry Potter fans or if you are a train buff.
Maureen Jones is president of All Horizons Travel at 160 Main Street in Los Altos. Members of her staff are experts in business travel, cruises, and all types of leisure.