In 2002 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was released in cinemas and from that point the Glenfinnan Viaduct became world famous as ‘the Harry Potter Bridge’. Operating since 1984, The Jacobite is a steam locomotive-hauled service that runs from Fort William to Mallaig, crossing the famous viaduct, and giving tourists the amazing view of a steam train passing over ‘the Harry Potter Bridge’.
Even more amazing than the view of the train passing over the viaduct from afar is the view of the train passing over the viaduct from one of the carriages it is hauling, and on Wednesday 30th September, that is exactly what we got to do. Arriving at Fort William nice and early, we were the first to board our carriage and settled into our armchair seats as the train prepared for departure.
We had actually booked seats in one of the compartments further back in the train, however had received an email as we had headed north a couple of days previously, upgrading us to the first-class carriage due to Covid-19 and Social Distancing. We assume this was due to there only being two of us, whereas the compartments would likely hold 6, and so West Coast Railways (the operator) wanted to use these for larger groups. Either way, we weren’t complaining!
As we departed Fort William and headed north past Inverlochy Castle and Neptune’s Staircase (read about our visit to those here), a trolley service began, providing free tea and coffee and a range of other refreshments that were available for purchase. Apart from a short stop at Loch Eil Outward Bound (what a station name!) to exchange tokens for the next single line section, we had a non-stop 35-minute run before we were approaching the world-famous viaduct.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct was constructed as a key part of the Mallaig extension to what was then the West Highland Railway and it was only 22 months from when construction began to when the viaduct itself was usable for construction of the line further north. In addition to appearing in a number of films (including four of the Harry Potter ones), the viaduct appears on the Scottish £10 note as an example of Scottish engineering, given it is the longest concrete railway bridge in Scotland at 380m long and 30m high.
Just to the north of the viaduct is Glenfinnan station itself, which has grasped onto the Harry Potter tourism market by having a Harry Potter shop on the platforms. Jacobite services are scheduled to stop here for around 25 minutes to allow passengers to stretch their legs and look around, however on our journey (possibly due to lack of uptake given the weather), we continued towards Mallaig after just a few minutes.
The only other scheduled stop for The Jacobite is Arisaig, another token exchange point but also a request stop for passengers on the steam-hauled service. Arisaig is the western-most station in Great Britain, however, is the only one of the four cardinal points of the network that is not a terminus station. From Arisaig, there are great views out over some of the Scottish islands, these views being the reason The Jacobite calls here.
Arriving into Mallaig, we were greeted by a rather wet, but welcoming Scottish port town. Despite the operation of The Jacobite, the town’s economy is still mostly based on the industrial side of the port’s operation, however with a large number of restaurants and gift shops, it is clear that tourism still has an impact on the economy. Due to the weather we changed our plan from eating takeaway fish and chips on the harbour wall to finding a spot in one of the town’s restaurants.
Opting for The Cabin restaurant on the corner of the crossroads near the harbour, I decided to stick with the traditional fish and chips, which were amazing, whilst Beth opted for local prawns on a Jacket potato. Having enjoyed our lunch, we had time to visit one of the gift shops and have a short walk around the harbour before heading back to the train and the warmth of the carriages.
Returning to Fort William, we had 90 minutes until our train south towards our next destination and so we allowed others off the train first before standing on the platform to watch our locomotive, 44871, push the carriages to the nearby sidings to be prepared for the next day. With return adult tickets starting at £43, The Jacobite certainly isn’t the cheapest option to get to Mallaig, however the charm of travelling on a historic steam-hauled service along this route certainly is worth the extra.