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Ride the rails like Rowling's wizards

Yes, the "Harry Potter train" exists, chugging along on a magical 80-mile journey through the Scotland Highlands.

By PETER MIKELBANK
Published October 30, 2005


"Funny way to get to a wizard's school, the train. Magic carpets all got punctures, have they?"

FORT WILLIAM, Scotland - Despite the devout wishes of millions, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry doesn't exist. Nor is there is a Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at London's King Cross Station. No Diagon Alley, no Gringott's.

Indeed, nearly everything connected to Harry Potter is literary legerdemain. Pure hocus-pocus.

Yet one aspect of J.K. Rowling's stories and their films is very real: the Hogwarts Express.

And its rail-clacking journey along the same extreme slip of Highland scenery woven into the Potter films can only be described as, well, magical.

"A scarlet steam engine was waiting next to a platform, packed with people. A sign overhead said Hogwarts Express, eleven o'clock..."

Best lesson drawn from the Potter chronicles: Don't believe everything you read.

For example, it isn't named the Hogwarts Express - but the Hogwarts Castle.

More, it doesn't leave at 11, but at 10:20.

Not the back half of 10:20 either, but top-of-the-whistle minute, which means you'd best be in your carriage by l0:19. In any circumstance, arrive early, because as with most things playing with witchcraft and wizardry, there's an extraordinary scene to behold.

The same l937 steam-driven engine and carriages that play a transporting role in all four Potter films leave Scotland's northern Fort William on an 80-mile round-trip journey daily between late May and mid October.

The great black and scarlet engine and steaming line of plum-colored carriages doze at an open-air platform in white acres of morning fog. A massive firebox folds the air with crisp burning coal, while sunlight threads into vapor and passengers glide like phantoms in and out of deep mist. At the platform head, large numbers - including, on this day, two "Hermiones" in wizard's hats - gather close to immortalize themselves in photos snapped beside the distinctive engine's plaque.

By any measure, the 42-mile clacker between Fort William and the west coast port of Mallaig is an extreme itinerary: Starting beneath the shadow of Ben Nevis, Great Britain's highest mountain, its westerly passage climbs steep Highland passes, bridges and tunnels and soars alongside concealed lochs, cascades and waterfalls before descending dramatically to the sea, where it proposes unimaginable views of Scotland's Hebridean Islands, including an unparalleled view of mythic Skye.

Employing then-unproven construction techniques, the train route was built a century ago across some of the most inaccessible land in Great Britain. The course is so rugged that construction of its 40-mile westerly spur was the last major completed rail link in the nation that pioneered railways.

So dramatic is its course that the Jacobite Steam Train (the route's original name, commemorating the historic route it traverses) has long been considered one of the Ten Great Train Journeys of the World. It's so scenic that any day it runs, trainspotters and photographers perch rockside to document its passage.

To be truthful, though, it's the recent Harry Potter associations what's drivin' in the Muggles.

"A Muggle," said Hagrid, "it's what we call nonmagic folk like them. An' it's your bad luck you grew up in a family o' the biggest Muggles I ever laid eyes on."

In 2000, the train's private operators, West Coast Railways, agreed to provide a steam locomotive engine and vintage carriages to filmmakers for the Potter films. Two years ago, an arrangement was struck with Warner Bros. allowing them to acknowledge and market this association.

Since, there's been a groundswell of inquiries, "and bookings have exploded over the last two summers," one operator says. Refraining from overassociation (in a show of strict Scottish parsimony, Potter mention amounts to little more than second billing in brochures and a few paragraphs on the train's Web site), operators still find their reserve failing.

"Most - at least half - the calls we field now are about the "Harry Potter train' even though we don't advertise it as such," admits one.

Suddenly, a 70-year-old, last-of-its-kind, coal-fired relic is a film star.

In the past two years, just to meet demand, an additional month of excursion days has been forced onto its previous, 20-years-without-change, summer-only schedule.

Suddenly people need to have their photograph taken beside the GWR "Hall" Class 4-6-0 engine, which has been pulling the same carriages along the same line almost forever. People worldwide are suddenly targeting a North-to-Nowhere-and-Back-In-A-Day destination.

Let's call it "The-Weasley-Family's-Flying-Ford-Anglia-Knock-On-Effect."

"With gold and silver he was ready to buy as many Mars bars as he could carry."

While the Hogwarts Express has appeared in all four Potter films (scenes in Goblet of Fire, which opens Nov. 18, were filmed in March 2004), it was the second in the series, Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets, that provided the train's most memorable role.

Halfway along its route, the trackbed reaches Glenfinnan. A great, breathtaking geographic breach between impassable mountain headlands, Glenfinnan rises above the waters of Loch Shiel. It's an area so majestic and haunting that filmmakers esteemed it home to Hogwarts. (Outtake shots of it are included on the Chamber of Secrets DVD.)

A daunting stretch, redolent with Scottish history (the clans rallied here in l745 under Bonnie Prince Charlie, beginning the Jacobite Rebellion), Glenfinnan is a natural stronghold. A mile-long gap between mountains - its massive gorge shielding a broad rolling plain sown with scrub grass, broom, gorse and heather - broods like an onrushing thunderstorm.

Forged between impenetrable mountain range and unendingly deep loch, it held the western Highlands in isolation for centuries. Engineers built rail lines across the l800s - inventing, improving, exporting most of today's techniques from iron bridging to trussed trestles - but not at Glenfinnan.

Not until l902.

That year, Robert "Concrete Bobby" McAlpine cemented his reputation by pouring his way across the gap. Having reached the impassible through a series of extreme rising tunnels, McAlpine and his crews applied a first-of-its-kind technique, creating an unparalleled Romanesque structure: a towering 21-arch, 100-foot-high viaduct. A unique, 400-yard-long curving bridgework, composed wholly of poured concrete, McAlpine's design has served a century without repair.

In Scotland, Glenfinnan and its gracefully arching traincrossing are legend. The Weasley family Ford swirling over it as the Hogwarts Express races across is movie legend.

As the real train stops at mid crossing to allow photos, and then again at the far end to allow passengers a brief descent onto a Victorian-era station platform, these worlds collide pleasantly.

"He could see mountains and forests under a deep purple sky. The train did not seem to be slowing down."

The Hogwarts Express, as its name implies, isn't luxurious. Its l930-era cars are comfortably worn. But you can get a cup of tea served at your seat in first class. Or a Mars bar and a standup whisky purchase in the dining coach.

It's decidedly old-fashioned passenger railroading. As it was, let's say, warts and all.

Given the Scottish season, that can be a cinder-in-your-eye, smoke-billowing-in-cars, rain-sodden-slog or over/underheated day. But this is part of its authenticity and small concession to dense forest glades, views of unstartled red deer, grouse and Highland cattle. To feeling the sea approach through an open window. Or to leaning out to the first staggering glimpses of Scotland's Outer Isles rising dreamlike over white sand beaches at Arisaig and Morar and onto the first glimpses of Skye, towering across the water at Mallaig.

The Potter movies have filmed extensively along the length of the isolated line, as have many other epics, and there are a good dozen moments of deja vu sparking recognition among riders young and old. An ancient church, a sheltered loch, a pastoral stretch with Highland cattle ... in all, its exhilarating landscape infused with magic.

One so enchanting you hardly notice the snivelly little redheaded boy and his friend constantly running up and down aisles to the dining coach to buy Mars bars and such.

Freelance writer Peter Mikelbank lives in Paris.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Hogwarts departs daily (except Saturdays) from Fort William with round-trip service to Mallaig. Round-trip cost is $69 first-class (with light refreshment onboard); $46 standard. Children, $34 and $27.

Reservations are essential. Telephone 44-1-463-239026, or go to www.steamtrain.info

WHERE: Fort William is central in the Scottish Highlands and reached by car or train. It's about 3 hours by car from Glasgow Airport. Considered the center of the central Highlands, Fort William breaches Loch Linnhe and Loch Ness. It's about 90 minutes south of Inverness along Loch Ness.

STAYING: Scotland's finest hotel, the Inverlochy Castle, in Fort William 44-1-397-702177, toll-free 1-888-424-0106; www.inverlochycastlehotel.com) is a serene, off-the-beaten-path destination for those prizing isolation and spectacular scenery. A small double room is about $515 per night. Tip: Inquire about Inverlochy's unadvertised and affordable cottages, then arrange to have breakfast in the castle. Alternately, the Ballachulish Hotel, 7 miles south at Bridge of Orchy, is a tremendous value for the money, with rooms and dinner package at $88.

WHERE TO EAT: There is a 90-minute turnaround in Mallaig before return to Fort William. Heartily recommended for an upstairs lunch is the Marine Hotel's restaurant/pub.

Equally recommended is dinner afterward at the CRANNOG Seafood Restaurant, an extraordinary, locally run cooperative on Loch Linnhe in Fort William. Booking is essential; call 44-1-397-705589.

FILM FANS: The Potter movies are not the only films to benefit from the scenery between the Great Glen and Skye. The area has also played important parts in dozens of epic films, including Braveheart, Highlander, Rob Roy, Local Hero and Quest for Fire, as well as many television shows.

For more specifics, log onto www.scotlandthemovie.com

[Last modified October 27, 2005, 17:13:48]


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