Like a lot of people, we decided to have a holiday in the UK this year, jumping on the Scotland bandwagon, we thought we’d tie in a visit to some very good friends who live in Lanarkshire with a few days in the highlands. The opportunity to take a trip on the famous Jacobite steam train had nothing to do with it. Honest.
We drove to Lanarkshire from Yorkshire, which was a fairly steady drive of about 200 miles. The A1, A66, M6 and M74 were mostly kind to us and traffic was fairly light for a Friday lunchtime. There was a slight snag on the A66, possibly caused by someone gawking at the camels! Admittedly, not your usual sight in rural Yorkshire!
We spent a few days relaxing at our friend’s house and took a day trip to the Crawick Multiverse, in nearby Dumfries & Galloway. Built on ground reclaimed from a disused open cast coal mine, the 55 acre site has been repurposed in to a wonderful land art project depicting space, astronomy and cosmology. Even if you’re not in to art or science, the landscape is still fun to explore and a great way to spend a few hours. You might be lucky and have the place almost to yourself. It was so peaceful and relaxing.
The next day, we drove from Lanarkshire with a brief stop at a McDonald’s with the smallest car park known to man and arrived at the Birchbrea Lodge for the 4pm check-in. The journey took just as long as the drive from Yorkshire, which considering it was just over 100 miles, gives an indication as to the windy roads! It’s an absolutely stunning drive and the twists and turns necessitate a slow speed so you do get an opportunity to enjoy the view.
As agreed, the key to our lodge was in a combination safe next to the front door. 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, the lodge is fully accessible with shower seats in both bathrooms. The lodge is really spacious, plenty big enough for the 6 of us and plenty of utensils in the fully fitted kitchen to rustle up a family meal.
The electric heaters did a brilliant job at heating the lodge and made it really cosy. The electric showers were a decent temperature but as is usual for electric showers, the water pressure wasn’t amazing. We were all quite happy with our home for the next few days.
The morning after a fraught evening drinking hot chocolate and playing Monopoly, we nipped to Morrison’s in Fort William to get some breakfast supplies before joining the morning service on the Jacobite steam train. There is a buffet car and trolly on the train as well, serving the usual treats of tea, coffee, every flavour beans and chocolate frogs.
Harry Potter fans will obviously get this reference, as the train is the same as the one featured in the Harry Potter movies as the Hogwarts Express.
Billed as one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world, the Jacobite certainly doesn’t disappoint. Craggy hills, still lochs and dramatic coastlines, there’s something for everyone, all enhanced by the sounds and smell of burning coal and steam.
The most famous element of the line being crossing the magnificent Glenfinnan Viaduct, again used in the Harry Potter films. Fortunately, the trains slows down to cross the viaduct so picture and video opportunities are a plenty. Of course, it’s not safe to stick your head out of the window to see the steam engine curve around the viaduct ahead of you, but people still do.
After a few hours of admiring the views, you arrive in the coastal village of Mallaig. There’s not a great deal to do during the 2 hour break other than a boat trip or grab some lunch. The boat trips are specifically timed to meet the train so there’s no worries about missing the train back to Fort William. It was wet and windy (probably not unusual) on the day we were there so we just had a wander around the few shops and grabbed some fish and chips from the chippy at the station. 2 of the pubs we tried for lunch weren’t serving food, but I’m not sure if that’s a normal thing for a Tuesday or staff shortages because of covid or brexit.
Ideally, you want a seat on the left of the train on the journey to Mallaig for the best views, but West Coast Railway who operate the train, seem to have this sussed and book seats on the left one way and on the right the other way, so everyone gets to enjoy the spectacular views. If you’re naughty like me though, it’s a moot point as I had my head stuck out of the window in the door for most of the journey!
The Jacobite is a world famous train and gets booked up many months in advance. As this was a slightly last minute trip, I was only able to get seats in standard class, which is all tables for 4 with some seats blocked. There are, however, seats in first class and first class compartments, the compartments being what is featured in the Harry Potter films. I’d love to try out the compartments in the future so will need to book further ahead next time.
One of our group has walking difficulties and uses a wheelchair, which we’d made West Coast Railways aware of at the time of booking and the team were on hand to help us board at Fort William station. They also booked seats nearest to the door for us on both journeys.
Due to the age of the train, it isn’t fully accessible and passengers do need to be able to walk some steps from the platform to their seat. The wheelchair was folded and stored in the luggage area in our carriage. The toilets are very small and not accessible so I’d recommend using facilities at the Morrison’s next to Fort William station before the 2 hour journey to Malaig. Having said that, the facilities in the station are also pretty decent because the Caledonian Sleeper from/to London calls here. There is an accessible toilet at Mallaig station but it’s quite small and a squeeze for 2 people. Station staff ensured that priority was given to disabled passengers as it’s a shared ladies and baby change facility and there was quite a big queue with people coming off the train.
It’s worth noting that if the Jacobite is fully booked or your budget doesn’t stretch, Scotrail also operate public services along the same line.
The weather was fairly kind to us for our trip on the Jacobite, in comparison to the following day!
The driving rain at least forced us to have a relaxed morning, reading books and talking and a leisurely brunch. Me and the other half can’t sit still for long so decided to get on the waterproofs and head up to Inchree Falls, a short walk from the lodge.
It was a steady uphill walk from the A82, across a couple of rickety bridges to get to the falls. The volume of rain coming down the hills had turned a couple of the smaller streams and falls in to torrents and the views from the walk up were spectacular.
We could hear the big falls before we could see them and that first view of them through the trees was awesome!
We were only out for about an hour and a half but were quite happy with our little adventure. It’s not a difficult walk but it isn’t particularly wheelchair friendly as the climb is quite steep in places so we made plans to take a more inclusive walk the next day, around Glencoe Lochan.
Not far from Glencoe village, there’s 3 circular walking routes of varying difficulty. One of them is fully accessible, around the glass-like lake, reflecting the mountains above it. We’re sure we spotted 2 golden eagles hunting on the hillside!
The other 2 routes are less accessible, but we were prepared with a beast of an off-road wheelchair, custom built for this type of terrain. All too often, those with mobility issues aren’t able to participate in outdoor activities and this amazing chair smashes those barriers. Pushing it up the hills was a great workout too, which helped offset all of those hot chocolates!
We loved our first visit to the highlands and the stay in the lodge was just what we needed to get together with friends and make some special memories. I was impressed with the accessible features of the lodge and will definitely return in the future.
Date of Trip; September 2021
Price Paid; £705.00 for 4 nights self catering at Birchbrae Lodge. £4.00pp for Crawick Multiverse. £49.00pp for the Jacobite steam train.