Fort William

It was a wet night but I still slept fairly well, despite intermittent snoring, someone’s watch or something beeping in the night, and well worn bunks. We caught the very quiet first ferry of the day to Mallaig at 09:25, ate a second breakfast on board and unloaded our bikes back on the mainland. We could comfortably have cycled to Fort William but fancied a ride on the Jacobite, the seasonal Monday to Friday service which is the only scheduled steam service on the national rail network – it makes one return trip from Fort William. The train was in the afternoon so we filled the rest of the morning by going for a walk on the cliffs overlooking the town and visiting the fascinating heritage centre next to the station – we learnt of the history of the area and admired photographs by a pioneer photographer who’d recorded the local scene in the nineteenth century.

It’s recommended that you book in advance for the Jacobite but we hadn’t wanted to tie ourselves down to a particular day. If you don’t have tickets for the return trip you have to check availability with the guard as the service is run by West Coast Railways rather than one of the national operators. As the train arrived we noted with dismay that every seat was occupied. Luckily there was a large party making a one way trip so we could be accommodated. We’d expected no problems in loading our bikes since the train included a brake van… but the luggage area had been converted into a shop. However the guard was an enterprising young lady keen to maximise revenue so she allowed us to store our bikes in vestibules. Another couple of cyclists arrived as we were loading… they were on lightweight road bikes and one had suffered a ripped tyre while the other had sustained a buckled wheel as they were starting out on their holiday. They weren’t too bothered about the steam ride, they just needed to visit the bike shop in Fort William.

As expected, this was a lovely ride through stunning scenery, most of which I spent standing by an open window enjoying the view and the sound of the B1 at the head of our train. These locomotives were built by the LNER in the 1940s and were used on this line as well as being a common sight in northeast England. Some of the passengers were sleeping, presumably they’d seen enough of the scenery on the outward journey. I overheard one woman grumbling to her companion about how slow the train was, thereby completely missing the point of the ride.

The photograph shows our train traversing Glenfinnan Viaduct, where the driver slowed to a crawl for the photographers on board. This is the best known structure on the line, a curved concrete viaduct, 100 feet high and 416 yards in length. Built by Robert MacAlpine (aka “Concrete Bob”), it consists of 21 arched spans of 50 feet each and was the first concrete viaduct to be built in Britain. Local folklore related that during construction a horse and cart fell into one of the piers of the viaduct and was entombed. Recent investigation revealed the truth… click here for the grisly details!

On arrival we shopped at the large Safeway adjoining the station before moving on to Calluna bunkhouse on the edge of town, a comfortable modern unit run by Alan Kimber, a professional mountain guide, and his wife Sue.

Fort William