All Aboard the Hogwarts Express: My Whistle-Stop Tour

This little mini-break was a tad different to my usual backpacking adventures. A smaller backpack in tow (as opposed to my larger one that I used for trekking around mainland Europe, South-East Asia and Australia), and some quality time to myself just enjoying silence.

This trip was also a Harry Potter themed one; I hadn’t ever been to Scotland before and I thought what better way to see the country and combine one of my true loves. The 31st July is a significant date in the Harry Potter world too. And it was completely unintentional/a coincidence!

Day One, Monday 31 July:

Southampton -> Glasgow -> Fort William

After six hours sleep and a large Starbucks cappuccino, I boarded my flight to Glasgow feeling a hot, sticky mess. I was lucky enough to get an aisle seat, and there was no way in hell I was going to give that up. Next to me in the other aisle seat was a rather largish businessman. A young couple both had our respective window seats, and asked if we could move so they could sit next to each other. No. It’s only a 90 minute flight, they can endure to be apart. However the chap was feeling kind and moved to the window seat next to me; I was a little squished, but could’ve been worse.

Landing in Glasgow, I was instantly amazed by the scenery. Well, I knew I would be but not so ‘instantly’. Can you see the hills in the distance?

I took the Express bus from the airport. Quick and convenient, I thought the £7.50 charge was a bit of a rip-off. The journey seemed no longer than 15 minutes and wasn’t any different to a typical bus journey.

I had a few bits on my list I wanted to see but mainly the day was wandering around. The first stop was George Square.

Also lots of cool street art.

One of the “must-see” sights in the city, is The Necropolis. And once it was within my eye sight, I could see why! Situated by Glasgow Cathedral, the whole area looked an absolute wonder. Walking up the hill to the top, with my heavy backpack, seemed an exercise mission in itself. Made up for the calories I would eat later. The view of Glasgow Cathedral was just breathtaking too. I was so lucky that the weather held out – it was due to pour all day!

Huge memorials filled the grassy banks , really epitomising the wealth of the merchants who lived in Glasgow. Even in the late 1800s, those buried here died in their 80s and 90s. They could afford healthcare.

In the photograph below, the statue on the left is of John Knox. If you don’t know who that is, Google him!

Wandering around, at times I could only hear the leaves, heavily rustling in the wind. And the crunch of my own footsteps along the dirt path. Silent and serene.

Walking back down the hill, I ventured into the cathedral itself. The crypts were my favourite, which is where St. Mungo was buried. I wonder whether JK Rowling got the name from Glasgow?

St Mungo’s Museum does look like it could cure magical maladies..

Feeling peckish, as it was already midday, I wandered back down the High Street, into the Scottish classic – Aldi’s. Well I did want some Irn Bru!

Well, not enough Irn Bru. I popped into a local bar and bought their Irn Bru pudding. That’s gingerbread whoppie pies, with an Irn Bru cream filling and Irn Bru ice-cream. Loved the ice-cream. Not so keen on the cream.

I limited myself to one Irn Bru a day (I did have a sugar free one, but still, any fizzy drink is unhealthy!). I have definitely had enough until ny next visit!

Noticing the time, I headed back to George’s Square to pick up my pass for the free walking tour around the City Chambers. It was a bit brighter second time around!

And it’s that spot where the photo was taken, that I wrote this entry up until this point (the rest for the day was completed in my hostel in Fort William).

The decoration inside was unbelievable for a council building. Was so wow. It houses the largest marble staircase in Western Europe at 3 floors, larger than the Vatican.

One wing is pure marble, the other wing, not to much. Wood was painted to look like it was marble, and was an uncanny resemblance. I had to stroke it to believe it.
We managed to sneak into the Suites too – no wedding’s, so we were able to wander round. The views of George’s Square were rather lovely.

Next stop, and another tick on my list was ordering a deep fried Mars bar. But while I was waiting, I was puzzled by all the additional fried food… me and the lady behind the counter compared foods. They sell the standard deep fried sausage (but no pea fritters or battered pineapple), as well as ribs, haggis, black pudding, pies, potato slices and of course, pizza.

I was very excited.

How did I wait 30 years for this goodness?

I wandered around the town, then headed to the bus station. Trains run to Fort William at limited times of the day, so I had to get a coach, which cost £24.

It was one of the best coach journeys I have ever been on, as it was so scenic. But it was also one of the worst. Oh my days I don’t think I have ever felt so travel sick. After 90 minutes, I went to get some paracetamol out and found travel sickness pills! Hurrah! They actually stopped me from puking up and then enjoy the ride.

Going up the road along Loch Lomond and beyond, well it was very windy. Sharp ‘z’ style corners, with narrow roads for the bus to navigate. And old bus at that. I saw more waterfalls and streams that I could possible count. Hundreds. Some trickled down the mountain and were barely visible, others were huge waterfalls cascading off the edge.

Loch Lomond (this is briefly mentioned in Harry Potter, but only complete saddos would remember the reference – on a chocolate frog card according to the HP Wiki):

Loch Tulla:

And no idea, somewhere enroute:

The actual end of a rainbow. No pot of gold though 😦

Somewhere along here we went through Glencoe. Hagrid’s hut and scenes from The Prisoner of Azkaban were filmed there.

I was so glad to get off the coach, and enjoy this quaint little sea-side town.

I wandered down the high street looking for something warm and soothing to heal my stomach. I found a cafe selling a Scottish soup called Cullen Skink. A creamy soup with smoked haddock and potatoes. It was delicious, but I think the £8.95 it cost me was a little too expensive. But it was good so what does it matter? I guess if the fish was fresh, it’s a bargain..?

After my soup, I ventured up the hill to my hostel, where I relaxed with a cuppa, playing records.

Day Two, Tuesday 1 August:

Fort William -> Mallaig -> Fort William

Today was the day! After a nice long sleep, I laid in bed a bit more. My plans were to walk to the base camp of Ben Nevis, which takes about 40 minutes or go to the Ben Nevis Distillery. But when I woke up and saw the rain battering down on the windows, I wasn’t so keen. I stayed in bed a little longer, then helped myself to a cuppa and sat on the porch for a while, admiring the view.

Before I ran to get my phone, I saw the steam train pass too. The rain seemed to have cleared up, so I ventured out towards the distillery. After five minutes, the rain started again but I persevered regardless.

I walked 35 minutes in the wind and occasional showers to arrive at the distillery just in time for the next tour. Literally a few minutes before the next tour.

Which gave us a free shot afterwards. But I had booked myself onto the three taster tour. Oops.

Basically I am a whisky expert now. I can judge how old a whisky is. And understand what single malt is. And also how whisky gets its flavour and colour.

The first one, which was also the cheapest, was my favourite. A young blended whisky, at 40%.

The next one we tried was a vanilla flavoured blended, this one a tad older. Not massively keen. Also 40%.

The third was an old single malt. Strong. At 10 years old, this one took a while for me to drink. Even with a dash of water. This was 46%.

And the final, fourth taster was a massive 58%!! Add a dash of water, and once you get over the alcohol smell, it’s rather delightful. Needless to say, I was merry AF.

Back in Fort William town centre, was the other expensive part of my day and basically why I visited Fort William in the first place! First off, I binged on Irn Bru and chocolate in the hope I wouldn’t get too travel sick (no chance the ride was so smooth). The steam train to Mallaig, over the Glennfinnan viaduct. This route is where scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed along.

I treated myself to First Class, which I am so glad I did! Sat in a comfy armchair, I was quite content with my choice.

I got chatting to those around me, a couple in their late 60s who had just tied the knot and were on a celebratory ride courtesy of the bride’s daughter. On the table with me, a Dutch mum (Ellen) with her two teenage daughters (Mara and Fleur), one being a massive Harry Potter super fan too.

Clearly being a bit tipsy, the newlyweds donated lots of their food to me. Their daughter had treated them to high tea with their journey, and didn’t want half of it. Drunken Ayla was most happy, and had saved some of the snacks for the following day’s train journey. Who doesn’t like cake for breakfast?

As Nan gave me a bit of pocket money to treat myself, that’s exactly what I did. I bought an alcoholic butterbeer and a chocolate frog. The drink was so sweet and tasty, like a creamy, boozy Irn Bru.

When we went over the viaduct, there were tens of people below, waiting for us with their cameras. I couldn’t believe it. We waved from afar, whilst trying to take our own photos. There was is riding the steam train, but for those below seeing the train must’ve been amazing! Can you spot the people?

The view from the viaduct wasn’t half bad.

The countryside was just delightful. Rolling green hills and mountains. Water trickling down to the base below. I took a few photos where I could manage it… and yes I did have to lean my hand out of the window (not my face… otherwise I would’ve got soot in my eyes!).

In Mallaig, I went to get a fish supper from The Fish Market. Ordered mussels instead, that arrived fresh in that morning on the pier right in front of me.

They were so large, and tasty! Steamed in a cider, rhyme and garlic cream. Yum! I planned to go for a walk afterwards but I was so stuffed I had a little rest back on the train’s carriage.

This is basically Mallaig. Not much else!

Back on the train, we had a better view as we were now at the back. Going round bends I could get a few more nice photos.

When we got to the viaduct, Fleur was on it and got some fab photos! She also filmed it – watch it here.

The experience of going over the viaduct – and the view either side. WOW. I want to go back and be one of those standing below watching the train come over.

Mara spent the whole time doodling away. She made me this for me… Hufflepuff house colours!

It was such a sweet adventure. I definitely want to come back and do it again!

Day Three, Wednesday 2 August:

Fort William -> Edinburgh

Getting up at this crack of dawn (well almost) to get the long train journey to Edinburgh via Glasgow.

Leaving at 7:20, the sun was glazing down resulting in a lovely stroll to the station.

On the train I was sat next to a delightful old man who knew his Scottish countryside inside and out. He did talk a little too much, but I could sacrifice a few hours sleep to make an old man happy.

He pointed out Ben Nevis to me, which was much more visibile compared to the day before. Look hard through the clouds!

Venturing further along, the Highlands were just beautiful. Was thoroughly enjoyable to spend so many hours staring out of the window.

We passed Loch Treig, which I thought looked rather lovely.

One of the sights on my list was Rannoch Moor. Used as an area to film Harry Potter, the Moor seemed to extend for miles and miles. The sky looked epic too!

The chap next to me thought that Rannoch Moor station might be the highest in Scotland, altitude wise. It was hard to tell how high we were, as the train steadily went up the highlands. And the train drove past the altitude sign too fast for me to catch what it said.

Basically EVERYTHING was beautiful.

Potentially my favourite photo of the day… No filter. Just remarkable how the loch captured the reflection, and the different shades of blue that made up the sky.

I also loved how it was a single lane track. It went slow, but it was oh so lovely. At some stops we had to wait for the northbound train to pass. Totally far removed from my city life. The train was made up of two small carriages too. TWO! My train back from the airport was made up of 10 carriages… perhaps more. And more shockingly, the entire journey only cost me £18 as I booked in advance. A four and a half hour train journey, with some beautiful sights too.

Arriving at Glasgow Queen Street, the guard let me sneak out to buy a coffee. By this point it was 11:30! Zzzz. Then onwards to Edinburgh I went.

I’ve wanted to go to Edinburgh for years, and was beyond excited. The rain wasn’t going to let the rain dampen my spirits. Plus I was going to be reunited with my dear Chiang Mai partner in crime, Jonathon. I say partner in crime, he drunk enough alcohol for both of us. When we went to an Irish pub for a pub quiz, I drank tea. Yup, no shame. I needed a good cup of tea – it had been a month!

In anticipation of some of the items on my checklist, I starred the places on Google Maps, ensuring I can see as many as possible and tick them off, but there were many more places I wanted to see – well just wander for the sake of wandering!

After arriving, I took a slight detour to my hostel to visit Spoon. One of the two very famous cafes in Edinburgh that JK wrote Harry Potter in. Formally known as Nicolson’s Cafe, Rowling spent many a days sat in the window seat drinking unlimited free coffee. Just around the corner, was the death place of William McGonagall. Sound familiar?

Would only make sense if I checked out perhaps the more famous cafe, The Elephant House. I walked past and took a snap of the outside. Some hours later I would walk past and see a long queue full of tourists cramming to have a look inside.

On my way to the hostel I walked down Victoria Street (and later on Candlemaker Row, which is just round the corner), the road of shops that inspired the wizarding shopping area of Diagon Alley. And a super cool shop called Diagon House.

I dumped off my bag at the hostel, and off out I went again. This time with Jonathan. I mean, who else would take photos of me!

Venturing into the city centre, we wandered to Greyfriars Kirkyard, a graveyard. Most people know I am fascinated with graveyards; the history of those buried there along with the lovely, sweet messages from their families. But that wasn’t the reason for visiting the graveyard, oh no. It was because JK Rowling was inspired by some of the residents there. Thomas Riddel (close enough to Tom Riddle) for starters.

The graveyard was also Rowling’s inspiration for the graveyard in The Goblet of Fire, where, Tom Riddle Jnr aka Voldemort, tied Harry up on the headstone of his late father, TOM RIDDLE SNR. Which in my opinion is basically fact. McGonagall is also buried there, but his grave wasn’t so fetching.

We wandered far and wide, passing a street called Potterrow (uh-huh) and past a pub called The Three Sisters near Candlemaker Row. The Three Broomsticks perhaps?

Not everything was Harry Potter themed. We visited the castle and walked the Royal Mile, stopping for a booze drink at The World’s End. We also stopped by the Parliament building, which was a modern piece of architecture.

Battling through the rain, I saw Holyrood Palace, built by James IV. It’s the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. It was shadowed by Arthur’s Seat, one of the extinct volcanoes in the city, located in Holyrood Park. We didn’t climb it… laziness and bad weather the reasons for it!

Jonathon also took me to a pond nearby, where his grandad took him to feed the ducks as a child. The name, St Margaret’s Loch, which is also known as King’s Park or Queen’s Park dependent on the gender of the reigning monarch. Built by Prince Albert, it was a much later edition to the Palace grounds.

From the grounds one can see the ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel, after a German WWII plane crashed into it. There are now statues of soldiers in the ruins.

My hostel had the most fantastic view of Edinburgh Castle, basically Hogwarts.

And another Hogwarts themed building – George Heriot’s School. I could only get a good glimpse of it whilst on the castle bridge. Combine the two buildings, basically is Hogwarts.

After I parted ways with Jonathan, I decided to go watch some shows – no, not TV shows. Comedy and theatre shows. Although the Fringe hadn’t actually started yet in an official capacity, Wednesday night was the opening night for many previews. How fantastic! The whole atmosphere was buzzing!!

The first show I went to see was A Robot in Human Skin. A funny yet bittersweet look at mental health issues, in a tiny intimate room. The girl who performed the show, Nicole Henricksen, said she’d be out by the bar for a meet and greet – so I lurked in the fabulous grass-themed bar, chatting to loads of people who went to see the show.

It was there, while I was enjoying a pint of Bulmers, I let out a little scream! Robert Webb was only standing right next to me. I asked for a photo and he was more than happy to oblige. Well, he was his Jeremy sarcastic self so that’s all that mattered. I told him watching Peep Show growing up is the reason I am so sarcastic and cynical now! Haha.

I asked him what he was in Edinburgh for and he said his wife was performing. Cool stuff!

Afterwards the fellow Aussie comedians I had befriended at the bar were amazed by my blasé approach to talking to someone rather famous. Meh.

I attended a second show, in a much larger tent that housed about 200 people, rather than 20. And wandered off back to the hostel… just in time to witness a light show on Edinburgh Castle!

Day Four, Thursday 3 August:

Edinburgh -> Southampton

My last day in Edinburgh and in Scotland, I packed up my backpack and headed out the door. With my flight at 3:30pm-ish, I wanted to cram in as much as possible. But I was also absolutely knackered and it was pouring down, again.

Instead I headed back to The Elephant Cafe for some brunch. Scotch pancakes with bacon and maple syrup for one please! The cafe was very cute, featuring at least a hundred elephant statues, as well as a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The toilets were INSANE too. The graffiti was something else. Kinda gross.

Setting me up for the day, onwards I went. I was rambling to waste time, but enjoy wasting that time. The rain was pouring quite heavily by this point and I didn’t want to get drenched. I still had one more place to find; The Writer’s Museum. Straight outta Diagon Alley or what?! To get there, I had to wander down an alley, with steps, IN THE RAIN. Amazing I didn’t fall.

Down another alley, I came out to The Mound, down the hill and looked back up onto the Assembly Hall. Another building that is a pop-up venue for Edinburgh Fringe. I think it’s kinda amazing, that the city just changes every year. It looks epic.

And a slightly little more down the way, the Scottish National Gallery. Not a fan of old-skool renaissance art, I mooched around a while and then found my favourite room – Impressionists!

My final stop was visiting Scott Monument, before finding a bus stop for the route 35 to take me to the airport. The pouring rain stop, and replaced with blazing sunshine. Not great when one is wearing a jumper and a raincoat, and a heavy backpack!

It was such a fantastic getaway. The lack of actual things going on, and the fact this is mainly photos, shows not only everything I saw, but also how some mindfulness has been restored. I am so calm and relaxed… for now 🙂 It was such a bargain break, with hostels costing £20 a night and public transport so much more affordable than Southampton-London. Where possible, I bought bananas for breakfast from the local supermarkets, and drank their very lovely Scottish mineral water (which was 50p for two litres in Sainsburys). Then splurged on the more nicer things, such as the steam train ride and the mussel supper.

Next time, Inverness is on the cards.

Don’t forget I post photos on my Instagram handle – #aylainwanderland.

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