British Pullman, the high life from another age
The Venice Simplon Orient Express may be one of the world’s most famous trains, thanks in no small measure to Agatha Christie. However, you can share in some of that magic and mystery with a range of special trains operated in Britain by Belmond British Pullman.
An indulgent Christmas Dinner
I felt privileged to enjoy a trip on the British Pullman for an indulgent Christmas dinner; five courses spread over a five-hour journey.
We assembled in the Orient Express waiting room at London Victoria station before boarding the train at Platform 2. Unlike Harry Potter’s Platform 9¾, everything is real and hence so much more magical.
This train comprises eleven luxury carriages restored from the golden age of rail travel in the 1920’s and 30’s. In gleaming burnt umber and cream paintwork, each one of these is unique. All were hand built by craftsmen to an opulent standard of luxury, in art-deco style.
We took our seats, real winged armchairs, in Gwen, a 1st Class Kitchen Car seating just twenty. The kitchen would soon be in good use.
Meanwhile, the perfectly restored period detail includes polished English walnut panelling inlaid with pear wood marquetry. The upholstery and carpets are sumptuous and the period detail extends to original art deco dining table lamps.
The tables themselves were covered with pristine starched white linen and pre-set for dinner. And note, you get individual movable winged- chairs, no fixed seats or benches here!
From my chair, I had a good view through the doorway to the front kitchen, full of stainless steel equipment. And as for the WC at the rear, this was beautifully kitted out from the mosaic tiled floor to the period porcelain. Dare I say it was a pleasure to use!
Gwen was a carriage built in 1932 for the Brighton Belle, continuing in service until 1972. It once carried the Queen Mother to Brighton in 1948. I’ve rarely been so comfortable at any restaurant dining table.
Our itinerary comprised a circular tour around the Kentish winter countryside. The British Pullman ran down through the Garden of England, via Maidstone, paralleling the Eurostar line to Ashford before cutting through the Hop fields of the North Downs to Canterbury. Then it was on to Margate before turning back along the coast via pretty Whitstable, famous for its Oysters.
Gwen turned out to be a palace on wheels; so well sprung that it hardly rocked over the points. Indeed, ne’re a drop of wine or soup spilt during the entire journey.
An initial trundle through South London may have had forgettable views of dreary suburbia, but then the real action was on the inside. In any case, the landscape soon improved.
Time to dine
Having opted for the vegetarian menu, it was time for dinner.
The impeccably dressed Stewards first served Champagne as an apéritif. In my excitement, I forgot to note the details of this excellent Non-Vintage. It certainly hit the spot.
There’s an extensive wine list onboard, from which we ordered a 2005 “Orient Express White Burgundy,” from Domaine Pascal Bouchard, a big Chablis-based négociant. It had a chalky minerality and elegance, perhaps from the Côtes d’Auxerre vineyards to the south of the Chablis area. This unoaked Chardonnay matched the courses well, all the way through to the cheeseboard.
A Marchese di Gresy Barbaresco was a good match for the carnivores on board, the meat options being either traditional Haggis or roasted wild Pheasant.
My vegetarian Haggis was all it should be and the pumpkin soup beforehand a creamy delight. Star of the show was the Wellington. This take on a British Classic was delightful. Airy puff pastry came stuffed with baby artichokes, overlain with chestnuts and mushrooms.
By this time I was beginning to get full, but there’s always plenty of room for a British cheeseboard. This one featured Caerphilly, Blue Vinny, and Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire. The Christmas pudding afterwards was also excellent, being light and suet-free.
As a finale, there were mince pies with plenty of coffee and a glass of Courvoisier VS Cognac
Is there a better way to travel?
Given all this luxury, it’s worth dressing up. Do ensure your waistband is suitably loose because it won’t stay that way for long.
Hercule Poirot once said, “the light thickened.” All too soon it seemed, we entered the final tunnel and shortly after arrived back at Victoria. It was time to say farewell, but on this train, no one was anxious to get off.
Is there a better way to travel? This excursion is so much more than a mere nostalgia trip. The only real mystery remaining was why I’d never done it before. Christmas dinner is, as you would expect, one of the more expensive options, but would make an exceptional present for someone special.
The British Pullman has a whole range of rail excursions, themes, and destinations available, including some based in northern England on the Northern Belle. Dinners come hosted by renowned Chefs such as Michel Roux and James Martin. Those with a penchant for Agatha Christie can even go on Murder Mystery specials. Naturally, I returned for another trip in summer, this time taking a British Pullman train from Leeds. Again this was an exceptional experience.
In rude contrast, I returned north to BD Mansions by way of a regular East Coast cattle-class train. It seemed then that a can of warm Stella and a dog-eared sandwich are motives enough for modern-day murder.
Check out Belmond for more details and their range of journeys.