A dream worthy of an Agatha Christie book. The feeling you are travelling back through time, to the age of luxury trains, when first class really was a lifestyle. You picture the passengers in their 1920s clothes. At the time you would get on board the Golden Arrow, the Brighton or Bournemouth belle or even the Queen of Scots. The leather suitcases would have shown bright stickers of European cities, famous hotels. Palaces on wheels, you see.
This branch of the Orient Express faded away in the 1960s – aeroplane flights had become more fashionable and affordable. In 1977 the magic is reborn. James B Sherwood buys one of the coaches at a Sotheby’s auction, gathers some more and sets about renovating them. A very delicate work to keep as much as possible of the original features. Today, the British Pullman is back on the scene and continues to seduce the public.
Euphoria starts as soon as the postman delivers your tickets – in their leather wallet. I looked at the stamp engraved on it for a long time, caressing it, fully appreciating how lucky I was to join such a legendary journey. Where will you go: York, Oxford, Bath, Canterbury, Sissinghurst? The list of destinations is amazing. You could also join just for an afternoon tea or a brunch. Or pretend you are Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot and solve a crime during lunch time!
What a fantastic opportunity for the photographer but a blessing and a curse in this respect. You will have to excuse some artistically blurred pictures – the lighting and movement present a challenge for which you will cherish the photos that come out well.On this beautiful autumn day, the British Pullman will be taking us to the Cotswolds. It enters the station ever so softly – some engines are diesel based, others still work with steam. All are gazing at the train, glancing at the heavy curtains, the tables already set, silver glistening in the ray of sunshine, the suited staff fussing over last touches.
Stepping into our car I feel like a child on Christmas day. A leaflet explains the story of every single one. Ours is named Ibis – built in 1925, it is one of the oldest. It starts its life in Italy, on the Milan-Venice journey. Later it will bring elegant Parisians to the casinos in Deauville where they will be party all night. On the way back the following afternoon, the train used to include four sleeping cars for those in need of a nap. Although much appreciated by the tired travelers, this detail was much frowned upon by polite society. Ibis will also do Paris-Ostend trips before going back to England to join the Golden Arrow. This time passengers are on their way to Southampton, to board the famous Cunard ocean liners.
Shhh! Listen. Imagine the conversation on board at the time; the gorgeous dresses; the hats, some with refined veils; the cascading laughs; celebrity and gentry; soft sighs of sashaying silk…
In all its elegance, Ibis still offers a cosy atmosphere with William Morris inspired patterns on the comfortable armchairs and fine marquetry on the walls depicting delicate Greek dancers.
Just enough time to have a good look around, take our seats and the train is on its way. The team comes to greet us, present themselves and distribute a map on which we follow the journey. You can see in their eyes a certain pride of working here – they look protective of this historical inheritance.
We are now crossing over the Thames, leaving Battersea behind. The landscape shows more and more green. Wait – it is now time for breakfast. On the table each plate, saucer, cup, glass and silverware is monogrammed. Ah – to start the day sipping a pear bellini, letting its grainy texture play on the tongue while watching the countryside… A moment to be enjoyed fully – no matter how used to luxury you are.
Another waiter comes by – each has their specific task, one with a silver salad bowl offering a fresh and rather exotic fruit salad with tiny melon balls… another will add a spoonful of vanilla Greek yogurt to complement it… finally one serves coffee, filling the coach with its earthy aroma.
The same ballet starts again for the savoury dish. First comes salmon – rich, colourful, tender. Then the scrambled eggs, creamy with a touch of chives. Resist – there is more to come! A lovely potato rosti, nice and crunchy outside and, naturally, a little caviar. A succulent assortment yet your fork stays suspended in the air for a while, hesitating to destroy the harmony. Just sip a little bit more of your bellini…
There are, of course, bread and pastries too – mine had an apple and lavender jelly, very poetic on the tongue. The train noise and movement is particularly soothing, the hot drinks steam up in beautiful curls above the cups, towards the landscapes. Routine, normal life – all this fades away.
The team now invites you to walk through the train – if each car is built on the same model, decoration always differs slightly, some in colours, others are more art deco. Have another look in the leaflet: Audrey was a Royal Family favourite, Vera saw Prince Charles and Princess Ann as children for their first trip on an electric train, Perseus was part of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral train. Steeped in history yet nothing seems to have changed.
Souvenirs of the Orient Express are sold on board. You will find a brochure at your table at the beginning of the trip but do not hesitate to ask if you want to see the objects before buying. The staff are more than happy to help and will not pressure you. For a more romantic touch, you can order flowers or champagne in advance and ask for them to be brought to you at a specific time during the day.
We are now almost in Cheltenham Spa, our first stop. Difficult to believe that four hours have gone by. Quick, we have to choose the wine for dinner before getting off. The return journey includes the Sommelier’s choice of house wine but you can upgrade to a higher one by paying the price difference (or champagne of course!).
Time to go on a coach tour to discover the rural Costwolds. A guide tells us about the region, sprinkled with historical and cultural anecdotes. You will learn the place is famous for its wool and textiles used in the Royal Guard’s clothes and even… tennis balls. The golden sandstone of the cottages is magnificent in the sun, the road slaloms through the countryside, along fields in which you will glimpse a few grouse. Thatched roofs, picturesque villages, amazing noble houses, church towers in the distance, dry stone walls combing through the landscape. The two pauses – one at Stow-on-the-Wold, the other at Broadway – just make you sigh in envy at the locals and tourists on holiday having more time to discover it. You make a mental note to come back as soon as possible to go on long walks, try the traditional beers, stroll through the adorable antique shops…
Dusk is settling in, the sky taking on a pink hue, the British Pullman is coming back for us. On board, the lights have been switched on, creating a muted, intimate atmosphere. Would you care for a glass of champagne? Magical words. And what better way to conclude this perfect day? The lace of bubbles races against the background of countryside cruising by. An apéritif bite is brought with it – a little pastry topped with horseradish cream, salmon and caviar, smoked, salted and spiced notes together.
We chat, naturally, of the journey so far, the memories that stay with you for a lifetime. Our wine already is on the table, open to let it breathe. Shortly arrives a velvety soup of roasted red peppers with a spoonful of chive crème fraîche, nicely matched with a sundried tomato roll. Perfect for autumn. I am amazed at the tiny kitchens on board where everything is prepared. How meticulous you have to be to have
everything timed so well!
The main dish is the most succulent organic lamb either of us had ever tasted, incredibly tender and fragrant with herbs. You almost have to say “Oh, wow!” at each mouthful. A lovely range of tastes with the baby root vegetables, the celeriac and chive mash, the tarragon and port jus. You won’t know where to start. Our Chateau Lanessan 2001 – a Haut Medoc with fine tannins – complements it well with its hints of blackberry, blackcurrant and truffle. Long on the palate, it prolongs each taste lovingly.
No way you can resist ordering a glass of port at the sight of the British cheese board. A 10-year-old Ferreira with Stilton is a pure moment of happiness, my friends. A large selection of crackers is proffered as well as a home made walnut chutney, perfect with cheddar.
Dinner finishes on a chocolaty note with this pear tartlet, warm chocolate sauce and clotted cream quenelle. Chatting? Oh, you are way too busy mmmmm-ing. And since every detail is aimed towards celebration, coffee is brought with a box hiding a chocolate truffle too…
The whole journey is suspended in time. The night erases any conscience of reality. Nothing matters except the present moment. It is at that point impossible to consider that you will soon be stepping back into London Victoria, braving late night revellers, traffic or the Tube. No, your mind wonders instead what passengers would have done in the 1920s. Oh, of course, they would have ordered a Cognac, eau de vie or whisky. The gentlemen would have probably lit their cigars too.
The train’s song shifts slightly, we are slowing down. London lights start twinkling around us. I close my eyes, let the last peaty sip of Talisker linger on my tastebuds, I sigh. The team waits for us outside the train, greets us goodbye.
A day aboard the British Pullman, you see, is not just another trip but an unforgettable experience. One of extravagance and luxury, yes. But also a celebration of the Best of British – the food, service, craftmanship, the superposition of eras, the history. The extraordinarily vibrant atmosphere that yet succeeds to remain homely and welcoming. A palace on the rails, with a heart, that transports you both physically and emotionally.