Blue skies, sun blazing – not usually words you associate with weather here, but they were the day I rode a private luxury train through the English countryside.
I was aboard the 14-carriage Belmond British Pullman – sister train to the famous Venice Simplon-Orient Express.
Punters can ride the lovingly-restored train around the UK, taking in beautiful scenery and eating delicious food as they go. More adventurous types can opt for murder mystery parties onboard.
Prices start from £203 ($US268) per person for a brunch trip and go up to £561 ($US741) for their experiences with celebrity chefs including two-star Michelin Raymond Blanc and Michel Roux Jr.
Scroll down to see how a day on the Pullman plays out, from a champagne reception to old-world singers.
I arrived at London Victoria station, where the Belmond British Pullman is based, at 10 a.m. We were due to depart at 10:45 a.m. and return at 4 p.m. I was placed in Zena — the carriages on the Pullman have names, not numbers.
I had some time to kill, so I waited in Belmond’s private lounge next to the platform, where travellers can sit with a tea or coffee while they wait for their train.
When the train arrived, it was immediately obvious how much time and money had been spent on its meticulous restoration. It was beautiful and faultless.
Prices start at £203 ($US268) per person for a brunch trip and go up to £561 ($US741) for trips with celebrity chefs. You can rent the entire train for a function if you’d like, but it will cost you about £50,000 ($US66,000).
Here’s me standing awkwardly next to the train.
Onboard, we were greeted by hors-d’oeuvres and a welcome pack.
Our welcome pack included a map of our route. We’d be doing a loop of Kent (a county in South East England), so plenty of seaside views were to be expected.
Our five-course menu was also included, which featured seared seabass and an Eton mess cheesecake.
It was a whole 5 seconds before we were served our first glass of Laurent-Perrier champagne. It was barely 11 a.m., but that didn’t seem to stop most people taking advantage of the limitless alcohol supply.
Our head steward was Thomas, who represents the third generation of his family to work on the train. His dad Michael, who was also working with him that day, has been working on the Belmond British Pullman for 44 years. At one point, 3 generations of their family were working on the train at the same time.
Instead of cramped plastic seating, each carriage is fitted with about 15-20 plush armchairs and linen-covered tables.
Some carriages feature four-seat booths for those who want to travel more privately.
All the carriages have their own stories to tell, which is done via plaques on the walls. One carriage, Cygnus, was used in Winston Churchill’s funeral train in 1965.
Phoenix, which the Queen Mother used on numerous occasions, is named so because of its eccentric tiled bathroom.
Food for the guests is prepared out of tiny galley kitchens. Four or five times a year, Belmond invites celebrity chefs to cook for the guests. The chefs include Raymond Blanc and Michel Roux Jr — both of whom have two Michelin stars.
The food was sumptuous and filling without being heavy. This was the seared seabass with new potatoes, shaved fennel, saffron and olive dressing.
Equally sumptuous were the views from the window. It was hard not to get caught up in the romance of train travel as we trundled through England’s rolling hills under clear blue skies.
The Belmond British Pullman currently operates 140 days a year, travelling to cities all over the UK — but they’re always looking for new destinations and experiences.
During the trip, I spoke to Gary Franklin, Vice President of Belmond’s trains and cruises operations. He said the reason why rail travel was so evocative in the UK is because most people have grown up around it in some way. “Everyone’s got a story about rail travel,” he said.
The Belmond Pullman featured in 2017’s ‘Paddington 2’, which the hotel company capitalised on by introducing Paddington Bear-themed afternoon teas aimed at families. It also led to Kate Middleton dancing with Paddington when the train hosted a charity event.
“We wanted to create an environment where families could bring their children onboard the train and introduce the joy of the train travel to a new audience,” Franklin said.
Another of Belmond’s offerings is a murder mystery package, which happened to be taking place the day I rode the train. Pictured are Percival Proudfoot and Mrs C. Blount-Flick — they’re actors who give clues and monologues to the guests to help them solve the murder. “The murders have always been a big success of the train,” Proudfoot says, “they [the customers] get the beauty of the train and the fun of the murder mystery as well.”
Some guests pull out all the stops with their costumes.
The actors aren’t the only entertainers onboard. The journey is brought to an end by a three-part vocal harmony. The Spitfire Sisters are a vintage-inspired band who croon 40s classics and modern songs with a Golden Age twist.
“Everyone’s in such a rush these days,” Franklin tells me. “Above all, coming on this train allows everyone to relax.” After five hours being whisked through glorious countryside in the Pullman, I was inclined to agree. I felt totally detached from modern society, and enveloped in a bygone era of luxury travel.
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