When a leather wallet containing an ‘Invitation to board’ drops on your doormat, along with an Itinerary, explaining check-in details, what to wear and a little of what to expect, you begin to get excited. It’s not until you arrive on Platform 2 at Victoria Train Station that you really understand that the journey that’s about to take place will be something you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
Smartly dressed ticket holders gather on the concourse outside the Orient Express check-in and as you look to the rails, you see one of the most beautiful trains in the world shining in its cream and umber glory. Each carriage on the British Pullman has its own unique story whether once carrying passengers and VIPs on the Bournemouth Belle, the Brighton Belle or the legendary Golden Arrow, today they’ve been lovingly restored to their former glory.
My guest for the journey is Nicki Chapman, the TV presenter who I had worked with on one of the trains a few years ago. The subject for the programme was luxury travel and whilst we had bagged ourselves a carriage on the British Pullman, the train was very unfortunately, stationary at the Battersea sidings. When I asked her if she’d like to join me on a moving train, she couldn’t resist .
All passengers on the 11:40 out of Victoria were going on a train journey like no other – 170 1/4 miles – through London and Kent – taking in the sights from the Oast Houses to Reculver’s Towers near Herne Bay. This was an Orient Express Signature Journey where we were to “step back into a golden age of travel” enjoying fabulous food and drink as we made our way through the glorious countryside.
Once we’d checked in and been allocated a carriage the magic really begins because as you walk along the platform, each carriage has it’s own unique name and design and as you peer inside looking for your own you can see that each has their own air of luxury. Outside each doorway stand liveried staff ready to help passengers on board.
Our carriage ‘Minerva’ used to work the Southern Railway and ran on a number of Pullman routes until 1939. She was put into storage during the war and in 1947 released to join the Devon Belle Pullman which linked London with the West. In 1951 she got a makeover and became a First Class parlour car with a guard’s compartment. She joined new carriages built for the Golden Arrow to celebrate the Festival in Britain. She carried royalty and members of state and during 1953 carried visitors from Dover Marina to London Victoria for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and later to the Coronation Derby. In 1961 she was withdrawn from the Golden Arrow service and preserved privately by the Lytham Creek Railway Museum in Lancashire. In 1981 she was acquired for the British Pullman. Throughout Minerva you’ll see Edwardian-type Marquetry.
We were greeted by the sound of champagne corks popping and when we were shown to our seats – 19 & 20 – a savoury plate of petit fours were waiting for us. It wasn’t too long before we had a glass of Laurent Perrier in our hands. Crisp white linen, sparkling glassware and mirror-polished cutlery, our carriage was opulent and first-class all the way.
Tom was the Steward we saw most of but Bob played a pretty pivotal role in our service too.
We sat in a coupé – available to anyone who requests them, but subject to availability – and whilst we were only two – the compartment has four armchairs and the table is easily extended.
If it’s intimacy, a special treat or complete privacy then I can wholly recommend these as the doors to the compartment close. If you’d like to experience the trip with other guests then an open carriage is the place to be.
Too busy drinking, eating and taking in the experience, we didn’t actually notice the train glide out of Victoria until we looked out of the window and saw we were heading over water and south out of town. Service was impeccable and stayed that way from the moment the train moved – immediately, we were asked if we had any special dietary requirements.
A bottle of Laurent Perrier was given to us, courtesy of Orient Express and the train manager, and we managed to make that last throughout the journey. However, there’s an extensive wine list which covers 4 pages of an A5 menu and features wines from Argentina, Australia, Europe, New Zealand and America. There’s red, white, rose, dessert, sparkling and champagne. Balfour, the Kent Vineyard features too in the sparkling wine section. A Sommelier selection of house wine runs at a very reasonable £22.00. Each dining pair has a ‘half bottle wine allowance’ but you can upgrade to a more expensive bottle if you pay the additional cost.
Our carriage was served first on every course, because of the position of our carriage, and so it wasn’t long before our first course was sitting on the starched linen in front of us. The ham hock terrine with white onion marmalade and a bitter leaf and orange salad was plentiful and the salad beautifully fresh with a citrus zing.
The autumnal tapestry that stretched outside the windows was stunning, even the sun made an appearance after a rather gloomy start.
Next up it was the rondelle of Scottish salmon which was served with a glorious mix of Shitake mushrooms, crisp green beans and small white onions. The cocotte potatoes were peeled with love – they were a super shape and looked beautiful. The Port wine sauce was creamy, not too overpowering and the perfect accompaniment for the dish.
There are two chefs on board, both working in tiny kitchens, delivering great quality meals to hundreds. It would be ridiculous to assume that the food is made on board, it’s prepped elsewhere and delivered in a state that makes it manageable to plate up and serve piping hot to passengers. In the next carriage, we discover two unsung heroes, the guys who wash up. All the plates and utensils are cleaned and dried for the next service – there’s absolutely no dishwasher here.
As we head back to our seats, we take in a couple of the carriages. Here we are in ‘Gwen’, built in 1939 by the Metropolitan Cammell Carriage and Wagon Co Ltd, a former carriage on the Brighton Belle, she enjoyed her moment in 1948 when she was used with her sister car Mona to convey the Queen Mother to Brighton in 1948. In 1988 VSOE acquired her from Essex and restored her to her former glory. Gwen has a beautiful Wedgwood blue hued interior and you can see a little of the velvet upholstered armchairs Again, marquetry panels, frosted glass lampshades and brass fittings are all unique to the carriage.
We stop and chat to some of the guests about their experience and arrive at Minverva for the cheese service. A great selection is again on offer – and include Somerset Brie, Isle of Avalon, Cornish Yarg, Keen’s Mature Cheddar, Golden Cross Goats and Tuxford and Tebbutt Blue Stilton. There are two onion chutneys too, one a fiery chilli. Slices of delicious nutty-studded raisin bread are offered along with a good cracker selection. My favourite cheese is the Isle of Avalon a gloriously sticky and pungent cheese from Surrey and I wish I had opted for a larger slice because it is so good.
We are both full-to-bursting now and the train pulls in to Whitstable Station for another glass of Champagne and an oyster or two. A jazz band greets us, as does a massive display of oysters on ice, not really my thing but Nicki has one or two. I hijack the Peter the Guard instead.
The Orient Express Boutique service is ushered through the train via a trolley service stuffed to the gills full of souvenirs. Choose from jewellery, picture frames, or your very own Guard’s whistle (not to be used until you disembark the train).
I pull my camera out at every opportunity – I apologise to those people who were waiting outside the Minerva toilet for a period of time. I was trying to get this shot – a non-wobbly one of the amazing mosaic floor.
I say I’m too full to eat another thing and then the apple and blackcurrant ginger pots arrive. Layers of ginger cream are joined with an apple and blackcurrant jammy layer.
Tea and coffee swiftly follow and we notice the table lamp is on, it’s only now we appreciate we’re losing the light outside which means it’s almost time to end our magical day. As if we have room for anything more a square blue gold embossed box arrives, inside, a dark chocolate truffle.
Tom told us that both his father and his father’s brother work on the British Pullman and it’s that kind of loyalty that this service breeds.
Under the supervision of the gentle and knowledgable train manager, Jeff Monk, there’s a real camaraderie allowed here on the Pullman and it’s that jolly service that makes the ride just that little bit more special.
We were guests of the Orient Express but prices for our trip, The Golden Age of Travel, start from £295pp.
If London isn’t too convenient for you, their other train the Northern Belle could be. Details for this and every trip offered by Orient Express UK can be found on their website http://www.orient-express.com/web/uktr/uk_day_trains.jsp