If you are looking to recall lost memories and passion for steam, board the Belmond British Pullman luxury train for fine dining and a very fine time. By Simon Clays
I was too young to remember the great days of steam in Britain. My father tells me we did travel a route from Birmingham once, on the old London-Midland-Scotland line. I like to think I recall the journey, but that would be a lie. All I remember is the death knell of steam in the UK, the invasion of the plain Jane electric engine, and the forced removal of the steam beasts.
A mothballed monarchy left to rust in some desolate siding in the middle of nowhere. They could have ruled the rails forever, and I will always regard it as one of the country’s great tragedies. Or perhaps, not quite, when I learn that the Belmond group has recreated steam at its pomp with the Belmond British Pullman. It’s a three-hour sojourn out of London Victoria round Surrey and the top of Sussex with a five-course lunch and a bottle of wine thrown in. In my case, it’s a full-blooded Cote du Rhone, though the service features a fairly extravagant wine list and bar.
But back to the business of steam trains, Victoria Station, which services the great majority of the south coast of England, can be described, at best, as functional. At worst, it’s a commuting carbuncle. Largely angsty passengers pulled to their destinations by lifeless, bland engines. So, the sight of the 100-ton engine being stoked by its fireman in preparation for our journey is quite something. I’m choked to see this proud piece of engineering back to its best. Belting out steam from its chimney, every bolt and ratchet
chomping at the bit to pull out of the station. Show these damn electrics what a real engine can do. The platform is awash with colour. Quite a few parties have come dressed in turn-of-the-century attire, some in evening dresses. It’s encouraged.
A ragtime band plays us out as Clan Line 35028 runs out of patience and pulls defiantly out of the station. It’s a marvellous collage of steam and unadulterated muscle, engineering and perspiration. Being on board is the polar opposite. As it should be. Each of our carriages is individually crafted and restored beautifully to its heyday. I’m travelling in Cygnus, which is a vision of art deco details, mirrors, and walnut panels. I’m glad I wore a jacket when my head waiter for the day informs me that Cygnus was one of the carriages that made up the train of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral cortege. It was the last time a steam locomotive was ever used for a state funeral.
I pull my necktie a little tighter as my starter arrives and we stop for Clan Line 35028 to take on some water somewhere deep in Jane Austen’s Surrey. I half expect to see Mr. Darcy propped up against a fence watching the spectacle of the great iron beast rush by. The starters include an excellent and rather large confit of duck leg. It’s beautifully served, on elegant period crockery, by exquisitely well-groomed staff. This is to be a feature of all the five courses and the journey itself.
It’s time for a glass of the Cote du Rhone, to gaze out of the window and let time and history slip by. My father, and the rail journey I don’t recall taking, slip in between the steam and the greenery flashing by. I think Belmond British Pullman London would be a delightful way for us to reclaim the memory.