Travel: Belmond British Pullman pulls out all the stops for a nostalgic train trip
On a wintry day, Gail Bell feels jazzed up after a little trip back in time to the roaring 20s. Just throw on the pearls and a cloche hat and you're ready for the Golden Age of Travel...
IN A small, unremarkable corner of London's manic Victoria Station, musicians in a jazz band are getting in the mood, stripey arms in stripey jackets flying up and down as they sway and play, nod and smile and pose for photographs without missing a beat.
They look strangely out of place among the subdued, dressed-down Saturday morning crowds, as do the growing number of passengers milling about, toe-tapping to Billy Meyers' Bugle Call Rag or the vintage sounds of Sweet Georgia Brown which are slicing through the frosty air near Platform 2.
Head-hugging cloche hats and stylish fedoras, fur and pearls, fringes and feathers and Gatsby two-tone shoes are de rigueur; these people are dressed up and ready for a party.
On a cold and mizzly late morning, my husband and I found ourselves among them, attired in 1920s regalia and waiting excitedly outside the Belmond office at Victoria for a train trip like no other.
We were boarding the luxurious Belmond British Pullman, sister train of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express – the original conjuring up images of glamour and mayhem, the occasional murder and, or course, a small, moustachioed French detective…
But, while it looked like Monsieur Hercule Poirot might at any moment toddle along the platform, this was not a murder-mystery trip (although, Belmond do organise them, as well) but a steam-hauled 'Golden Age of Travel' day trip with lunch.
Our route would snake through Guildford and along the North Downs to Redhill in Surrey before arriving back in Victoria again and, although we were, more-or-less, travelling in a circle, this experience is all about the journey rather than the destination.
You can see why as soon as you board what has been described as a gleaming palace on wheels which, today, was being pulled by pristine steam engine locomotive 35028 Clan Line, on loan from the Merchant Navy Locomotive Preservation Society.
That in itself drew many trainspotters dangerously close to the edge of platforms we chugged past, but while there is a certain amount of changing scenery to be admired outside the window, it is the interior which demands attention – plush chairs, Edwardian marquetry, woven brass luggage racks, silken lampshades, art nouveau lamps and even a stained glass window tucked into the mahogany walls of the teensy art deco bathroom.
The main event, though, is the food – five deliciously indulgent courses which started with a puy lentil casserole, confit duck leg and sherry vinegar dressing, before moving to smoked haddock soup, followed by braised ox cheek for the main. An impressive cheese board followed, before diners finished off with apple cheesecake with walnut crumble.
Champagne is virtually compulsory and glasses of gleaming crystal are kept generously topped up by attentive stewards, many of whom have a family tradition of working on the Pullman, stretching back several generations.
We were seated in the Minerva carriage – there are 11 carriages in total, all with their own little potted history – and our chief steward for the day, Tomas Legg, was following a vocation first started by his grandfather and continued by his father, two brothers and an uncle.
Another steward, Artur, originally from Poland, has been working on the Belmond Pullman for 15 years and, as well as politely topping up your Champagne glass, he has many interesting stories of famous passengers – including a few canine ones, as the Minerva (built in 1927) was used in Disney's 102 Dalmations film, released in 2000.
Most carriages on the Pullman transported well-known names at some stage; the Perseus, for example, carried Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev for a British state visit in 1956, while in 1965 it formed part of Sir Winston Churchill's funeral train.
Named after the American, George Mortimer Pullman who designed them, the carriages became synonymous with luxury train travel and had been used in some of the most famous services in Britain, including the Bournmouth Belle, Brighten Belle, Queen of Scots and the Golden Arrow.
But the heyday of the railways was not to last and after being withdrawn from service in the 1960s and 70s, many passenger cars fell into disrepair and were either purchased by enthusiasts or left to languish in railway sidings or on the scrapheap.
After being rescued by American entrepreneur, James B Sherwood – who spent several years locating them – the carriages were expensively restored by 70 skilled craftspeople who carried out the work at a purpose-built workshop in Lancashire.
Then, in 1981, the first five refurbished Belmond carriages were exhibited at London Victoria Station for the English launch of the Venice Simplon-Orient Express Ltd.
Thanks to Sherwood's efforts, passengers today are still able to embrace the romance of early train travel and, although tickets don't come cheap (the Golden Age of Steam, for instance, will set you back £390 each for the day), the Surrey Hills, shot in soft focus steam, may, for a few hours, seem just as bewitching as the famous rail road from Paris to Istanbul.
:: For more information on the full range of train journeys – including Irish routes on the Belmond Grand Hibernian – visit www.belmond.com