As the train slowly slipped out of London’s Victoria Station in the early morning rush hour, I raised a cold, sparkling Bellini to my lips. Before long, charming, efficient stewards started serving up a series of delectable food treats, from a fresh fruit cocktail to smoked trout, caviar, and scrambled eggs nestling on a crumpet. It was a relaxing breakfast in harmony with the lingering pace and gentle rumble of the train as it headed towards royal Sandringham House.
I was aboard the British Pullman for a round trip to the Queen’s stately home in Norfolk, a suitably royal destination for the sixtieth anniversary of her coronation.
The British Pullman comprises of ten gorgeously restored vintage first class luxury carriages from the 1920s and 1930s. They were originally used on the prestigious Pullman trains of the period in the UK, which in their day were a fashionable way to travel. The term ‘Pullman’ derives from George Pullman, the man who pioneered luxury train travel in the US in the 1860s.
The train is run by the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express company (VSOE), best known for reinstating the celebrated train of its namesake. The story behind the recreated Orient-Express and British Pullman leads back to one man, American entrepreneur James Sherwood, who made a fortune with Sea Containers Ltd, which began as a cargo and shipping major. In 1977, he started buying up and restoring coaches from the original Orient-Express as well as other vintage rolling stock. The restored Orient-Express and British Pullman were launched in 1982. Inspired by the publicity it generated, Sherwood adopted the VSOE name to brand the hotel and travel group he went on to build, which now includes two more UK-based trains, the Northern Belle and the Royal Scotsman.
The British Pullman has a year-round timetable of excursions in southern England to cities, country houses and museums. A diesel loco usually pulls the train for these trips, but a few are steam-pulled. There are also ‘Golden Age of Travel’ outings, which are circular, non-stopping routes dedicated to the romance of steam.
But whether diesel- or steam-powered, Pullman passengers — or, rather guests — travel in elegance, enjoying five-star food and the personal attention of liveried stewards. This train is not a place for trainers, jeans or T-shirts or, for that matter, mobile phones.
The train departs from London Victoria, and passengers check in at the dedicated VSOE lounge adjacent to the platform. I arrived half an hour ahead of departure time: a group of cheery passengers, smartly dressed in loose summer clothing, were already gathered, sipping complimentary teas and coffees.
The excitement level in the lounge rose as the train approached and the immaculate cream-and-umber coaches came into view. Boarding the train was a bit of a spectacle as everyone wanted to take photos posing in front of the carriages and with the liveried stewards. We were then ushered to our plush chairs and white table-clothed tables and the gastronomic and geographic journey began.
The train took a circuitous route around London before striking out towards Sandringham through the verdant countryside. It was a slow trundle with frequent stops, as the train had to negotiate its way through the busy suburban rail network. Despite the British Pullman’s noble past and Bellini-drinking guests, it has to give way to normal trains: it is tolerated on the network, not revered.
The frequent stops and periods of standstill, particularly between stations, were unexpected pleasures. A keenly-felt silence, except for the sounds of birds, wafted in through the open window. Sometimes, when all we could see was trackside vegetation shimmering in the sunlight, it seemed as if we had stopped in the countryside. Was this still London? It evoked memories of rural Indian trains, bar the absence of chaiwallahs’ cries.
As the train meandered through the suburbs, it was fascinating to look out from our cocoon of tranquillity at the real world of bored commuters jam-packed on station platforms. They studiously ignored the incongruous passage of the historic train, apart from one or two who broke ranks and waved. We waved back, establishing a fleeting bond with a passing stranger.
The wonderful old carriages are tributes to skilled craftsmanship and construction. Each one subtly differs in tone and ornamentation, and has its own marquetry designs and upholstery patterns within the overall Art Deco style. Each toilet is graced with a unique mosaic floor. Like boats, carriages of this era were given names and became personalities. Cygnus, Vera, Phoenix et al are like faithful old servants who remain unchanged despite what history throws at them. They have enjoyed golden years as fashionable trains, witnessed Depression and war, funerals (Winston Churchill’s), rail nationalization and decline, and the indignity of becoming garden huts, chicken coops and museum exhibits, and then suddenly being plucked back into working service by the VSOE.
Train manager Jeff Monks, a genial 57-year-old, walked through the coaches, welcoming passengers and answering questions. He’s worked on the British Pullman for thirteen years, and many years before that on the Orient-Express. What does he like about the job? “The train is unique,” he says. “I like meeting people, and it’s a special occasion for them. You get a mix of people from all nationalities. Some could afford to buy the train. And it’s laced with the magic of the Orient-Express.”
Jeff and the stewards delight in telling stories about the famous people they have hosted on this train and the Orient-Express. There was Rolling Stone Keith Richards who spilled out into the corridor one morning with his guitar and belted out ‘Johnny B. Goode’. There was Paul Newman who chatted with Jeff long into the early morning hours as the train passed through Switzerland. The long roll-call of fame includes Nelson Mandela, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and at least two recent British prime ministers.
It took four and a half hours to reach Sandringham, three times as long as a regular train does. In fact, there is no Sandringham Station, so coaches transferred us from the nearest station, Watlington.
Sandringham House is a stately home on a grand scale, set within beautiful gardens and a farm. It is a real home for the royal family who live here in the winter months. In the summer months, it is open to the public, and visitors can explore the house, gardens, and a museum. For me, the most compelling aspect was the idiosyncratic nature of the exhibits and artefacts: as the guidebook said, the place is ‘a museum of everything’. It’s a glorious horde of souvenirs, memorabilia, cars, trophies, and eccentric collections. Among my favourites were Prince Philip’s collection of ceramic ducks, the blue MGC sports car Prince Charles drove in his younger days, and an old 1961 Vauxhall Cresta that was used to collect royal luggage from the station.
Back aboard the Pullman after three and a half hours, champagne was poured and everyone settled in for fine dining on the return to London. The Pullman’s style of food is British and European, with a nod towards seasonality. The dishes did not disappoint: I happily ate my way through potato and lentil soup, rondelle of Scottish salmon, and several English cheeses, all the while sipping some very good wines.
The head chef is 49-year-old Jonathan Kohout, who has been cooking up the train’s food for eighteen years. From his tiny kitchen, he explained that there are two kitchens and two chefs, each responsible for 116 covers in five cars. Because of the time constraints, the food has to be part-prepared beforehand at the train depot, but he quickly dispelled any mischievous comparison with pre-packed airline food, pointing out that there were no microwaves on the train. Any Michelin stars then? He chuckled: “Unfortunately, we can’t have any Michelin stars on the train because you can only get a star if people can just walk into your establishment. Here, you have to buy a ticket first.”
While VSOE staff provide the hospitality, professional railwaymen operate the train and loco, including the steam engine (with a volunteer crew). They are employed by a major train leasing company and work on a variety of trains. Ian Garrett is the professional guard on this train. “We’re in charge of the safety of the passengers,” said Ian, when I joined him in the noisy guard’s carriage, which doubles up as staff restroom and wine cellar. He’s been a railwayman for forty years and now works part-time. His colleague Peter Mallory is a rail enthusiast who swapped running a successful business to become a guard. “Don’t tell them,” he grinned, “but I’d pay them to do this job.”
By the time we got to dessert and coffee, a sociable lounge atmosphere had developed with people chatting in groups, swapping seats and moving the chairs around. I chatted with John and Liz Cock, who told me their trip was a fortieth wedding anniversary present from their daughter, and their second Orient-Express journey. The first was for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. They enjoyed, said Liz, “the old-fashioned part, that there’s plenty of room, the leisurely pace, the visions of grandeur.”
The return journey was faster and more direct than the outward one, and without much stopping. As we approached Victoria, the mood became more reflective as we anticipated the end of the trip. It had been an immensely enjoyable day, and for the people I spoke to, there was no one aspect that had made it a success. It was the whole curious mix of railway heritage and mobile restaurant, British history and famous names, costume theatre and showmanship, and the echoes of the legendary Orient-Express.
Nearly thirteen hours after we departed, the train gently rolled back into Victoria Station. There was still daylight and it was still very hot. Emerging from the train into the station felt akin to emerging from a cinema in the afternoon: the daytime reality seems strange, dull and ordinary, and you want the spell to linger. So it was after this trip. But after many goodbyes, the exuberant crowd of travelling companions gradually ebbed away from the platform and disappeared through the station back to the normal world.
Air India, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Jet Airways fly direct from New Delhi to London. Return fares start from around Rs 52,000. Other carriers are cheaper but these flights are at least one-stop.
When to go
You’ll have to wait awhile: the next available trips on the British Pullman are all next year: 7 May 2014, 16 July 2014, and 15 October 2014.
Where it takes you
The train departs from London’s Victoria Station at 8am and arrives at Watlington Station, near Sandringham, at 12.30pm, where passengers transfer to a coach to Sandringham House. There at 1 pm, guests can wander around the grounds, house and museum. Refreshments are available — for a price. Guests depart at 4.40pm by coach for Downham Market, and reboard the British Pullman at 5.20pm for the ride back to Victoria. The return home is enlivened by the flow of champagne, and a three-course dinner. The train arrives at Victoria Station by 8.55pm.
What it costs
Luxury-class travel, the only one on board, costs £395. This covers everything except the special wines you may want to try, that bottle of champagne you may want to order or the flowers you want brought to the table. See orient-express.com for more details on the train.
What to wear
Dress smart. No trainers, T-shirts or jeans.