LONDON: A luxury train with vintage carriages dating from the 1920s, fine dining, tip-top service and the opportunity to visit some of the UK’s most famous places — does all this appeal to you? If so, it is time to book your place on the Belmond British Pullman, sister train to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
Arab News had the good fortune to savor this truly luxurious experience on a full day outing to Chatsworth House, the imposing stately home of the duke and duchess of Devonshire passed down through 16 generations of the Cavendish family.
From the moment you arrive at Victoria Station, London, you will be swept up into the glamor of a bygone age. You are escorted onto the gleaming umber-and-cream-liveried train by impeccably-dressed stewards and it has to be said that stepping on board is an unforgettable experience. We had a coupe, a private four seat carriage which was beautiful in every detail.
From the veneered panels decorated with exquisite Art Deco marquetry to the polished brass, beveled glass and hand-stitched fabrics, every aspect had been carefully considered. Our carriage was named IBIS, the oldest carriage on the train dating back to 1925. It has an illustrious history, including operating for several years on the Milan to Venice section of the Simplon-Orient Express.
In their heyday, the carriages formed part of the most famous and luxurious services in Britain — The Bournemouth Belle, The Brighton Belle, The Queen of Scots and The Golden Arrow.
Each carriage has its own unique name, decor and history. “Audrey” carried the queen and Prince Philip, the duke of Edinburgh, to review the national fleet in 1953. Their eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, enjoyed their first-ever trip on an electric train aboard “Vera” in 1954. “Perseus” formed part of Winston Churchill’s funeral train in 1965. “Phoenix” was the favorite carriage of Queen Elizabeth, the current queen’s late mother. “Cygnus” was featured in the film “Agatha,” starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman.
Members of royal families from the Gulf have enjoyed the Belmond British Pullman experience too.
So many famous names have traveled in these carriages that it is hard to know where to begin. They range from great figures, such as Nelson Mandela, to rock superstars the Rolling Stones. The carriages have featured in many films, including the upcoming Paddington Bear film, “Paddington 2,” due for release in November. Fans of Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” will also be interested to learn that David Suchet, the English actor who played the impeccably-mannered Belgian detective in the popular TV series, has enjoyed many journeys on the Belmond British Pullman.
Exclusive companies, such as Cartier, have entertained key clients to private showings of their latest collections aboard the Belmond British Pullman. Carriages can be hired for wedding receptions, private parties or business gatherings. There are special black tie evenings where guest have the opportunity to enjoy sumptuous dinners prepared by some of the UK’s top chefs.
It is the attentive and highly-trained stewards who make the whole experience of traveling on the Belmond British Pullman such a pleasure. Our head steward was Thomas Legg, representing the third generation of his family to work with the company. He introduced us to his uncle, Mitch Slater, also a steward on the train, and explained that his father also works for the company. All of the stewards were meticulous in their smart uniforms and combined a friendly, relaxed manner with total professionalism and discreet service.
We had a chance to speak Craig Moffat, director of operations for the Belmond British Pullman, who described the rich history of the service.
“All of our carriages come from the golden age of British rail travel from the roaring 1920s and 1930s. Our goal and passion is to bring back that glorious heyday of traveling when the journey was as important as the destination.
“One of the key things for us is to keep the authenticity of the individual carriages. The marquetry and fabrics you see in each of the eleven carriages is unique and exactly as it was when the cars were originally created. We are very fortunate to have a highly-skilled team of artisans to keep everything in tip-top condition.
“The authenticity of the experience is key. Everything from the environment to the silver service and culinary offering on board is very carefully crafted.
“The beautiful thing about the Belmond British Pullman is that you get to take time out from everyday life. Time to spend with friends and family, enjoy great food and watch the beautiful countryside roll by.”
Norbert Sprater, assistant train manager, said he especially enjoyed seeing the passengers who were fulfilling a dream to travel aboard the train.
“My most precious memories are of the people who have saved up to travel with us. We have birthdays, anniversaries, proposals and honeymoons,” he said.
I could go on at length about the cuisine but let us just say that the four course brunch, including scrambled eggs with chives topped with Scottish smoked salmon, was just a taste of what was to follow — the so called “main event” — a five-course dinner, including a fabulous celeriac and apple soup topped with truffle oil and roast breast of Gressingham duck done to perfection.
The journey up to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire took a leisurely four hours, winding through lovely countryside. Upon arriving at Chesterfield Station in Derbyshire, we were met by a coach only to be swiftly transported to the estate with its expansive grounds designed by the renowned 18th century landscape artist Capability Brown.
We were lucky to catch the stunning “House Style” exhibition celebrating five centuries of fashion and adornment at Chatsworth. Through the display, we got glimpses into the lives of famous personalities connected to the Cavendish family, such as Adele Astaire, sister of Fred Astaire, who married Lord Charles Cavendish, the second son of the 9th duke of Devonshire, Deborah Devonshire and Nancy Mitford, two of the famous Mitford sisters, model Stella Tennant, granddaughter of Andrew Cavendish, 11th duke of Devonshire, and Deborah Mitford, and John F. Kennedy’s sister, “Kick” Kennedy who married the marquess of Hartington, heir apparent to the 10th duke of Devonshire, and is buried at Chatsworth.
After a relaxed stroll around the grounds, taking time to admire the herd of deer, it was back on board the train and a chance again to savor traveling back to London in high style.
Finally, it should be mentioned that the Belmond experience can also be enjoyed on the Belmond Grand Hibernian which travels through Ireland, the Belmond Royal Scotsman which takes in the Scottish Highlands and the Belmond Northern Belle, which travels to cities such as Chester and Edinburgh.
Further afield there is, of course, the world-renowned Venice-Simplon Orient Express taking in destinations such as Venice, Prague, Berlin and Istanbul and the Eastern & Oriental Express, offering glorious journeys between Singapore and Bangkok in addition to more off-the-beaten track experiences around South East Asia.
Belmond also runs exclusive river cruises and safaris and operates luxury hotels and restaurants across the world.