We’ve got a lot of love for trains (particularly when they’re on time) and The Belmond British Pullman (save, perhaps, for The Orient Express) has to be one of the greatest. It’s like the Cristal of champagne, the Beluga white of caviar, the David Bowie of rock stars.
Nicknamed a ‘palace on wheels’, the train remains much as it was in the 20s and 30s, a plush tube on wheels, the carriage walls veneered, luggage racks made from brass and tables set with cloths, crystal glasses and silver cutlery.
Each carriage on the train is unique and has its own name, with the oldest, Ibis, dating back to 1925. Others have been used exclusively by members of the royal family (like the Queen Mother), and two were used as part of Winston Churchill’s funeral train, although we tried not to think too much of that as we sat down to dinner.
The train offers luxury dining experiences — black tie events — which is how we found ourselves tottering through Victoria station in too-high heels and dresses during rush hour. That’s a strange experience. There’s an exclusive Belmond lounge alongside Platform 2 which until that evening we’d never noticed, but at quarter to 6, a length of red rope suddenly appeared outside, and people in tuxedoes and dresses started flowing in, greeted by champagne and live music; we thought of the ballroom scene in The Shining.
From this moment, it seemed like every other minute a man dressed in a tightly brass-buttoned suit was pointing a cloth-wrapped bottle towards our glasses. Such hardship. At 6.15pm, then, we were (cough) ‘ready’ for the experience. A special door at the side of Platform 2 opened up (you didn’t expect us to board with the riffraff, surely?) and we stepped inside our carriage, greeted by tasseled lamps, starched linen tablecloths and huge, comfy armchairs to settle into for the next four hours.
And then… we sat on the platform for an hour while the train got ready to leave. This was fine, particularly due to the ever-present champagne man, but it meant that when the carriage did set off, it did so to audible whoops and clinking of glasses. There’s also a certain pleasure in watching people trudge on with their commute as you sit necking fizz and canapés in your finery.
Cooking on our journey was Irish chef Richard Corrigan, chef/patron of Corrigan’s Mayfair and Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill. A larger than life, jolly character, he worked his way through the carriage, chatting us up before the meal, which began with something called ‘beef tea’. Sounds a bit like a mug of Bovril? Fear not, for it was actually a deeply savoury broth, tasting of beef bones and long, slow cooking, served in a dinky cup. There were also miniature dumplings. It's the kind of thing you’d beg for on your sickbed.
Next, a British seafood plate; a dainty arrangement of cured salmon, mackerel and crab, dotted with edible flowers, a perfect light start before what was frankly a huge amount of food: a fillet of Dover Sole hugging a lobster mousse; Irish sea kale with a sauce we’d swear was made almost entirely of butter; saddle of lamb with ceps and sweetbreads; a shocking green wild garlic sauce and young broad beans. We thanked our sober selves for making the decision not to wear Spanx.
How apt that a trifle of raspberry, white peach and black elderflower concealed a layer of cake soaked in booze, and a wedge of Cashel Blue cheese had been steeped in Banyuls over several days; by this point, we had been well and truly soused ourselves, a highlight being a luscious Hungarian Tokaj.
There was only one bum note — the bread — clearly provided by an outside catering company. The other curious thing about the Pullman is the route, which is a sort of mish-mash of bits of track not being used by anyone else at the time, meaning that one minute you’re staring down a grand carriage, the next an industrial estate outside Slough.
That said, we did pull up for an extended stretch to watch the sun set over a beautiful lake, complete with deer and a gaggle of vaguely threatening geese. It’s hard to complain about such a wonderful dinner at all really.
All sounds too good to be true? Well, there’s a catch, which is that it’s going to cost you. Future celebrity chef dinners cost £510 per person, although there are cheaper journeys available. Having travelled a four-hour loop from and to Victoria, we can’t help thinking how lovely it would be to actually travel to a destination (which of course, you can do).
So yes, it’s pricey, and it’s no wonder a lot of people do it as a honeymoon experience. It’s also the experience of a lifetime, and it feels a bit like being in a movie; perhaps Murder on The Orient Express, only with less homicide, more death by over-consumption.
The Belmond British Pullman hosts a number of special dinners and journeys, details of which can be found on the website. Londonist was invited to a preview of Richard Corrigan's dinner.