There’s nothing like a steam train to evoke the nostalgia of a bygone era – all it takes is the toot of the whistle and a blast of steam to transport us back in time, when travel – or so we believe – was so much more decadent and enjoyable than it is now.
So, a few weeks ago, when we found ourselves coincidentally in Sussex in time to step into the world of Pullman dining on the Bluebell Railway’s Golden Arrow train, we jumped at the chance.
The Golden Arrow, with its recently refurbished Pullman cars ‘Christine’ and ‘Lilian’ and 1674 Restaurant Car, recreates the famous Golden Arrow luxury boat train of the 1920’s, which linked London and Paris. Originally a first class only service, this historic train was once one of the most glamorous and famous trains in the world.
What does one wear to dine in style on this Pullman service we wondered? Well, the dress code said smart casual, so thankfully no tiara was required and we plumped for our best summer finery. We were pleased to note that – with the exception of one or two folk who let the side down we thought with a sniff – most other guests had got into the spirit of it too, so the platform thronged with ladies in silk frocks and strappy sandals and men in their smart shirts and linen jackets. The service is run largely by volunteers who dress the part with natty uniforms and white gloves, recreating some of the glamour and service of yesteryear to make it an experience to remember.
After a quick drink in the station bar, we were grandly shown to our seats in the plush green splendour of Lilian carriage and with a toot of the whistle, we set off from Sheffield Park station. We were instantly transported back in time and everyone relaxed back in their seats, in a setting that for all the world looked as if it was waiting for an appearance from Margaret Rutherford in a classic Hitchcock murder mystery. Obviously, we weren’t going to get anywhere near Paris on this trip, but all we needed was a bit of imagination to get a taste of the past as we tootled up and down the restored section of the track on the Bluebell line.
It has to be said that the food and service on board was superb, light years away from anything we’ve ever experienced on a modern train… The menus change each month and we had a choice of three starters and four main courses, one of which is vegetarian but must be ordered in advance. There is a very reasonably priced wine list to chose from and to round things off, there are two pudding options followed by coffee.
It was silver service all the way and we got off to a scrumptious start with a roast red pepper soup and a pate, though we did have a few hairy moments when the train lurched just as soup was being ladled from the tureen into the bowl! Luckily, the waitress knew her stuff and still got most of it into the bowl, with the exception of a few small splashes, so disaster was averted. I wouldn’t fancy serving soup on a train though.
A succulent stuffed chicken breast and a roast vegetable crumble with a nutty crisp topping came with a lovely selection of perfectly cooked fresh vegetables and we polished off the lot. By now, it was pitch dark outside and had started to rain with a vengeance, which only served to add another dollop of dark intrigue to the evening.
By the time we’d finished puddings and coffee, we been on our ‘journey’ for a good three hours, and we were thoroughly steeped in a warm cloak of nostalgia. We stepped off the train under the shelter of large black umbrellas held up for us by the staff. It was the final touch of perfection to a very memorable evening.