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.
Can you believe that British folk sup their way through 165 million cups of tea every day? In fact, despite the high street chic of coffee, apparently, we still drink more than twice as much tea as coffee.
Of course, the Chinese have been drinking it for centuries – the story goes that the delights of tea drinking were an unexpected discovery made by Chinese Emperor and herbalist Shen Nung, when some tea leaves fell into his boiling cauldron; he tasted the brew and the rest is history. It reached our shores in the mid 1600s at a time when coffee drinking was already popular and once it became affordable to the masses, it took off in a big way.
While tea aficionados get a bit sniffy about tea bags, they now account for about 96% of the tea we drink. There’s an understandable popularity about them because they’re so quick and convenient, but the flavour truly is a world away from some of the finest loose leaf teas that are now quite easily available from specialist importers. We’re currently working our way through the delights of some first flush Darjeeling black tea and a divine white tea with an incredibly delicate flavour, so we know first hand that compared to a standard tea bag brew, it’s like comparing chalk and cheese!
The tradition of taking ‘Afternoon tea’ is credited to the wife of the 7th Duke of Bedford, Anna Maria, who was allegedly partial to a cup of tea and a bite to eat during the mid afternoon to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner and the habit was copied and adopted as a social occasion by many other ladies of the era. It became synonymous with drinking tea from the finest china cups, accompanies by dainty portions of food such as sandwiches, scones and cakes presented on beautiful crockery.
If you want to get fancy about your tea, a proper afternoon tea is an event to be savoured even today and is a perfect way to while away an afternoon after some retail therapy (especially if you go the whole hog and splash out on a champagne afternoon tea!)
Top places for afternoon tea in London
Afternoon tea at the Waldorf Hilton with its historic pedigree, this has to be one of the most prestigious places to head for afternoon tea in London. And there’s no telling who you might be in the company of – all sorts of stars have passed through their doors over the years, Gertrude Lawrence, Elizabeth Taylor, Pavarotti, Pierce Brosnan, the list goes on…
Afternoon tea at the Goring the famous hotel that achieved glittering status when it was selected as the base for the Middleton family wedding party before the Royal Wedding in 2011. For a taste of the ambiance you can tuck into a traditional afternoon tea in Garden Bar and Terrace.
Afternoon tea at Curve restaurant bar– with the afternoon tea for 2 for £30 offer they have at the moment, this is a good one for the budget conscious to enjoy a bit of indulgence whilst overlooking the waterfront at Canary Wharf and there’s even a glass of champagne thrown in.
More afternoon tea offers for London and the UK
If you’ve ever wanted to cook world class Indian cuisine, the New Year could be your big chance to learn at one of the UK’s leading Michelin starred restaurants.
In 2012, Atul Kochhar is opening the Benares kitchen to guests keen to find out more about his culinary secrets.
During a special masterclass, guests will have a unique and in depth lesson about Indian cooking which will reveal some of the secrets to Atul’s delicately spiced dishes, so they can then create some for themselves.
The masterclass concludes with a meal at Benares and guests will also receive a signed copy of Atul’s cookbook, Fish, Indian Style, as well as some other complimentary gifts.
The classes will run on Sundays, from 9.30am on 22nd January, 18th March, 20th May and 16th September. There is a maximum of 10 people per class, priced at £350 per person. Bookings can be made by sending an email to email@example.com and further details are available from Benares Restaurant.
We’ve been lucky enough to see Atul Kochhar at work in the kitchen before and can testify how exciting his food creations are! Of course, if you just want to eat the delicious food at Benares, tables can be booked online.