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.
Out and about in West Yorkshire recently, we came across a little gem of a pub called the The Huntsman Inn near Holmfirth.
We were virtually swept into it during a howling gale (it’s on the edge of the moors and the weather can be brisk at the best of times up there, but this was a particularly ferocious day!) and discovered to our joy a lovely cosy retreat with an open fire crackling and a menu full of scrumptious sounding, very decently priced food.
Over the years, we’ve been finding it harder and harder to find pub food of the sort offered at The Huntsman – there seems to be a yawning gap between top of the range gourmet pubs and cheap and cheerful chains that rely on standard menus and pre-cut chips. We weren’t looking for Michelin star standards, just good quality homemade pub food and this place certainly seemed to have it. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for a full blown main course meal, so opted for their homemade soup and sandwiches, but plenty of people were tucking in with gusto around us.
For just under £6 each, we found our meals to be great value – we each had a hot sandwich which came with a lovely mug of chunky fresh homemade vegetable soup and the piece de resistance, proper hand-cut chunky chips. It was just what we needed to help us thaw out, delicious, comforting and most certainly recommended.
We recently booked some tickets to see Hair at the Gielgud Theatre and as it was the night of an extra special celebration, we wanted to eat somewhere new and celebrate in style. A quick search of the restaurants near to the theatre revealed Fishworks on Swallow Street, a few minutes from Piccadilly and it looked perfect.
Arriving just after an unexpected torrential downpour in the city, we were soon soothed into the relaxing ambiance of the restaurant and were pleased to see that champagne and other sparkling wines were available by the glass, which was just what we needed, as with the show due to start in just over an hour, we didn’t have time to fully appreciate and savour a whole bottle.
Fish probably doesn’t come much fresher than that on offer at Fishworks (short of a place where someone is fishing at the river’s edge for the day’s catch just before service starts) as they have their own fishmongers on site, so you can see what is in on the day and make your selection accordingly. Having never tried an oyster before, I’d been keen to give them a try at some point and with the Fishworks range available as either single oysters or by the dozen or half dozen, this was clearly the chance I had been waiting for.
After taking the edge off our hunger with some delicious bread, aioli and salsa, the small platter of oysters on crushed ice was presented and the restaurant manager reassuringly ran through the seasoning options, recommending some combinations to make this new taste test an enjoyable one. As a complete novice to the oyster experience, I actually quite enjoyed them and it has to be said, there is something slightly decadent about eating oysters with champagne, so it was just the thing to start a night of celebration.
The following main courses – pan fried prawns with garlic and a plate of traditional fish and chips were both delightful – perfectly cooked and in the case of the prawns, bursting with sea fresh flavours and buttery juices.
There was no time for a pudding, so we finished off with coffee and set off on a gentle stroll for the theatre. We had a great meal in a lovely relaxing environment, looked after by staff who provided good friendly service without being intrusive. Highly recommended.
And the show? The performance of Hair was superb – see it whilst you have chance!