The Venice Simplon Orient Express British Pullman – A trip back in time

Victoria Station isn’t the most elegant (or cleanest) station in London – far from it in fact; it cowers in the shadow of the gleaming glass ceilings, boutiques and champagne bars of St Pancras.

However, fragments of a former decadence still do survive, visible in the grand hem surrounding the complex – the beautiful Grosvenor hotel (tucked behind Wasabi and next to the public toilets) and the rest of the lavishly embellished Victorian architecture, just visible above Boots, Starbucks and Burger King.

 

Usually, I only come to this station to travel to my hometown of Margate, eyes rarely on anything but the floor, the blinking, digital announcement boards, or the assortment of chewy, bland baguettes at Baguette-up. However, today is different. Beneath the pigeon spikes and dim lights, amongst the throngs of flustered commuters, standing side-by-side and together clutching a clean, white, gold-embossed box, my mum and I pose for a photo, dressed up for the day. We’re here to resurrect the old life of the station and to experience an aspect of Victoria Station that is, perhaps, the most impressively preserved – The Venice Simplon Orient Express British Pullman, of silver-screen fame, and its art-deco train, which begins its journeys here, from its base, on platform 1.

In our presentation box, we have tickets (that come with a charmingly thoughtful travel journal) for a five-course, champagne Christmas dinner aboard the Pullman’s Cygnus carriage, a First Class parlour car designed in 1938, selected in 1965 to be part of the Winston Churchill funeral train and star of the 1976 film Agatha (alongside Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman). Our trip will take us around the most picturesque parts of Surrey, whilst we dine, serenaded by musicians.

As we step on-board, helped up by our carriage’s very traditionally clad waiter/server, the twenty-first century seems to literally disintegrate away, swallowed, whole, by the 1920/30s splendour that awaits us inside. The décor of the Pullman carriages is magnificently preserved, displaying exquisite parquetry of deco floral motifs, handsome mirrors and bud-shaped lights. The most remarkable part of our carriage, however, is the bathroom, whose floor features a mosaic made up of tiny tesserae, depicting a swan and a reclining figure in soft hues of blues, greens and greys. Seated in our respective armchairs, surrounded by this finery, sipping on champagne, with flowers, art deco silverware and crystal between us, the outside world – the disembarkers of the Southeastern train on the platform next door, the rush and glum, rain-drenched commute – begins to resemble something altogether alien.

The food is as delectable as expected. To begin, two amuse-bouches to whet our appetites whilst the champagne is poured; then, an impressively stacked tower of salmon and crab, topped with cucumber slices, elegantly twisted like little bows, all a top a fresh leaf salad. Mum, face gleefully beaming, tucks in and sends a sneaky, under-the-table text to my poor dad, who we’ve left behind to go Christmas shopping alone in central London. “We’ve departed!” she writes (to heaven, perhaps).

As our journey continues, the sense that we have somehow time-travelled, and the concept of an alien outside, becomes harder to shake. We pass through countryside platforms from which people wave to us as if we are strange visitors from a gone-by age. The train pauses by swan-topped lakes, fields of horses and hills with fog-filled valleys – all landscapes that have no mark of modern times about them. As the sun sets, and our guinea-fowl roast with butterbeans, cranberry gravy, roast potatoes and vegetables (after the soup course, of course) arrives, we enter into part of the country marred by no orange streetlights. We eat, able to see the stars through the window and the faint, silvery blur of steam from the engine billowing past. We could be anywhere: anywhere in the country, anywhere in time.

The route that the Pullman takes is very well planned and heightens the overall experience. There is something of a theatrical element to it all, as if the service staff, the train itself and even the scenery outside are all acting for us (the audience) onboard. We enjoy our dessert (apple strudel a light chocolate cake and crème anglais) and a rich and varied cheese selection with the last of our wine in the quiet stillness of somewhere (who knows where) just outside London. Well-fed, another pair of diners in our car nap in their armchairs as we begin the last stretch of our journey back to the city. Musicians (an alto-saxophone and acoustic guitar) play us Christmas requests as we speed through landscapes less sightly than those that have preceded. Eventually, returning to our starting place, the engine steam meets with the smog as the London grows and glows about us.

Upon receiving our tickets, a week or so prior to departure, I had thought to myself that there was something overly luxurious and ludicrous about an all-round trip: a journey, literally, to nowhere. But, as we disembark at Victoria station and return to the twenty-first century – the chain shops, billboards and rush of grey-clad Londoners, eyes and ears glued to smart-phone screens – I realise that to leave the warm, cozy carriages of the Pullman halfway though a short trip would only damage the experience (so few places in England, perhaps with only a handful of exceptions, now resemble the country as it was before the bombardment of consumerism). To disembark would break the spell, destroy the carefully constructed charm and elegance of a time long-gone – a time that we, as guests onboard, live in an illusion of during those four hours – and break the disbelief we visitors so ardently suspend.

words Claire Hazelton

The British Pullman offers an extensive programme of luxury day excursions to Britain’s historic towns and stately homes, as well as fine dining experiences. Aboard meticulously restored cream and umber 1920’s and 1930’s carriages, passengers enjoy fine foods, wine and champagne as Britain’s countryside unfolds at the window. Prices start from £205 per person and include all table d’hote meals. For further information call 0845 077 22 22 or visit www.orient-express.com/uktrains.

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