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I usually find the train journey from Bristol Temple Meads to London quite relaxing. Watching the Avon Valley, the Georgian townhouses of Bath and the English countryside pass by can be quite meditative.
But this was no standard First Great Western train. Gavin and I were on the Northern Belle, sister to the British Pullman and one of the Orient Express family of luxury trains. Designed like the opulent first class “Belle” trains of the 1930s in the ‘Golden Age’ of rail travel, each carriage interior has been handcrafted with exquisite marquetry panel, moquette upholstery and brassware. Each dining carriage is inspired by a British castle or stately home and even the toilet, I mean ‘restroom’ has a gorgeous mosaic floor.
Departing from more than 60 stations across the UK, Orient-Express’ day trains offer journeys to historic cities, castles, country houses and sporting events. From Bristol, they generally go to London for shopping trips or West End shows. Gavin and I were on our way to see the musical Wicked, the untold story of the witches of Oz.
We were greeted at the station, shown to the train door via a red carpet and relaxed into plush armchairs. We rested our heads against the antimacassars, absorbed the ambience and looked forward to our day of luxury.
Our attentive steward laid out brunch on the starch tablecloths as we took in the countryside. A fresh fruit salad was followed by scrambled egg wrapped in smoked salmon on a warm buttered crumpet (topped with a little caviar), some Danish pastries and as much hot coffee as we wanted. We clinked our Bellinis, stared out the window and took this opportunity to chill, chat, make plans and generally catch up in a way that you don’t when you’re ensconsed in day to day life.
At Olympia, we were picked up by coach and given a light hearted, humorous and informative guided tour of Knightsbridge and Westminster on our way to Victoria. There, we watched a spectacular performance depicting the lives and friendships of Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch of The West when they were at sorcery school. Well, I thought it was spectacular, Gavin thought there was “too much singing,” but there’s no hope for some. We then got the coach back to Olympia.
By this stage, we were starting to feel a bit restless. Our Saturdays are normally pretty active and it felt odd to have been seated for so many hours. But when we got on the train, saw the open bottle of wine, our brunch table now beautifully laid out with silverware for dinner and our friendly carriage steward waiting to serve us, we thought we might just cope with sitting on our butts for a couple more hours.
We had a sumptious five-course meal including leek and potato soup with chived crème fraiche; chicken wrapped in cured smoked ham with a confit of shallots and chestnut mushrooms, roasted cocotte potatoes and a café crème sauce; a cheeseboard with homemade chutney, a chocolate dessert with mango coulis and then coffee. And of course, wine.
Getting a little tipsy made us chattier with the people sitting on the table next to ours, a lovely couple from Keynsham celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. We could hear the steward telling the same joke at each table and laughed politely as if we’d never heard it before when he got to ours. It was all part of the appeal. Never had a journey from London to Bristol had so much ambience, been so satiating or gone so quickly.
It costs around £355 per person for a day on the Northern Belle that includes a show or £240 for a round trip where you don’t get off the train. Though it’s a lot for a day out, we agreed it’s the kind of decadent gift you’d club together with others to give for a parents’ anniversary, a milestone birthday, for a couple who needed some time together or just for someone who’d had a hard time lately and needed a rest, delicious food, great service and a taste of glamour.
For further details and reservations visit www.orient-express.com/
Next departures from Bristol
10 Nov 2012 – journey to London for Harrods and Knightsbridge shopping, £325
10 Nov 2012 – journey to London to see Billy Elliott, £355
18 Dec 2012 – Christmas Lunch (a round trip where you don’t disembark), £240