According to the website heritage-railways.com, there are some 173 heritage railways and tramways in operation in the UK and Ireland, usually run by teams of committed and hard-working volunteers.
One such heritage railway is the Nene Valley Railway (NVR) which runs over more than seven miles of track in a westerly direction from Peterborough. If you travel down to London on the East Coast main line, you will see the NVR just as your train pulls out of Peterborough Station: it’s on your right as you face London.
Back in 2016, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I discovered that it was actually possible, thanks to the volunteers at the Nene Valley Railway, to experience something of the famous Orient Express magic at a fraction of the cost and right here in the UK! Yes, the NVR has a number of those handsome blue and gold railway carriages originally commissioned in the 1920s and 30s for the European Wagons-Lits company that gave rise to the legend that is the ‘Orient Express’ (actually, a number of luxury express trains that criss-crossed Europe).
The particular offer that caught my eye was to have a three-course dinner with coffee aboard Le Train Bleu Foncé (The Dark Blue Train) one Saturday evening in May. The original Blue Train is one of those classic named trains that used to run from Paris to the French Riviera, gaining a reputation for carrying the rich and famous, particularly during the inter-war years.
Tickets were booked at what looked like a quite reasonable £49.95 each (remember, this includes the train ticket as well as the meal) and we drove down to the hotel that we had booked for the night just outside Peterborough. The main station on the NVR is Wansford and we had been asked to arrive there no sooner than 7 pm when there would be time to admire and appreciate the steam locomotive before boarding the train at 7.30 pm. As things turned out, it was raining when we arrived at the station so, like many other of the 40 diners, we opted to wait in the station building until being invited to board the train and take our reserved seats.
Some people had opted to sit in private compartments, reserved for two people at a cost of £120 for two, but we had the cheaper option which meant that we could have been allocated seats at either a table for two or a table for four. As luck would have it, we ended up at a table for two at the front of the train, immediately behind the locomotive. Orders for drinks were taken (at an extra charge) and the train moved away from the station on its way to Peterborough. Starters were served as we reached Peterborough where the engine was de-coupled and repositioned at the other end of the train for the return journey to Wansford. We were enjoying the food and the views so hadn’t really appreciated that a problem was developing. By the time we reached Wansford again, it became clear that something was amiss and there was a longer wait than might have been expected for the main courses to arrive. However, we pulled away from the station once again on our way to the other end of the line … but then we stopped again.
Eventually, all became clear. It transpired that the steam locomotive, Swiftsure, had failed to live up to its name. In fact, it had failed, period! Fortunately, there was a back-up plan and a powerful diesel locomotive rapidly caught us up to take over hauling the train and once more we were underway as we reversed along the track again for the ride back to Peterborough.
By now, we were tucking into our main courses and our attention was fully focused on the food – we were hungry and also there was now less to see outside as it had grown quite dark. We had been asked to order our menu choices in advance at the time of booking. The selection was limited but we enjoyed our (vegetarian) options – a starter of Asparagus, Pea and Feta Salad, followed by Spring Vegetable Pasta with a Lemon and Chive Sauce, and finished off with Poached Nectarine with Zabaglione. Coffee and chocolates brought the meal to a close. The food was nicely presented and tasted good.
Having reached Peterborough, the diesel locomotive was uncoupled and re-attached at the other end and we set off for our final approach to Wansford Station. We alighted from the train at 10.40 pm. The rain, which had eased off earlier, made itself felt again as we returned to our cars and waiting taxis.
So, was it like the Orient Express? Well, yes – and no. We sat in original coaches built in the 1930s that had once formed part of the Blue Train and had plied their way countless times between Paris and the French Riviera. They were smart and comfortable and much lacquered and polished wood was in evidence but these are restored everyday heritage vehicles rather than luxury first class transports. Yes, it was possible to savour something of what travel on these trains in the 1920s and 30s might have been like but of course, there were compromises. The biggest difference, and one that worked to our considerable favour, was the price! (See how far 50 quid will get you on the Orient Express today!) And this price difference explains the other contrasts – with a team of volunteers running what is an occasional dining service, rather than a team of highly trained and paid staff who do this sort of thing more or less every day, the level of service was friendly rather than indulgent.
No, you don’t get the Swiss Alps out of the window but there was plenty to please the eye and there were certainly no complaints. In fact, from the laughter and chatter that surrounded us, it seemed that, like us, everyone aboard had enjoyed their experience enormously.
You can find out more about the Nene Valley Railway, including special events such as Le Train Bleu Foncé, on their website www.nvr.org.uk