They say that nostalgia’s not what it used to be – and they might be right. I think we all tend to view the past through rose-tinted (or perhaps that should be ‘sepia-tinted’?) glasses but just occasionally it’s nice to go back in time to sample a bit of history first hand and this is exactly what I did when I paid a visit to the East Lancashire Railway one evening in August to experience one of their special ‘Dining With Distinction’ evenings.
This was a chance to re-live something of that golden age of rail travel that occurred between the wars when railway companies competed for your custom by offering ever faster services with ever more comfortable and stylish facilities, not least of which was the restaurant car.
While I had to cross the Pennines (eek!) for my latest ‘meals on wheels’ encounter, I can tell you that it was well worth the trip…..
It was a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in September 2016 as I donned the tuxedo and black tie before driving over to Bury railway station, the starting point for my train journey. The refurbished ‘chocolate and cream’ liveried Pullman-style dining carriages were already lined up on the platform when I arrived and quite a throng of passengers and on-lookers were gathered alongside to admire the gleaming paintwork and peer in through the windows as the train was made ready. Before long, our 1920s steam locomotive, looking splendid in the maroon colours of the former London Midland and Scottish Railway, made its appearance. It was hooked up to the carriages and then shunted them over to a different platform and guests were invited to cross the footbridge to the other side of the station where our train now awaited us for our private reception. We were served strawberry-infused champagne and canapés to the accompanying renditions of a singer and guitarist playing a mix of songs from the 1920s and 30s, along with more contemporary numbers, while guests mingled and chatted to members of the staff beneath canopies bedecked with bunting. Fellow passengers had made quite the effort to get into the spirit of the evening – the men looking very smart in their black tie outfits while the ladies sported elegant evening gowns and cocktail dresses with more than the occasional feathery fascinator and tiara in evidence.
At 7.30 pm, we were ushered on board and shown to our comfortable armchair-style seats. Starters had already been laid out for us: Baked Lobster Pots, with baby asparagus and bruschetta-infused with garlic butter, or three-layer Vegetable Terrine for us vegetarians. Drinks orders were taken and the train slowly moved away from the platform as we tucked into the first course.
While we are eating, let me tell you a little about the railway on which we were travelling. It is now a preserved heritage line run by volunteers of the East Lancashire Railway Trust. The line runs between Bury and the terminus of Rawtenstall in one direction and between Bury and Heywood if you go the other way. The line was closed to passenger services by British Railways in 1972 and to freight (in this case, coal trains) in 1980. The Trust partially re-opened the line in 1987, and has gradually extended the route ever since.
Back to the meal: shortly after leaving the urban area of Bury, we entered open countryside. Yes, lambs did indeed gambol in the verdant fields and the train paused for a while to allow us to take advantage of the views in the setting sun while our plates were cleared and the next course – a Crème Ninon (pea soup if you prefer) with a Champagne cream drizzle – was served. And very nice it was too. The train continued its journey and we waved to bystanders along the way (as people always do in films), and most of them waved back.
The main course consisted of either a Roast Haunch of Venison with Port Figs, served with creamed potatoes and a red wine and rosemary jus, or a Vegetable Roulade of roasted red pepper, Feta cheese, and spinach, accompanied by a creamy roasted tomato sauce for those wanting a vegetarian option.
By this time, the train was approaching the end of the line and we slowly glided into Rawtenstall station. Here, while the locomotive was decoupled, we had the chance to get down from the train to stretch our legs on the platform although some passengers threw caution to the wind to mount the locomotive footplate as the engine crew took people on short rides back and forth in the cab. The potential for large cleaning bills notwithstanding, everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. Eventually, the locomotive was re-attached at the opposite end of the train, we retook our seats and the train reversed along the line back to Bury. Dessert (Profiteroles and pouring cream) followed by coffee and chocolates were served. We arrived back at our starting point of Bury at 10.30 pm.
So, there you are. For a few hours, we revisited the past and indulged in a little bit of nostalgia for old times’ sake. Overall, we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening and many photographs were taken using some very 21st century technology. We travelled in style and we looked the part; the food was good and the service both efficient and friendly. If you like the idea of dining aboard a steam-hauled train, I can wholeheartedly recommend this excursion to you – but be warned that once might not be enough! Nonetheless, at around £55 per person, this is an affordable evening that represents excellent value. Give it a try – I think you’ll be chuffed.
You can find out more about the range of special dining experiences, afternoon teas and lunches offered throughout the year by the East Lancashire Railway on their website, www.eastlancsrailway.org.uk, or by telephone on 0161 764 7790.