The Northern Belle

Travelling back in time – in which I take a train ride back to the ‘golden age’ of luxury travel to experience fine dining aboard the Northern Belle luxury train.

The Northern Belle – Photo courtesy of the company

The Northern Belle was originally launched in 2000 by Belmond, the company that runs the Venice Simplon Orient-Express (VSOE) and offers a similar standard of service and comfort to its European cousin. With its Pullman carriages and offer of fine dining experiences, the train epitomises the golden age of rail travel.

The train runs day excursions from various departure points around Britain and special events such as trips to the races.  Since 2017, it has been owned by Yorkshire businessman David Pitts who lives in Thurstonland and whose advertising business, DP Publicity (DPP), is based in Wakefield.

Although redolent of 1930s glamour, the Northern Belle isn’t quite what it seems! It actually consists of former British Railways carriages from the 1950s and 60s but they have been extensively and sympathetically re-engineered, refurbished and ‘retro-fitted’ to resemble the Pullman cars of the ’30s. They come complete with beautiful marquetry work, specially commissioned from the family firm of A Dunn and Son of Chelmsford in Essex. This company created panelling on some of the original Orient Express coaches as well as on the Pullman cars used in a number of the famous ‘Belle’ trains of the ’20s and ’30s including the much-loved Brighton Belle.

But enough background – let’s get back to my trip – a day out taken in July 2019!

A very early start!

When we arrived at Kirkgate Station in Wakefield, somewhat bleary-eyed as it was only 6.15am, we were greeted by a representative of the company who checked our names on her list and directed us over to Platform 2 where, in due course, we were joined by over 30 other guests. The train arrived on time and we found our carriage. In true Pullman tradition, each of the dining cars is given a name. In this case, the carriages are named after castles and stately homes, and our seats were to be found in ‘Alnwick’. We were shown to our seats by Thomas, one of the train managers, who then introduced us to Adam, our senior steward for the day (each carriage has dedicated stewards) and assistant steward, Paddy. No sooner were we seated than we were offered a ‘refreshing’ and sparking Bellini. It was only 6.55am but, yes please, I didn’t mind if I did! As the train made its way to our next pick-up point in Huddersfield, we sat back and relaxed while the bubbles did their work.

After gathering more passengers at Huddersfield, the train moved on towards Manchester Victoria for our third and final pick up. While we crossed through, and sometimes under, the Pennine terrain (including travelling through the three-mile long Standedge Tunnel), brunch was served. To start, there was natural yoghurt with ginger-seeped apricots, homemade granola and honey. Next, there was a cooked dish consisting of Bubble and Squeak, spinach and a vegetable ragù. (The non-vegetarians had Scottish Haddock with all the trimmings.) To finish, there was a selection of breads and cakes from the bakery basket and copious quantities of tea and coffee were served throughout.  

Somewhere in the middle of working our way through all that, we picked up the final passengers at Manchester and then made our way, via Crewe, to Stratford upon Avon, the train’s final destination, pulling in at around 12.15pm. Here, the passengers divided. Most had opted to spend the afternoon in the town whereas a group of around 30 of us were taken by coach to Warwick Castle for an afternoon visit. Two and a half hours later, we were on our way back to the train.

Adam, our carriage steward, waiting to welcome us back on board in Stratford on Avon.

The Northern Belle looked absolutely splendid as we arrived back in Stratford. All along the length of the train, doors were open, welcome mats were laid out along the platform and our uniformed staff stood to attention to receive us back on board. The train had been transformed once again and we regained our seats to discover that the tables had been laid ready for the five-course dinner with wine that was to come: beautiful fine china, some still bearing the VSOE legend, elegant glassware, and polished cutlery all glinting in the late afternoon light.

As the train pulled out of the station, we were offered a glass of champagne and canapés and before long, dinner was served. This comprised of a salad of goat’s cheese, pickled beets, and bread to start followed by a vegetable Wellington for main course. (The standard menu was Hot smoked salmon to start and a chicken and ham dish for mains.) Then came the cheese board, followed by dessert – a ‘summer berry Pimm’s jelly, elderflower and lemon verbena cream, and candied orange’. To conclude, there was coffee with petits fours. All the food was prepared on board by head chef, Matthew Green (who comes from Barnsley, continuing the ‘northern theme’) and his team.

Champagne and canapés are served before dinner….

Dinner is served at a leisurely pace with ample opportunity to talk to the stewards and train managers – even fellow passengers if you’re feeling sociable – and it was noticeably much more sociable on board after the champagne and the wine! The train returned along a different route from that taken on the outward journey so there was plenty to see in the evening sunshine as we made an unhurried return to Wakefield – the first dropping off point – and we arrived back all too soon at around 8.20 pm. We deboarded and watched as the train rolled out of the station on its way back to Huddersfield, and then Manchester, slightly envious of those passengers who had remained on board. But for us, the day was over – a short walk home and it was time to put the feet up, bask in the memories of a wonderful day and wonder what to have for supper…….sadly, there were no stewards on hand to serve it!

Need to know:

The Northern Belle will be making several other trips to various destinations from Yorkshire stations this year.

For details see website: northernbelle.co.uk

Telephone: 01270 899681

Cost of the Wakefield to Warwick Castle excursion was £390 per person including a £30 supplement pp for a guaranteed table for two. The ticket price included coach transfers and admission to the castle. Prices as at July 2019.

My Perfect Restaurant

I’ve been doing restaurant reviews for Wakefield’s business-to-business magazine TopicUK since 2013. In consequence, I’m often asked “What is your favourite restaurant?”

Well, if truth be told, there are several restaurants in the city that I’m rather fond of so it might be more tactful to explain what I look for when choosing somewhere to eat, whether dining in Wakefield – or further afield!

Service with a smile

I want to feel welcomed when I visit a restaurant and, if I’ve been there before, I want to be recognised for being a ‘repeat’ customer. I like to be shown to a good table, preferably with a view, and to exchange a few words of conversation with the proprietor and staff. I want to feel that they care about my experience of eating in their restaurant.

Food quality

I suppose I’m looking for something that I wouldn’t necessarily have at home; so something a little bit out of the ordinary, whether it be the ingredients or the way they are combined – the wow factor if you like – gets the establishment extra points. Having said that, some of the most enjoyable meals I’ve eaten have been the most simple – a plate of fresh pasta, cooked to perfection, can just as easily ‘cut the mustard’. There’s no need for a huge menu – but as a vegetarian, I do expect to see more than one veggie option on there, otherwise the only choice I have is whether to eat there or not.

Food quantity

I’m not a fan of gargantuan portions. Some restaurants seem to want to compete with their American cousins, piling food onto the plate, perhaps in the belief that customers associate value for money with sheer quantity! Eating a meal should not be a test of stamina and endurance. I also suspect that it’s actually bad for business: after all, if you’ve worked your way through a huge main course, who has room for pudding?

Presentation

Food needs to look good on the plate – and yes, when I say plate I mean plate. I’m not into gimmicks, thank you: you can keep your slates, shovels, cloth caps, glass jars, and so on. I like to eat off a clean plate with clean cutlery. Call me old fashioned but I do have my standards! Oh, and I do like a nice bit of napery. Clean white linen can really set off a table. But if there’s no tablecloth, one of my pet hates is to be shown to a table that has just been wiped down – still damp and usually streaky!

Of course, there are other factors to consider: cost, ambience, background music (or lack thereof), furnishings and décor, and so on, but, at the end of the day, what really makes for an enjoyable and memorable meal is the choice of table companions. Eating out with friends and family should be a social and sociable occasion. Conversation and repartee should flow freely (a little alcohol helps!) but that, of course, is something over which the restaurant has little control!

(First published in TopicUK for Wakefield in November 2017)

One of my favourite restaurants afloat: the Verandah Restaurant aboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth

Settle Down Now – and join me for a trip on the Settle-Carlisle railway line

The Settle-Carlisle railway line is billed as the most scenic railway journey in England – and who am I to argue? By way of a post-birthday treat to self, I decided to take a steam special, The Dalesman, run by West Coast Railways.

A classic diesel locomotive hauling the train into Westgate Station, Wakefield
The journey actually began in Wakefield one morning back in June when my partner and I arrived at Westgate Station ready to catch the train as it glided smoothly in alongside us on Platform 2 at a rather civilised time of 9.45 am. At this point, the train was being hauled by a classic diesel locomotive in the maroon livery of the operating company. The train had begun its journey from York station earlier that morning, calling at Normanton and then at Wakefield’s Kirkgate Station before arriving at Westgate, so the train was already quite busy as we boarded to find our pre-booked and reserved seats.

Ready for breakfast
We had opted for the ‘Premier Dining’ service. Tables are available for two or four people. We chose to go for a table for two, although this upped the price further by £15 each. We were travelling in what had originally been first class inter-city carriages back in the day, now restored and furnished with comfortable armchairs. Dining tables are aligned to windows to make the most of the views (unlike many modern trains where you can easily find yourself sitting up against a pillar). There were curtains, table cloths and table lamps, and every table laid for the serving of breakfast!

Breakast is served!
Hardly had the train moved out of the station before our stewards were bringing round orange juice, tea and coffee. There was a choice of cereal, porridge or orange and grapefruit segments to start with, followed by the ‘full English’ (here entitled the ‘Great British Grill Tray’) or Grilled Manx Kippers. (A vegetarian option was available – although this had to be booked in advance, as we had done). To complete the breakfast, there was a selection of toast and croissants with jams and marmalade.

The steam locomotive, seen here at Carlisle Station
But I’m skipping ahead! Breakfast was actually a leisurely affair, so there was plenty of time to chat and look out of the window as we headed towards Leeds, our next stop, to pick up more passengers, and then onto Skipton, the final boarding station. At Hellifield, the diesel locomotive was exchanged for our steam engine.

For any steam buffs reading, the loco was former LMS Stanier heavy freight Class 8F 2-8-0 locomotive No. 48151, originally built in 1942 and now painted in the black livery of British Railways.

Crossing the Ribblehead Viaduct
We passed through Settle and headed on towards Carlisle. As we picked up speed, steam and smoke swept past the carriage windows. Soon we were crossing the famous Ribblehead Viaduct before plunging into the Stygian gloom of the Blea Moor tunnel, nearly a mile and a half long. More viaducts and tunnels followed as we approached Ais Gill Summit, the highest point on the line (and with a name that sounds as if it comes straight out of the pages of a Tolkien novel). Alongside, nature performed its magic: rolling hills, rocky limestone outcrops, verdant trees and grazing sheep, all beneath a cloudless cerulean sky.

The plaque on Appleby Station commemorating the late Eric Treacy, MBE, Bishop of Wakefield from 1968 to 1976
After a brief pause at Appleby to allow the locomotive to take on water and an opportunity to stretch our legs on the platform, we continued on to Carlisle as Yorkshire Dales gave way to Cumbrian Fells. Drinks were served ‘at seat’ and orders taken for wine to accompany the evening meal.

We arrived in Carlisle at around 2.30 pm and had a couple of hours to look around but such was the heat of the day that a few of us headed for a nearby coffee shop to take advantage of the air conditioning while drinking coffee and eating muffins!

The wine awaits!
Heading back to the train, we found our table was now laid for dinner and our selected bottle of wine waiting for us. It seemed pointless to delay, so we poured ourselves a glass apiece and toasted Carlisle as the train pulled out of the station just after 4.30 pm.

Dinner consisted of four courses plus coffee and chocolates, again with a vegetarian option (special diets can be catered for if notified at the time of booking). We had the Asparagus and Pea Girasol to start and this was followed by vegetarian lasagne and then Eton Mess. We had to decline the cheese board – too many muffins in that coffee shop!

The return journey was every bit as relaxed as the journey out, but mellowed even further by the bottle of wine and the slowly setting sun. The diesel locomotive was there at Hellifield to take over again for the final haul to Skipton, Leeds and back to Wakefield.

The sun had just about set as we pulled into Westgate Station at 9.20 pm, saying farewell to travelling companions we had come to know but who were staying on until the train reached its final destination of York.
All in all, this had been a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable day. You could even say I was chuffed!

Need to know:

The Dalesman is one of a number of special trains run by West Coast Railways throughout the year. Have a look at their website, www.westcoastrailways.co.uk, for more information or telephone them Monday – Friday from 9:30am – 4:00pm on 0844 850 3137.

Prices: Tickets start at £59 for an adult travelling in Standard Class (£25 for a child). For passengers wishing to travel in First Class, the price is £115 (£50 for children) and includes complimentary teas and coffees along with a Danish pastry served on the outward journey and a savoury of the day with cakes on the return journey. The Premier Dining offer costs £199 per person. Subject to availability, it is possible to reserve a table for two in First Class and Premier Dining at a supplement of £15 per person. (All prices for the York-Wakefield-Settle-Carlisle return journey described above and correct for 2017.)

There is a buffet car on the train from which it is possible to purchase refreshments.

[A version of this article appears in the September 2017 edition of TopicUK magazine – Wakefield issue]

Boosting the Ego!

In which I tell the story of how, in May 2017, I pootled over to Horbury to experience the delights of new restaurant, Ego @ the Bull’s Head.

Looking back through my diary, I discovered that it was in 2011 that members of Wakefield Civic Society’s Dining Club last ventured out along Horbury Bypass to the Bull’s Head so a revisit was somewhat overdue. However, a change of management and the introduction of a new brand provided just the push we needed so, at the beginning of May, Society members, myself included, went back to try out what is now, to give it its full name, ‘Ego Mediterranean Restaurant and Bar @ the Bull’s Head’. It gave me a chance to have a word with Martin England, the deputy manager, who was on duty that evening, to see if they would be interested in my doing a review for TopicUK Magazine. Not surprisingly, they agreed and so it was, a few nights later, that I returned with my partner for something of a ‘private viewing’ as guests of the establishment.

The first thing you notice on entering the building is that the place has been given a very stylish makeover by the new management. Smart and contemporary, with a mix of modern and retro touches, Ego is very much ‘bang on trend’ as they say in the fashion magazines. Larger than it looks from the outside – the restaurant can accommodate up to 130 people with an additional 32-seat private dining room (and there’s room for 36 more sitting outside if you fancy a bit of al fresco dining on a warm summer’s evening). It retains a pleasantly intimate feel, however, thanks to the sub-division of the interior spaces into a number of separate dining and seating areas.

The restaurant is now one of a group, part of Ego Restaurants Ltd, based in Bolton, with fifteen Ego establishments across the north of England and the Midlands. Ego @ The Bull’s Head opened in its new guise on 9th March this year. Judging by the number of customers, it is already proving to be very popular. Just as well, then, that there is a large car park!

So, what’s it like to eat there? Well, to start with, there’s a very comprehensive menu, with a strong Mediterranean influence. Special diets can usually be catered for – there’s a full gluten-free menu, for example, so be prepared to ask if you need something that’s a bit ‘off-menu’.

Prices are very reasonable and typical of what you might expect for the Wakefield area – starters from £4.95 to £7.95 and mains from £8.45 (for a pizza Margherita) up to £17.45 for the Andalusian Pork Fillet, wrapped in prosciutto, pan roasted & served with apricot & sherry cream sauce with dauphinoise potatoes. Steaks come in a tad more expensive at £18.85 for the 8oz Sirloin, £22.95 for the 10oz Ribeye, and £23.95 for the 8oz Fillet, each chargrilled & served with confit vine plum tomato, rocket & ‘skin-on’ fries. A variety of side orders can be added at extra cost. Desserts range from £4.95 to £6.45 but there is also a number of ‘Ego Minis’ – mini desserts with any tea or coffee included for under £5.

Look out for the fixed-price menu which is served from Monday to Friday until 7pm, Saturday until 6pm, and Sunday from 5pm onwards. This offers 2 courses for £12.95 or 3 courses for £15.95.

Menus are available to view on-line should you wish to do your homework in advance and it’s definitely worth having a look as there are special offers and/or themes on most days of the week – Monday’s offer is two courses from the à la carte menu for just £19.95 each including a full bottle of wine per person; Tuesday is Steak Night where 8oz steaks starting at just £10; Wednesday is Tapas Day, with three tapas dishes for £12, offered all day; Thursday is Kebab Night with Kebabs starting at £10; and on Sundays, roasts start at just £10.95.

There’s a good wine list too and, should you wish to have a cocktail, you’ll be well catered for with a large selection available: better still, the classic cocktails are ‘2-4-1’ every day until 7pm! Nor do you have to miss out if you’re the designated driver for the evening – the list includes some non-alcoholic cocktails as well.

If you see yourself becoming a regular at Ego, it is possible to join their Ego Club. Not only will this entitle you to receive their newsletter and details of special offers, but it will also give you some specific benefits such as 25% off the à la carte menu from Sunday to Friday, a free 3-course meal on your birthday, and a free bottle of Prosecco on a special anniversary day of your choice!

When I visited with the Civic Society’s Dining Club, the friendliness of the staff shone through. When I returned a few nights later, my partner and I were looked after personally by the manager, Craig Humphriss, who made time to answer our questions in between serving and chatting to other customers and he introduced me to the chef, Emma, whose culinary efforts we had sampled during the evening. The food was of very good quality and well-prepared while the portion size was more than generous; so much so in fact, that we each had to settle for one of the Ego Minis when it came to dessert!

All in all, we had a very pleasant evening and I can certainly recommend Ego @ The Bull’s Head to you – definitely not one to be by-passed!



Havana a good time at Qubana! Sampling the Cuban delights of Wakefield’s newest restaurant

I’m going to begin this review, if you’ll indulge me, with a short history lesson.

The banking firm of Leatham, Tew and Co was originally established in Doncaster and Pontefract in 1801. In 1809, the bank acquired premises in Wakefield when it took over the failing Wakefield firm of Ingram, Kennett and Ingram and opened a branch on the corner of Wood Street and Silver Street.

In 1880, the bank commissioned the building of imposing new premises, designed for them by Leeds architects J Neill and Son. This new building, still on the Wood Street site, opened to customers in 1881. It’s actually two buildings: look at the Wood Street elevation and you’ll notice the main banking hall to the left and then a smaller, ‘mini-me’ version to the right. This smaller building was designed as residential accommodation for the bank manager! (You’ll also notice the dates 1809 and 1881 inscribed above the windows.)

Leatham, Tew and Co continued in existence as an independent bank until their merger with Barclays Bank in 1906. The premises on the corner of Wood Street remained in use as a bank until Barclays moved to Trinity Walk in 2011, ending a banking tradition on the site that had endured for over two centuries.

When one of the city’s grand old buildings falls empty, one can only wonder what fate will befall it. When a business as important as a major bank moves out, there is inevitably a knock-on impact for neighbouring properties, and I suspect that many businesses in and around the Wood Street area noticed the drop in footfall when Barclays moved away. So it was with some considerable relief that we saw plans being submitted last year to bring this landmark building back into use as a restaurant (with flats above) and to help breathe new life into the street.

Those of you who dine out in Wakefield may already be familiar with Qubana, a restaurant that has traded with considerable success from its Northgate premises for several years now. The re-location to Wood Street has enabled owner Matthew Burton and his partner Jenny Thompson to develop their ideas to create a smart and very stylish bar and restaurant that is sure to be a major draw for anyone looking for a lively and glamorous evening out in the city.

As the photographs show, having bought the building, the new owners have gone to considerable lengths and not inconsiderable expense (around £1M) to renovate the interior of the former banking hall. High ceilings and a mix of new and retained plasterwork, exposed brickwork, chandeliers, comfortable seating, some of it in high-backed booths, and lots and lots of pictures add touches of elegance while a spacious bar area and open kitchen give the place a vibrant atmosphere. There’s also a new rear entrance onto George and Crown Yard and an open air roof-top terrace on the first floor, La Terraza, with its own bar.

The food is a mix of Cuban/South American and European tapas – the Qubana website says they take ‘the sensual Latin flair of Cuba and combine it with the hearty, honest flavours of Spain to create dishes that perfectly fuse these two cultures’. It also says that all their ingredients are sourced as locally as possible before being treated ‘with all the know-how of a Catalonian’!

I can certainly vouch for the quality of the food. When we visited the restaurant in March 2017, my two dining companions and I enjoyed a mix of tapas and main course dishes – I’m told that the chicken Jambalaya with King Prawns was especially good. As regular readers would expect, I sampled a selection of the vegetarian tapas and found that four or five dishes between two of us was more than adequate, allowing plenty of room for dessert (and just as well I did – the Turron Cheesecake I ordered was light but very filling!). Tapas dishes start at just £3.50 while main course dishes range from £12 to £17 – a little more if you want one of the grilled steaks. I was the designated driver for the evening so contented myself with a soft drink but large glasses of white and rosé wine were consumed by my fellow diners. Maybe next time I’ll get to try something more exotic from the extensive drinks menu which includes draught and bottled beers, wines, cocktails, gins, rums and, of course, Daiquiris and Mojitos.

Presentation and service could not be faulted. Although we were there on a Tuesday evening, perhaps one of the quieter nights in Wakefield, the restaurant was busy with a steady stream of customers and the staff were kept fully occupied. (I’m told that there are some 40 staff currently employed by the restaurant under the overall managership of Gareth Quinn and more are being recruited. I didn’t get to meet Gareth but assistant managers Craig Cizic and Faye Capitano made sure that my party and I were looked after.)

The restaurant opens at 10.00 am on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays when a ‘brunch’ menu of light snacks is available until 12 noon when the lunchtime menu (served from 12 until 5) takes over, offering a mix of sandwiches, wraps and tapas dishes. On other days, Monday to Thursday, the restaurant opens at noon. It stays open until 10 pm except for Fridays and Saturdays when it is open until 11 pm.

You can see the full menus on the website. Watch out for special live music nights and, if you are a party of up to 10 looking for something special, ask about the The Vault, a private dining room which, as its name suggests, is inside the former bank’s vault.

Whatever time you visit, if my evening there is anything to go by, you’ll be sure to be Havana good time at Qubana!

Qubana, 1-3 Wood Street, Wakefield, WF1 2EL

Website: www.qubana.co.uk