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.

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]

Dining with Distinction aboard the East Lancashire Railway

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.

Le Train Bleu Foncé

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

Travelling in Style – the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

In 2014, my partner and I were standing on platform 2 at Venice’s Santa Lucia railway station, along with 178 other people, admiring the shiny blue and white carriages of the Orient Express (or, more correctly, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express). The journey back to London on this iconic train was the culmination of a remarkable holiday to celebrate a rather special birthday.

Our allocated cabin was right at the end of the 17-coach train, in the very last cabin. It did mean that we were very well placed for the loo – there is a shared toilet at each end of each coach but no showers anywhere on the train. However, worry not! There’s a washbasin with hot and cold running water in each cabin and it’s amazing what you can do with a flannel (and where it will reach!).

The cabins are a bit on the small side, consisting of a couch, fold-down table, the aforementioned washbasin and some coat hangers, and it’s true that experience of caravanning would come in handy. Fortunately, most of our luggage was stored in the baggage car and on taking our seats we could really appreciate the beauty of our surroundings. Lovingly and painstaking restored, with highly lacquered woods and polished brass fittings, this art deco masterpiece is redolent of an entirely different age when great craftsmanship and service were synonymous with luxury.

A discreet knock on our cabin door signalled the arrival of our liveried cabin steward, Claudio, who offered us complimentary cocktails as the train pulled out of the station, bang on time at exactly 11.01 am.
Our next visitor was the maȋtre d’ who came to ask what time we would like lunch – with 180 passengers, they operate two-sittings for each meal. We chose the later sitting of 2.00 pm and were given a ticket with our restaurant car and table number. We then made ourselves comfortable to enjoy the passing scenery.

At around 1.50 pm, an announcement was made to summon us to lunch with the polite reminder to dress appropriately, which during that day meant smart casual (no jeans allowed). The restaurant cars and bar car are located in the centre of the train, so we only had half a train length to travel but even then, it’s around an eighth of a mile from the back of the train to the middle! The walk did, however, give us chance to inspect the other parts of the train. No two carriages are exactly the same having been built by different manufacturers in different countries (including England!) at different times. Similarly, each of the three restaurant cars is unique, with different colour schemes that extend to the matching china used in each car.

Lunch followed a set 3-course menu (including a set vegetarian menu), followed by coffee and petits fours. You can go à la carte if you wish but will need to be prepared to pay a supplement. Wine is not what you’d call cheap – we paid 50 euros for half a bottle and that was at the lower end of the price range. The food and presentation, I have to say, were exquisite and the service exemplary.

After lunch, it was back to our cabin where Claudio served us our afternoon tea. The maȋtre d’ whom we were getting to know quite well by now, made another appearance to see what time we would like dinner. We chose the later sitting at 9.30 pm, which gave us time to relax before changing into our tuxedos (there’s an art to this in a confined space, but we managed). By now, the train was moving through the spectacular snow-capped mountains of Austria.

Rigged out in our very best, we headed to the bar car. There is one bar car for all 180 passengers so it’s a bit of a crush, ameliorated to some extent by having two sittings for dinner. Fortunately, we were right next to the bar so I was able to order my Cosmopolitan.

By the time we made it back to our cabin after dinner, it had been transformed into our rather cosy bedroom with two bunk beds. The train was travelling at full tilt (the maximum speed is around 90 mph), so I was glad of the straps to grab hold of as I climbed the ladder into bed. Sleep is possible although it rather eluded me for a good while. Sometimes, it felt as if the train had taken wings, and the next thing we would be stopped somewhere while locomotives were changed. The blinds had been drawn shut and we left them that way, so it was pure guesswork as to where we were.

I awoke early, noticing that the train had stopped, washed (making good use of that flannel!), dressed and then stepped into the corridor to allow my partner to do likewise. Although it was only around 7am, Claudio was there to convert the cabin back to day use. Then he brought us our continental style breakfast. A tap on the door and it was our old friend the maȋtre d’ again, this time asking what time we’d like brunch, 10.30 am or 12 noon? We chose the later one again.

On arrival at Calais, we climbed aboard luxury motor coaches to be offered drinks. A large glass of red wine? Well, it would have been rude to refuse. We drove onto the Euroshuttle and, once through the Channel Tunnel, it was on to Folkestone station where we boarded the British Pullman for the last leg of the journey to London.

The British train is also made up of individually designed and decorated 1920s art deco coaches, this time in a livery of brown and cream. Each passenger has an allocated carriage and seat number. No sooner had we taken our seats than a waiter asked if we would like a glass of sparkling Rosé to accompany our afternoon tea of finger sandwiches, scones, cakes and lashings of tea. By the time that had been consumed, we were approaching London’s Victoria station. On arrival, we were reunited with our luggage and then it was into a taxi for an overnight stay in a London hotel. Reader, we slept well that night! The following morning, we checked out and caught a train back to Wakefield, the holiday truly over.

Was it worth it? Definitely! Having seen the train on TV and in films so many times, there was a slight sense of unreality about the whole expedition. I couldn’t help but expect to see David Suchet around every corner and even though he failed to make an appearance, the spirit of Poirot and Agatha Christie was almost tangible.

There was no murder on the Orient Express while we were aboard, but it was murder to leave it!