Furious that train season tickets have risen by half in the last ten years, or that tube fares have shot up by 40 per cent in just five? That’s nothing – I’ve just taken a train journey that costs £100 an hour. Not only that, it doesn’t even go anywhere. But boy, does it goes nowhere in style.
The British Pullman is a throwback to a bygone age, long before the British Rail sandwich came to symbolise everything ugly about the late 20th century. The carriage allotted to my companion and I goes by the name of Audrey (presumably, many decades ago, the name conjured images of glamour) and has previously hosted Queen Elizabeth and Sir Laurence Olivier. It has 12 individual art deco marquetry panels on the walls, and they have all been lovingly restored, along with the other carriages, by the same family firm that designed them 80 years ago.
But enough train history: I’m not wearing an anorak on this trip. I’m here in my best black tie, for a decadent seven-course meal on wheels. Before the train even sets off, we are quaffing Laurent-Perrier in a dedicated waiting room cordoned off from the hoi polloi on Victoria’s Platform 2. It’s like a grown-ups’ version of Harry Potter’s Platform 9¾.
The aura of luxury is somewhat tarnished, however, by one passenger loitering on the platform with a hangdog air, sucking down a last cigarette with the desperation of a man condemned to spend four hours smoke-free. There’s also an elderly drunk playing cat-and-mouse with a policewoman. “Come back here right this instant!” she shouts at him, pointing. “Don’t make me chase you!” He runs off, giggling. She makes chase.
Liveried flunkies show us to our seats. Our fellow passengers are mostly in their fifties and sixties. One group are celebrating a birthday. Another couple were given tickets by their son as a Christmas present. But there’s also a man whose huge bald head, tattoo and stud earring suggest an underworld kingpin, albeit one with a soft spot for trains; and two young blokes in Shoreditch face-topiary discussing their recent “Zombie-walk”.
The menu turns out to be a set one. Good. There is nothing relaxing about choosing from a long list of dishes, always suspecting, however good yours turns out to be, that another might have been better. An excess of options is the bane of modern life, and we are glad to be rid of it on our journey back to the 1930s.
And so it starts, the gastronomic parade. Canapes of foie gras. A lovely little soup with morels and white truffle oil, served in a tea cup. Some of the best lobster I have ever tasted, which is, we decide, very “sprouncy” (springy and bouncy). “Like a bosom,” adds my companion. “A mermaid’s bosom.” An adequate “mosaic of seasonal game”. A halibut in purple port sauce which I found nauseatingly sweet. A beautifully tender fillet of beef, which the waiter replaced without fuss when my guest found hers too rare. And, finally, a Gateau St Honoré with caramel sauce. Each dish was lubricated with a different wine, from a Whispering Angel rosé to a 2006 Sauternes.
The hours fly by. There’s something about a train that aids conversation: the gentle motion; the ambient noise of the tracks in place of intrusive music. It also seems to pique the libido. Forty marriage proposals take place each year on the Pullman.
Anyone hoping for magnificent views, however, will be disappointed. The train takes four hours to go precisely nowhere in the dark, describing a grand circle of 84 miles. Whenever anything looms from the gloom beyond our window it’s a railway station such as Staines, or Dorking, or Purley; the grim faces of commuters lit up on the platform like slabs of meat on the butcher’s counter. They look up, blankly, as our phantom locomotive pulls in from the 1930s like a scene from The Great Gatsby.
Last year I travelled on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, which is owned by the same company. It, too, costs about £100 an hour, with luxurious food and decor. Call me unpatriotic, but it’s a tad more romantic to stare out of the window at the lakes of Switzerland, or the snow-capped Alps, than to gaze upon the concrete platform of Streatham Common.
Ah, well: it’s a magical few hours all the same. And if it’s scenery you want, lunchtime packages are available.
One piece of advice: remember to take some Alka-Seltzer. As I discovered the next day, the talented Pullman chefs have unintentionally created the perfect recipe for indigestion. “Take seven dishes, including foie gras, fish, beef and lobster. Irrigate copiously with champagne and a variety of wines in all three colours. Shake gently for four hours.”
Pullman Dinners take place on 2 May, 5 September, 23 October and 14 November. Prices start from £395pp, or £205 for day trips. For information or reservations call 0845 077 2222 or visit orient-express.com/uktrains.