Despite a sad lack of Agatha Christie-style murder and mayhem, Carly Chynoweth enjoys a journey from London to Edinburgh on the most glamorous of trains
AGATHA Christie made travelling on the Orient Express sound like a ball. Admittedly that whole awkward murder situation might have put a bit of a damper on the occasion but, frenzied stabbing aside, things sounded lovely. Expensive luggage, debonair men, silk-clad ladies and enough champagne to fuel even the rowdiest wedding. Not that there would have been actual rowdiness on board, mind you; not with all those aristocratic types to impress.
So when I am offered the chance to take a trip on the Northern Belle — a historic British train that’s run by the same company and is fitted with all the wood-panelled luxury enjoyed by rich travellers in the 1930s — I accept. Or, more accurately, I say yes then boast to all my friends about how I am going to catch a posh train from London to Edinburgh and they aren’t.
Then I read the fine print that asks passengers to dress for the occasion and refrain from wearing jeans, trainers or T-shirts. Obviously this is a perfectly reasonable request; after all, scruffy guests would rather lower the tone and possibly even defeat the purpose of sipping wine from fine crystal glasses rather than guzzle lager from 500ml cans, as is more usual on long train journeys in the UK.
The problem is that my husband, a selfemployed computer programmer, rarely wears anything but jeans, trainers and T-shirt. In the end we settle for the trousers and shoes that he wore to our wedding with a smart woollen jumper over a T-shirt.
The next challenge comes on the day of departure, which is scheduled for far too early on a Friday morning. We plan to catch an Underground train to Victoria Station, where we can step off the Tube and into the Northern Belle’s departure lounge.
Unfortunately we are travelling in the immediate aftermath of industrial action, which means the Tube we catch takes us somewhere almost entirely unhelpful, from where we switch to a black cab and grow increasingly tense about whether we’ll actually make it on board.
By the time we get to the station I am slightly frazzled but my sense of happy smugness soon returns as we push our way past grim-faced commuters buying train station coffee and on to our platform, where a fully-kitted piper squeezes his bag and an impeccably turned-out steward — betterdressed than me, by quite some margin — takes our luggage and directs us towards a man with a tray of fancy breakfast canapes and easy access to a teapot. I accept a cup of tea, worried that fellow guests will consider me a complete alcoholic if I ask for fizz before 8am, only to enter the departure lounge and see a room full of white-haired ladies gleefully sipping champagne.
I’ve barely clinked my (Wedgwood) teacup back on to its saucer before it is time to start boarding. Even this simple task is given a sense of occasion, what with the piper and the natty little flip-down red carpets at every carriage door.
Once inside and seated in my deep redand-gold armchair at our private linencovered table, I realise that even the train is far better dressed than me or indeed most of the passengers. Rich carpets, heavy drapes, wooden panels decorated with marquetry crafted from 800-year-old timber and an extensive use of shiny brass things create a distinct sense of opulence. Small details aren’t forgotten, either: our table is set with fat silver cutlery, fresh flowers and a nifty little dish that I initially see no purpose for but which turns out to be a butter cooler, complete with a compartment for iced water so we won’t have to suffer the inconvenience of over-soft spread.
Alongside all this comes equally good service. There is no struggling to and from a cafe car with styrofoam cups of caffeine; we barely have to look thirsty before pots of coffee and tea are hovering over our cups.
As our train trundles through some of the uglier parts of London we are distracted with a fancy brunch and several rounds of bellinis. By the time we’ve finished eating, the landscape has settled into the pretty rolling fields of an English postcard, only occasionally punctuated by industrial parks or the back sides of out-of-town supermarkets.
Train takes the strain: Passengers aboard the Northern Belle enjoy old-fashioned luxury as they speed from London to the Scottish capital