I suppose this part of the journey could be boring for small children or anyone not made pleasantly snoozy by food, wine and motion, but I soon find myself distracted by our steward’s tales: he is comedian Russ Abbot’s older brother and a former merchant seaman who once sat Jayne Mansfield on his knee.
Sadly, the story — or at least the parts of it he is willing to tell complete strangers — ends there.
By mid-afternoon we reach York, where we leave the train for a sidetrip to Castle Howard, the stately home where the 1980s television series Brideshead Revisited was filmed. But something about being bundled on to a coach and whisked through a high-speed guided tour, complete with a short and slightly uncomfortable greeting from the man of the house, doesn’t sit well with the elegance of the journey.
On the upside, we are served a proper afternoon tea with crustless cucumber sandwiches and the teensiest scones I have seen. (Back on the train for the last stage of the journey to Scotland, I overhear a steward say that one couple has opted to explore York’s ancient city centre on foot rather than join the tour bus; frankly this is a great idea and one I recommend to anyone who feels a bit half-hearted about grand houses and their china collections.)
As evening falls we are travelling north along the east coast of Britain, eating a spectacular dinner that includes foie gras, Goosnargh duck and ginger toffee pudding with clotted cream while wondering just where England ends and Scotland begins. Doubtless someone else on the train could tell us but one of the nicest things about the journey is the
rest of small number of passengers in each carriage and the privacy this affords; there is no accidental eavesdropping or intrusion from mobile phones so it seems a pity to breach someone’s privacy simply to satisfy our idle curiosity. Either way, by the time we pull in to Edinburgh it is perfectly clear where we are.
Our destination is the Caledonian Hotel, an elegant 19th-century building with a commanding view across Princes Street to Edinburgh Castle. Although now a Hilton hotel, it was originally owned by a railway company and so has always made a point of serving train travellers.
It also has a connection with a detective who is arguably as famous as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple: Inspector Rebus. In ExitMusic , Ian Rankin’s latest novel featuring the grumpy Edinburgh detective, one of Rebus’s antagonists drinks in the hotel’s bar. Rankin’s books are much more about gritty modern realism than Christie-style glamour but the next day, as I sit in a warm, poky pub wearing jeans, drinking a pint of ale and watching Scottish football, I decide that’s not such a bad thing after all. Carly Chynoweth was a guest of Orient-Express.
For more information on the Northern Belle and its stablemate trains: 1800 000 395; www.orient-express.com.
Fine fare: The opulent interior of the Northern Belle’s dining carriage