Since the early 19th century the railways of Great Britain have been a culture defining part of British life. The train services in England these days are often mocked for their delays and overcrowding, but it’s hard to ignore the history of train travel, from Stephenson’s Rocket, the vast London Underground system known as The Tube and one other famous name…
The Orient Express
Since 1982 the Venice Simplon Orient Express has operated private luxury train services all over the world including the British Pullman service in the UK. We were very pleased to be asked to experience this unique and famously luxurious day trip service from London Victoria Station. Our journey would take us up to the beautiful city of Oxford for a guided tour and time to explore before returning to London. A wonderful way to spend a Saturday.
London Victoria Station
We arrived at 8:30am at Victoria Station to be greeted by the friendly staff at the VIP check-in lounge at Platform 2. Instantly you feel you’re part of something special, surrounded by people celebrating birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and retirements. A sweet smell of burning coal fin the air from the “Clan Line” a Merchant Navy Class steam loco, shining in the morning sunlight and admired by eager passengers. A chance to hop on to the foot plate before we set off could not be missed! An impressive fire raging in it’s belly, lit some 6 hours earlier.
The famous Orient Express carriages
This British Pullman consisted of 10 carriages of immaculate beauty, Cygnus, Gwen, Ibis, Ione, Lucille, Perseus, Phoenix, Vera, Zen and our carriage for the day, Minerva, built in 1927. We were greeted at the door by our carriage staff Alan, who showed us to our seats. The moment you step in to the carriage it feels as though you’re in a different world. Taken back to a “golden age” of rail travel, surrounded by a warm comforting interior and relaxing in large arm chairs with a table of highly polished cutlery and branded crystal glasses. Before too long, with a freshly poured Bellini in your hand, a toot of the whistle and you’re off. The nicest way you’ll ever leave Victoria Station!
Heading off to Oxford
The trip to Oxford is a leisurely paced affair, top ups of your Bellini accompany a delicious brunch of fruit salads, pastries and breads. The train has low priority compared to the other traffic on London’s rail network but for once this is a very good thing. The longer it takes to get to Oxford the longer we are waited on by the wonderful staff and get to explore the other carriages of the train. A steam pulled luxury train is a rare site which makes every passer by on bridges, in fields, back gardens and office blocks all stop and stare, waving to us as billows of steam puff from the loco. A perfect way to admire the English countryside.
Arriving at Oxford station arrives all too soon and there are a choice of excursions, some a short coach journey away but ours was a walking tour of Oxford’s beautiful colleges and city centre. A full review of the walking tour will be published very soon.
The royal treatment
After 5 hours or so of enjoying Oxford’s sights we return to the station to board our luxury steam train back to London Victoria. Our train is parked out of the way as a number of dull looking commuter trains come and go. This means we got to watch our our beautiful steam train make an entrance at our platform, hissing steam and billowing smoke as it arrived. Our wonderful stewards Alan and Dimitri helped us settle back in with a glass of Champagne and nibbles. These days we’re so used to train travel being a means to an end rather than the main event. Being back on board our warm and cosy train made us feel at home once more.
The afternoon journey is where you really get to relax, after an afternoon’s walking and sight seeing it’s time to be spoilt with champagne, an exquisite 3 course meal created on board by our head chef, John Kohout. Asparagus soup, Wild Guinea fowl followed by Apricot Frangipane Tart. As the sun sets slowly over the English countryside, we saw numerous Cricket matches played on village lawns, rolling hills and adoring onlookers at every station. The journey really could never last too long, we were even thankful for the 15 minute wait outside Victoria station so we could enjoy our surroundings just that little bit longer.
A perfect day in England
It really was a perfect day from start to finish. The beautiful and cultural destination of Oxford matched perfectly with the history and splendour of our steam pulled palace on wheels. We enjoyed every moment both inside and outside of our Orient Express experience. It’s not often you get to sample how rail travel used to be and be waited on by such friendly and courteous staff. It really was a perfect English day.
Many thanks to the staff that made us feel so welcome, especially Jeff Monk, Alan Dowling, Dimitri Yushchuk and head Chef John Kuhout.
For more information
- Visit the Venice Simplon Orient Express website for more details
- You can find more information on the British Pullman trips here.
- Follow the Orient Express on Twitter too!