“Trains, like time and tide, stop for no-one,” wrote Jules Verne. And hurtling through the undulating hills, blossom-drenched hedgerows and squat brick cottages, scattered like peppercorns over racing green fields, does indeed feel like a form of travel as ageless as the amber hues of sunlight bleaching the late afternoon sky.
Inside the carriages, the over-stuffed armchairs, honey-coloured wood panelling, tiled floor mosaics, frosted glass and the chink of crystal champagne glasses over white tablecloths creates an atmosphere of bonhomie. Yet there is also a peculiarly British hush here too; this is a place of whispered indiscretions, knowing glances, long lunches and bucolic daydreams induced by the hypnotic chug and thrust of the billowing steam engine propelling us over the Home Counties.
The Pullman, a Victorian-era invention designed to bring the most civilising elements of the 19th century stately home (and their occupants) onto the burgeoning British railway network, was actually created by an American. George Pullman’s luxury dining and sleeping cars were imported to Britain in 1874, the idea being that British railway companies could attach these ornate constructions to their trains in order to attract wealthier passengers.
Yet the allure of opulent train travel, immortalised in the fiction of Agatha Christie and Graham Greene, never expired for the public. Belmond has bought and restored 11 Pullman carriages to create the ‘British Pullman’ experience, running year-round trips across the south of England to the likes of Cambridge, Bath and Bristol with themed excursions that could be anything from a celebrity chef dinner (previous incumbents manning the stoves on board have included Raymond Blanc) to a trip to Chatsworth House, Goodwood or Ely.
My trip took us through the North Downs, the soft mattress at the bottom of England, the home of Vaughan Williams and George Meredith, the poet who once wrote of the grasslands surrounding his home, “the dark line of my hill runs up to the stars, the valley below is a soundless gulf.”
As the dappled sunlight danced a manic polka of streaming jets of light, filtering through our window, we feasted on a five-course lunch of atavistic English fayre including Cornish crab, vegetable broth and an inspired entrée of roast lump of new season lamb on minted pea and woodland mushroom ragu with Jersey potatoes and salsa verde.
Walking through the carriages after this belt-stretching repast, the conversation among the couples on board turned to other vintage train experiences such as the Trans Siberian or the Orient Express.
“Birch forests and vodka are a great combination,” I heard one besuited gent say to his Hermès-scarf-adorned partner in reference to the famous Russian journey. “But it’s the simple things they do best on the Pullman.”
As another champagne cork popped, I found it hard to imagine that there was ever a time when the splendour of the Pullman was ever considered to be ‘simple.’ Yet, what exists here is something reassuring. Something that, in an age of budget flights and chain store departure lounge coffee, puts one in an unusual mindset; that of travelling for nothing other than the pleasure of being on the way to somewhere else.
Related: Immersive theatre in London: a guide
High speed train lines continue to sprout across Europe as the need for speed to compete against the airlines increases. Yet, somewhere, amidst the birds nest of tracks that weaves and contorts around England, the British Pullman continues to roll serenely, the steam roaring up in plumes, the whistle echoing into the fields and valleys beyond.