A foodie train journey through the English countryside

The Belmond British Pullman
The Belmond British Pullman

Belinda Craigie tracks the 20th Century’s ‘Golden Age’ of travel on a gastronomic day trip from London aboard the Belmond British Pullman

There’s a palpable buzz in the air at London Victoria station that I don’t typically experience. As commuters shift between trains and the tube, busily going out about their day, there’s a jovial, well-dressed crowd that has gathered adjacent to Platform 2, where the vintage carriages of the Belmond British Pullman are ready to board.

A vestige of the 1920s and ’30s, this heritage train revives the 20th Century’s ‘Golden Age’ of travel with themed day trips around England’s southern regions that combine immersive activities with high-end dining and white-gloved service. Eleven carriages, each with a distinctive identity, design and history, accommodate up to 226 passengers at elegant tables set with white tablecloths, fine bone china, polished silverware and weighty glassware that can withstand the small bumps and jolts of the tracks.

The round-trip experiences range from the cultural – exploring charming historic destinations such as Bath or Oxford – to the gastronomic, such as afternoon teas or multi-course dinners created by celebrity chefs. Some coincide with major sporting events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed or the Grand National. A testament to the growing prevalence and appeal of English wine, I’m partaking in a new trip to Balfour winery, located on the sprawling Hush Heath Estate in Kent.

A very British experience

Climbing aboard the train’s restored Phoenix carriage from 1927, with its glossy Art Deco-style marquetry, polished brass railings and vintage table lighting, certainly does feel like stepping back in time. Said to be a favourite carriage of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Phoenix has hosted such notable figures as former French president, General de Gaulle.

The British Pullman’s other carriages each have fabled stories to share. Audrey carried the Queen, Queen Mother and HRH Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh to review the fleet in 1953, while Perseus formed part of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral train in 1965. Vera was hit in an air raid in 1940. Later, following extensive repairs, she carried Prince Charles and Princess Anne on their first electric train trip in 1954.

Cygnus is the carriage that has perhaps received the most attention of late, following a redesign by the celebrated filmmaker, Wes Anderson, in 2021. Hints of his signature eccentric aesthetic can be observed in the carriage’s beautifully symmetrical marquetry, and seating covered in rich green upholstery, which contrasts brilliantly with a pastel-pink ceiling.

While each carriage may be distinct, the underlying feel is markedly British. Yet, Belmond’s international presence can be felt in the dining experience. One of the affable staff on our carriage, Harry, pours us a fresh Bellini cocktail — a nod to the group’s famed Hotel Cipriani Italy — to signal the start of a three-course brunch, as we make our way out of London and through the English countryside.

Fine vines

The local and seasonally focused menu, curated by head chef, Jon Freeman, includes freshly baked pastries followed by a breakfast bowl with berries, homemade granola, and whipped yoghurt. The main event is a fillet of smoked salmon from H. Forman & Son, which is served alongside a toasted English muffin topped with a poached egg and caviar. The Scottish salmon fillet is delicious, and notable for being the first Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) food in London, an acknowledgement of its traditional means of production — cured and cold-smoked by hand in the city’s East End.

Soon we arrive at Kent’s Staplehurst station to be ushered from the Pullman onto coaches for a short transfer to the Hush Heath Estate. The 161ha expanse was purchased by former Liberty department store owner and hotelier, Richard Balfour-Lynn, and his wife Leslie, and is where Balfour’s vineyards and winery have been operating since 2002.

Inspired by some of their favourite champagnes, and bolstered by the potential of the Weald clay soils on the estate, the Balfour-Lynns embarked on a quest to create world-class English sparkling wines with the help of winemaker, Owen Elias. Balfour’s first vintage, a 2004 brut rosé, took home a gold medal following a blind tasting at the 2008 International Wine Challenge — the first time an English wine had been recognised on a global scale. The Balfour Brut Rosé remains their signature wine.

Today, the winery produces some 400,000–500,000 bottles per year, according to sales director Adam Williams, who leads our wine tasting on the winery’s mezzanine, which looks out over the vines and the green-fringed grounds of the estate. We taste our way through three sparkling varietals — a Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, and Leslie’s Reserve Gold NV — followed by two still white wines. Then, with a glass of sparkling rosé in hand, we set out on a guided tour of the grounds. The English weather is uncharacteristically sunny and warm, creating an ideal backdrop for the estate’s rolling vines, apple orchards, and oak-filled forest, within which deer can be spotted.

A delicious finale

It’s late afternoon when we venture back to the British Pullman, which pulls into the station with much aplomb. In our plush, armchair-style seats, we are fittingly welcomed back on board with a glass of Balfour Brut Rosé, as we track toward the coast past the white chalk cliffs of Dover, with France’s coastline viewable across the Channel.

Our three-course dinner starts with guinea hen, creatively infused with traditional coronation flavours, and served alongside onion bhaji with a mango chutney. Sitting atop white haricot beans, line-caught wild English sea bass with an impressively crispy skin comes next; while dessert is a delicately presented coconut dacquoise with mango and passionfruit. As we approach the now-glittering London cityscape, a platter of Kentish cheeses is served as the tasting finale.

Salubrious chatter echoing throughout the carriage is momentarily interrupted with a round of applause from the passengers as we pull into Victoria station — an appreciative marker of the attentive service from the train’s staff and a special experience on the railway.

“Travel with us again,” remarks a smiling Harry as we collect our belongings. “We have just as much fun as you.”

Journey notes

Gastronomic journeys aboard the British Pullman will return in 2024, with dates and itineraries to be announced. Round-trip journeys depart London Victoria station. Rates start at £505 (about AUD$965) per person for the journey to Balfour Winery on Hush Heath Estate.

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