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Heart of the highlands

It’s 535km as the crow flies from Edinburgh to London, and considerably further taking the roundabout route used by Belmond’s new Majestic England rail tour. But I felt the most significant distance I travelled on this trip was the taxi ride from my hotel in Edinburgh’s West End to the journey’s starting point, the grand Balmoral Hotel above Waverley Station. This short journey wrought a magical transformation. I had struggled into the cab with my bags, minimally assisted by an indifferent driver. Five minutes later we pulled up at the Balmoral. “Royal Scotsman?” inquired the doorman smoothly as he handed me from the car. Luggage, along with the general stresses of solo travel, was whisked away. “Miss” became “Madam”, and an elegant morning tea materialised. I had become a guest of the Royal Scotsman.

Why choose the Royal Scotsman rather than another luxury train? The answer must be its unique blend of comfort, hospitality and intimacy. This train carries a maximum of 36 passengers in one class of travel: first. All cabins (single, double or twin) have fixed beds rather than convertible banquettes and are en-suite with showers. The service is immaculate and personal. Astonishingly, almost every member of staff I encountered on board – in the sumptuous dining cars, spacious observation lounge, or simply passing along the gleaming wood-panelled corridors – addressed me by name. There was no queuing at the bar, no competition for seats in the lounge. The individual cabins are comfortable enough for relaxing in during the day, and I spent much of one afternoon luxuriating on my bed with a book, the sun streaming through my window as the English fields slipped by. When I’d had enough of being alone I wandered down to the observation car, where I had my choice of sofas or armchairs, as much or as little company as I wished, and a coffee brought to me by one of the ever-attentive waiters.

“Edinburgh was your last chance not to eat or drink,” quipped our onboard host, Ian, on the first afternoon, and he wasn’t wrong. The first day’s hospitality consisted of champagne upon departure, high tea at Alnwick Castle, cocktails as we stepped back on the train, pre-dinner drinks and canapés in the observation car, and a three-course dinner, including roast guinea-fowl and an outstanding wild salmon tartare.

It seemed miraculous that all this should have been concocted in the tiny galley kitchen, not to mention the four kinds of bread baked on board and served fresh with every meal. I asked sous-chef James about the special challenges posed by the limited space. “You can work faster in a smaller kitchen”, he said modestly but conceded that the movement of the train requires chefs to have dexterity and good timing. Meeting guests’ dietary requirements is the biggest challenge, he said. “We have to offer lactose-free, gluten-free and vegetarian options, as well as catering for every personal like and dislike.” Waiters discuss lunch and dinner menus with each guest every day, noting requests for modifications or alternatives, which the chefs then implement.

Communal dining at four-, six- or eight-seat tables is integral to the Royal Scotsman experience. “We aim to create the atmosphere of a house party on wheels,” explained Ian. I quickly got to know everyone in the small group of travellers, enjoying the company of different passengers during meals and excursions, pre-dinner drinks and after-dinner entertainment. Each night brought a different variety of live music. Formal dress is expected on the last evening but during our trip, the ambience remained relaxed. If the more theatrical Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, Belmond’s other luxury train, is a martini, the Royal Scotsman is a single malt  – 25 varieties of which are available on board. Its style is definitely old-school, befitting the passenger demographic, which fell squarely in the 45-75 year bracket.

A number of people on this trip who were returning after previous Royal Scotsman journeys – several were on their second or third, and one couple was on their fifth such holiday. But for everyone, the Majestic England tour was a new experience, the maiden voyage for this particular itinerary. Congestion on the English rail network caused a few glitches, preventing us from achieving what train manager Fred described as the “orchestral” timings possible on Scotland’s uncrowded rail network. We also ate some of our meals in less than scenic surroundings while the train was parked at stations or sidings.

The glory of the Majestic England journey is the landmark cities and properties it enables you to visit within a compact, classic UK itinerary. Your holiday begins and ends in the UK’s great capital cities, Edinburgh and London. As the train travels southward, the picturesque coastal scenery of the north-east yields to the rich agricultural lands of East Anglia. There are privately guided and lavishly hosted visits to two very different, yet equally remarkable, stately homes.

On the first afternoon, we visited Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. Originally built as a fortress to defend the English border against the marauding Scots, this picture-perfect medieval castle provided the location for the flying lessons and Quidditch matches in the first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The next day we were given an after-hours tour of the Queen’s country residence, Sandringham House. The gardens looked magnificent bathed in golden late-summer light, and our excellent guide pointed out many details of royal life on the estate, past and present, including the seat-scales Edward VII used for weighing his guests at arrival and departure to ensure that his hospitality was lavish enough to make them gain weight. Fortunately, the Royal Scotsman hasn’t adopted this practice!

We also experienced two of England’s prettiest and most historic cities. At York, where we stopped on the second day, some guests chose to visit the National Railway Museum, while others opted for the guided city tour or simply to wander the ancient streets of Stonegate, Petergate and the Shambles on their own. I took the tour of the Minster and then broke away to go antiques shopping with one of my new friends. We spent the third morning in Cambridge, where we drifted from the architectural magnificence of King’s College chapel to punting on the River Cam with strawberries and cream – and, of course, champagne.

As I stepped down from the train at London’s Victoria Station on the fourth morning, I reluctantly realised that the next door I entered wouldn’t be flanked by smiling waiters holding trays of cocktails. I would be a Royal Scotsman guest no more – at least until the next time.

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