There isn’t much glamor in rail travel these days, especially in London. Overcrowded, unreliable and overpriced, the poor state of the city’s transport system is one of the few topics that bridge a growing generational divide. Trains are a means to an end. You don’t ride them out of choice. That is, unless, you have a seat on the British Pullman, A Belmond Train.
It may be hard to believe, but train travel was once an experience to savor. Think comfy seats, silver service, black ties and free-flowing champagne – the British Pullman is one of the few remaining relics from this golden age.
Each of its 11 meticulously restored passenger carriages comes with a rich backstory. The late Queen Elizabeth II has traveled on at least one. Others have less glamor attached, but are nonetheless still intriguing. One, that shall remain nameless, spent time as a chicken coup.
Today, those 11 carriages are living their best lives, and regularly transport appropriately attired guests around the English countryside while serving everything from afternoon teas to Michelin-starred dinners. Elite Traveler was invited to experience its guest chef series as Ollie Dabbous of HIDE fame brought his signature style on board for one night only.
The evening begins in fine style with a champagne reception inside the British Pullman’s private waiting room in Victoria Station. The sound of a live band acts like a conch shell, beckoning all those in elegant evening wear to the right place, adjacent to Platform 2.
This is where we wait as Dabbous and his team prepare for the evening ahead. If cooking Michelin-starred food in a world-class kitchen is a feat, then doing it on board a moving train is a miracle. Dabbous mingles among guests as they devour delicious canapes and happily admits that a lot of he and his team had done a lot of the prep in the Piccadilly restaurant, with only finishing touches applied on board.
He tells the story of one chef, who upon seeing the facilities on board assumed there was one kitchen per carriage, only to be told there were just two on the entire train. Despite his meticulous preparations, there is still plenty of work to do on his six-course menu.
Soon after, we join him on board. All guests are assigned a carriage, each one capable of seating just over 20 people. However, Belmond purposely limited tonight’s event to around 150 guests. That helps Dabbous deliver the Michelin-level his diners expect and creates an intimate ambiance.
We are on board Ione, a carriage built in 1928. Like much of the train, the restoration of Ione focuses on its Art Deco roots. Every carriage is unique and Ione is no different. It is the only carriage upholstered by Liberty of London. The legendary store bequests its famed prints on each of the plush armchairs and comes back to reupholster them every few years.
Guests may prefer to be in other carriages, such as Phoenix, which is rumored to have been Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite when it formed part of the Royal Train. Political buffs would enjoy Perseus, a carriage on Winston Churchill’s funeral train. Younger guests would no doubt revel in the Instagrammable Cygnus, which was recently redesigned by visionary film director Wes Anderson.
But I am immediately taken by the carriage I have been assigned. The moment you step on board, you are laced into its history. Ione is now my favorite carriage, if only because for five hours, it is my carriage.
Such is the wonderment at my surroundings, I almost forget that one of the UK’s most exciting young chefs is about to serve up a specially designed menu. In keeping with the theme of Britishness, Dabbous devised a menu celebrating the best ingredients these Isles have to offer. That includes the welcome drink, a delightful English sparkling wine from the growingly revered Gusbourne Estate.
The ingredients are sourced from the same suppliers Dabbous uses at HIDE. The monkfish comes from the Cornish coast, the lamb from the Lake District and the cheese from Lincolnshire. Responsibility for the wine pairings is graciously handed over to France and Italy respectively.
In between courses, the servicemen offer insight into the history of the train. It was the pipedream of US-born business James Sherwood, who would later go on to found the successful London company Sea Containers.
Sherwood died in 2020, but his legacy is secured. He individually sourced each carriage between 1977 and 1982. Some were in museums; others were destined for scrap. They were then brought up to modern standards and revitalized to their former glory. It was a huge investment, both in terms of time and money.
But today the British Pullman acts as a priceless connection to a bygone era. It enriches the lives of everyone who sees it, if only for a few moments. And with revelers paying over $600 a head to be on board tonight, its owners are handsomely rewarded.
A five-and-a-half hour train journey could get you up to Edinburgh if done correctly. All we’ve achieved in that time is a large loop to the scenic North Downs and back. Following a delectable dessert and another chat with Dubbois as he walked through the carriage to speak to every single guest, we pull into Victoria Station. The time has flown.
Over 100 people in tailored tuxedos and designer cocktail dresses are set loose into the London night. Bow ties have long been undone by this point. Some have visibly had too much fun. For others, it seems the night is only just beginning. We may be in very different times now, but, for one night only, we fully embraced the heady days of the Roaring Twenties.