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Gliding along on track of magical memories

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 14, 2013

  • All of the refined elegance of the British Pullman which is overseen by chief steward Alan Dowling (top)

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It has to be the longest lunch I have ever had – 73 miles long to be precise.

The first of five leisurely courses, preceded by a mid-morning glass of champers and canapes, was served soon after leaving Plymouth.

Such gastronomic decadence is just one of the delights to savour as you glide along aboard the luxury-on-wheels that is the British Pullman.

While an outing terminating at Taunton may not have the cliched intrigue and adventure of its Continental equivalent the Orient Express, it certainly mirrors its opulence.

One does not, after all, need a self-important Belgian detective with waxed moustache quizzing aristocracy over some dastardly doings to spice up the journey. Ironically, a Hercule Poirot look-alike was on our train – clearly an admirer of Agatha Christie's enduring and dapper sleuth, and the time-warp wonder of vintage Pullman.

On this trip, unlike more exotic destinations, it is better to travel than arrive. This is in part due to the joy of bowling along in a bubble of vintage decadence. But also because you are requested to stay on the train at Taunton station, leaving the spell unbroken at a rather lacklustre "end of the line" for an opulent excursion.

The Taunton stop allows the two locomotives at the head of the train to uncouple and attach themselves to the opposite end for the run home.

So you settle back – lulled by a feeling of wellbeing borne from a fusion of fine food, crisp linen, comfy armchairs and attentive staff.

En route, riding this flash of pizz-azz on rails, delusions of grandeur threaten to tip the equilibrium. Raised wine glass in hand, you become aware of being snapped from various embankments and bridges.

To this line-side, anorak-clad "paparazzi", the carriages, in distinctive umber and cream livery with white roofs, are the celebrities. Camera-toting enthusiasts have turned out to record their noble progress – not yours.

Internally, these named carriages display more varied wood in their exquisite marquetry than you would find in an average arboretum.

Each one is unique – an original masterpiece in rare timber veneers, custom-loomed fabrics and solid brass work. Each carriage projects exquisite individuality – historic items that have carved their own niches in history.

Cygnus was used by travelling royalty and heads of state on official visits, and served in the famous Golden Arrow.

Ibis, built in 1925, spent its first two years operating from Milan to Venice on the Simplon-Orient-Express.

Perseus carried Russian leaders Bulganin and Khrushchev during their state visit to Britain on April 18, 1956. In 1976, by then enjoying active retirement on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, Perseus featured in the film Agatha starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman.

Phoenix was the first choice as a royal carriage and a particular favourite of the Queen Mother; it often carried foreign dignitaries on state visits including General de Gaulle in April 1960.

Audrey, built in 1932 for the Brighton Belle, was damaged in 1940 by an air raid on Victoria Station and still has embedded shrapnel from the Second World War. In 1953 it transported the Queen, Queen Mother and Prince Philip to review the fleet.

Before becoming redundant in a modern railway system and, in some cases narrowly missing scrapping, the British Pullman carriages served their time on the most prestigious expresses in Britain and abroad.

While the carriages are celebrities at the pinnacle of transport aristocracy, the staff are also stars. Their courtesy, easy manner and fund of anecdotes about life on board this gilded train is as much a valued part of the experience as the coaches.

Senior steward Alan Dowling has been with the British Pullman since it was launched in 1982. He recalled with a note of pride how he had the pleasure of serving tea to Nelson Mandela.

There was the slightly merry Rolling Stone who wanted to send a postcard home and simply addressed it: Keith Richards, Surrey.

"I can't remember where I live, man. But the postman knows me..." he told Alan.

The same Stone entertained surprised passengers with an acoustic rendition of Chuck Berry's Johnny B Goode – because he could not sleep.

For security reasons, when heads of state were aboard, staff were not allowed to make phone calls. So keen Arsenal supporter and steward Mitchell Slater approached then PM Tony Blair to see if he would mind getting fellow politician and football fan Jack Straw to ring out for the result of the Arsenal match.

For Mitchell's cousin Michael Legg, another steward, one of the nicest memories was seeing a 13-year-old take his gran on an afternoon tea trip aboard the British Pullman.

"He had saved up all his pocket money to give her a treat. It was my best memory because there are not many boys that would think about doing something like that."

Who knows what favourite memories you might take away from a trip on the British Pullman. One thing is for sure – they will most certainly be magical.

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