Would you like to dress in your smartest clothes, step back into the 1920s and 1930s and be treated like a lord or lady?
Your vintage carriage awaits you! The British Pullman is a train of 11 beautifully-restored carriages, each with its own individual design and character.
Originally, it took passengers from London Victoria station to the English channel, where they would travel by ferry across to France in order to board the famous Orient Express train. The elegant Pullman carriages, with their famous cream and umber livery, ensured that Orient Express passengers from London enjoyed consistent standards of luxury throughout their intercontinental travels.
Decline and revival
Interest in luxury train travel declined during the post-war decades in Europe. It took an American businessman with a big dream and a fat wallet to bring back the Orient Express experience in its full former glory.
James Sherwood, owner of a marine leasing company called Sea Containers, spent £20 million on tracking down, buying and restoring 27 old carriages. One of his finds had been adapted for transporting pigeons, while another had been a brothel in Limoges!
James re-launched the London-Venice service in 1982, under the name of the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE). When the British Pullman wasn’t taking Orient Express passengers to Folkestone for the cross-channel trip, it was used for days out to various picturesque locations such as cathedral cities like Bath and Salisbury, or afternoon tea trips around Kent.
Sea Containers and the VSOE
Trains are my absolute favourite mode of travel, and I was very excited by this re-launch. During the 1980s I was working in London, close to the South Bank where Sea Containers House is located. Sometimes I would walk along the Thames during my lunch break, and head past Sea Containers House, intrigued by the story of its founder and fellow rail enthusiast.
In those days, the building was rather flashy, an impressive plate glass edifice overlooking the river and decorated with gold balls. Its nameplate even resembled that of a railway locomotive.
Today the building is a luxury hotel and the flamboyant gold balls are long gone, but the Sea Containers name remains.
During my South Bank days I also made the occasional hop over the Thames to Victoria station to watch the train arrive or depart, which was very exciting although I longed to be on board! A visit from my parents, who lived in northern England, gave me the perfect excuse to buy some tickets. I knew they would love the experience.
Our day began early, leaving my home in south west London at my usual work time with all the other commuters. But this day was different. As we walked through the concourse at Victoria, watching all the workers buying their coffees and Burger King breakfast buns, I couldn’t help but gloat a tiny little bit. Instead of heading to the office, I was going to be served with smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and champagne.
My parents, who had dressed smartly at my request, didn’t know they were going on the British Pullman until we arrived at VSOE HQ on platform 2, and the surprise was revealed. What a fun moment that was!
Each carriage is demarcated by a hand-painted sign and crest, and has its own assigned steward. After checking in, we were shown to our carriage, which was called Ione, and introduced to our steward Kevin.
My mother, who seemed to hit it off rather well with Kevin, adored the plush upholstery and textiles, crisp linen tablecloths, silver cutlery, fine bone china and crystal glasses. Dad, a precision engineer and toolmaker, loved the intricate marquetry, mahogany fittings, ornate brass luggage racks, mosaic tiles and stained glass in the bathrooms.
Needless to say, food, drink and service were impeccable throughout the day. We were encouraged to explore the train and visit other carriages, to appreciate the various different styles of decoration. Some are more ornate than others, and some are recognizably art deco than others.
Souvenirs and merchandise were available for those who wished to take a memory home. It was a fantastic day and we all loved the experience.
Wave like the royals
I’ve enjoyed several other trips on the British Pullman over the years, including steam-hauled specials. The train always attracts attention wherever it goes, but a steam engine at the front brings the train-spotters out in large numbers all along the route.
Sometimes, when still within the London area, the train is passed at close quarters by local trains. It’s fun to see bored commuters do a double take when they spot the British Pullman going past! Staring eyes and open mouths are not uncommon, from those who haven’t seen the train before. Passers-by on the streets often wave. It all adds to the feeling of being a VIP for the day.
The Belmond era
Today, the train still takes VSOE passengers to the ferry and does the tours around Britain, including to Highclere Castle in Hampshire, where Downton Abbey was filmed.
Sea Containers, now sadly in liquidation, is no longer involved in the service, but the current operator Belmond is a direct descendant of the company, and standards are as high as they ever were.
Some rules have had to be updated for the times. Blissfully, guests are requested not to use mobile phones in the carriages – heaven! Period dress is not necessary, although it’s fun to do if you feel inclined; smart day wear is all that is required – no jeans, T shirts or trainers.
My most recent trip on the train was to Cambridge and Ely, with my husband. It was a very enjoyable day. Our group was treated to private tours of King’s College Chapel and Ely Cathedral, which we were taken to by coach.
For my next trip, I would like to try a festive occasion, such as a Christmas or New Year lunch. I’m sure they would be magical.
James Sherwood – a tribute
James Sherwood passed away in May 2020, and will be remembered as an irrepressible entrepreneur, bon vivant and Anglophile. Obituaries recalling his colourful life appeared around the world, including in the Guardian, New York Times and Washington Post.
I will always be grateful to him for bringing the wonderful British Pullman carriages back to life, showcasing British engineering and craftsmanship at its best and giving my family and me some of our most treasured experiences and memories. And for brightening up so many of my lunch breaks!
James’s book Orient Express: a personal journey tells the story of the restoration and the re-launch, and includes some entertaining anecdotes as well as some business tips for those in the leisure industry.
If you like heritage trains, you might enjoy my post Steam trains of England – 7 of my favourites.
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