Would you like to dress up, step back in time and be treated like a VIP?
This post was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated.
Your vintage carriage awaits you! The British Pullman is a train of eleven beautifully-restored carriages, each with its own individual design and character.
Originally, the train 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 brand 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 ostentatious gold balls. Its nameplate even resembled that of a railway locomotive.
Today the building is a luxury hotel and the 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 more 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
Since then 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
The Sea Containers company no longer exists in its original form, but there are one or two descendants of the company – one of which is Belmond, the current operator of the British Pullman. Fortunately they have upheld the same standards and traditions.
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.
An exciting development announced in 2022 was the refurbishment of the carriage named Cygnus by film director Wes Anderson. From the photos I’ve seen, it looks amazing and I can’t wait for the chance to travel in it!
Today, the train still takes VSOE passengers to the Kent coast for their cross-channel ferry and some day trippers for Kentish cream teas. You can also enjoy days out to grand homes such as Sandringham, Longleat, Blenheim Palace, Waddeston Manor, Chatsworth and Highclere Castle in Hampshire, where Downton Abbey was filmed.
Alternatively, you can visit great British cities such as Brighton, Canterbury, Bath, Winchester or Bristol. 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.
There are also themed trips, such as murder mystery lunches, the great British seaside, golden age of rail travel (sometimes steam-hauled), seasonal and sporting events and culinary indulgences. Sometimes, famous guest chefs will host lunch or dinner on board. These are very popular trips and tend to sell out fast.
For my next trip on the British Pullman, I would like to try a festive occasion, such as a Christmas or New Year lunch. I’m sure they would be magical. After that, how about the ultimate trip – to Folkestone, then across the English Channel to board the luxurious VSOE. Imagine! But this is where things have started to get a little interesting…
A french rival
In a twist worthy of an Agatha Christie novel, a researcher working on behalf of the French Railways (SNCF) managed to locate some of the original Orient Express carriages in a remote Polish siding, where they had been for around 10 years. They are now back in France under an extensive restoration programme led by Parisian architect Maxime D’Angeac.
Details are being kept under wraps, but word is that the refurbished train will represent the ultimate in luxury and comfort. The original Art Deco marquetry and Lalique glass panels are said to have survived well, but are under careful restoration along with other features. How exciting is that!
Amid all this activity, a new name – Orient Express – has emerged, under the umbrella of French hospitality company Accor. The re-launch of the Orient Express, which is expected in 2024 – just in time for the Paris Olympics – is but one of their plans for the new brand. They’re also launching a vintage train in Italy in 2023, along with a luxury hotel chain.
These are certainly interesting times, especially for vintage train fans! It seems that environmental consciousness has led to a renewed interest in railways. I can’t wait to see the new Orient Express trains, and any other vintage services that might be brought back to life in the future.
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! I’m certain without the trailblazing example of James and his restoration efforts, others might never have taken the leap of re-launching other wonderful vintage trains.
James’s book Orient Express: a personal journey tells his story 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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