Mum cried when I told her, I knew she would. Being invited for a day out on the Orient Express inspires that kind of reaction. We’re talking happy tears of course, she was without a doubt overjoyed at the prospect of spending some time on the world’s most luxurious and romantic train but there was more to it than that. Her father, my grandfather, worked on the railways and she spent many happy childhood moments riding Glasgow’s old steam trains on his knee. And as Mum is as emotional as a Victorian heroine at the best of times – she pretty much cries every Saturday night for the entire ten weeks of X-factor – those warm memories along with the new mother-and-daughter ones we were about to create inspired a torrent of tears.
It wasn’t long though before sentiment was replaced with excitement. Outfits were planned and arrangements were made. Our day out was to consist of a six-hour Christmas-themed journey through the English countryside on the Northern Belle, one of the Venice-Simpleton Orient Express trains that operate day trips and weekend breaks around the UK. We were setting off from Manchester but the route was to remain a mystery until we arrived.
Frocked up and tissues at the ready, we alighted at Victoria Station to be greeted with the glorious sight of the chocolate and cream-coloured carriages of the Northern Belle while a traditional brass band played Christmas favourites in the background. It was all so retro and lovely, I was worried Mum might burst in to tears again. Thankfully, before I had to reach for the Kleenex, we were given the nod by a dapper OE attendant and led to our carriage.
Inside white-gloved stewards glided past bearing bottles of champagne while smartly-dressed guests rattled their jewellery as they settled into deep armchairs. Everything about it echoed the golden Thirties from the walnut veneer walls with their magnificent marquetry to the gleaming brasswear and Lalique lamps. Mum was giddy but it was clear that everyone was excited; the guests were a friendly mix of young and old, lots of couples and a more than a handful of groups of friends and were all happily chatting and snapping pictures. We found ourselves sat at a table for four, sharing our space with two stylish sisters, who by the end of the day would turn out to be new Facebook friends and post-journey drinking buddies.
The route of our magical mystery tour was soon revealed to be a trip around the Cheshire and Shropshire countryside. Hmmm. I had assumed that we would be touring somewhere scenic like the nearby Lake District or Peak District rather than the industrial estates of Stockport and transport depots of Crewe. A little bit disappointing but not a huge deal as a trip on the Orient Express really is more about the train than anything else.
As we pulled out of the station all eyes were on the Christmas menu, a suitably festive five-course feast complete with wine and Christmas crackers. The crystal and silverwear softly clinked as course after course of delicious food was deftly presented by ever-smiling staff.
All of the food was absolutely delicious and beautifully presented. Our stewards for the day, Stuart and Amy, a grandfather and granddaughter team from Manchester, did a grand job of looking after everyone.
In between courses we were also treated to some rather lively on board entertainment. First up was Lido the magician who impressed guests with a series of “how did he do that?” card tricks.
Followed by a couple of marvellous musicians playing show tunes, swing songs and Christmas favourites with the panache.
Throughout the day the atmosphere was refined yet incredibly friendly. Passengers chatted amongst themselves for the most part but as the wine and champagne flowed people starting leaning across the aisles telling their stories to each to each other. And everybody had a story; one of the young ladies sat with us had recently lost her father and her sister had brought her along to cheer her up; another lady was celebrating her birthday; while a long-time passenger in the next cabin told me that he has commissioned his coffin to be made in the shape of the Northern Belle! Seriously, the guy’s casket features walnut marquetry and is lined with the same upholstery material of his favourite train. Even Stuart, our steward, had a secret tale; he was in fact the brother of comedian Russ Abbott – lots of “See you Jimmys” in the carriage after that revelation. It certainly wasn’t your average train time chat.
My favourite fellow guests though were George and Frances who were sat across the aisle from us. Aged 83 and 80 respectively, they informed us that they were in their sixtieth year of marriage – apparently the secret is that you have to be friends first – and inspired us all to tears (luckily I had a substantial stash of tissues on hand). This diamond duo had also travelled all over the world – China was Frances’ favourite – had climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge and sky-dived – YES, SKY-DIVED – from 12,000 feet over Bondai Beach just two years ago. Incredible.
By the time our gilded chariot pulled back into Manchester, everyone had become firm friends and when it came time to say our goodbyes there were lots of hugs and best wishes all round. Full of Christmas spirit and bon homie, we bade the beautiful Northern Belle a goodbye – a tearful one of course.
Visit www.orient-express.com for more information.