Full steam ahead with Flying Scotsman and the Northern Belle

The newspapers are billing it as “The world’s most famous steam locomotive hauling Britain’s most luxurious train” while the headline on the local TV station website excitedly trumpets: “Railway history is being made”.

And there, occasionally sighing with a massive hiss of steam, is Flying Scotsman, the first locomotive to run non-stop between London and Edinburgh some 90 years ago and then the first to smash the 100mph speed record as it raced along the East Coast mainline.

On track … Flying Scotsman hauls the Northern Belle. Picture: Will SmithBehind it gleaming in the evening sunlight at Preston Station are the seven 1930s-style Pullman carriages of the Northern Belle, once part of the iconic Orient Express group and now owned by Huddersfield businessman David Pitts. 

It is the first time they have ever been coupled up together. So it really is sort of railway history. And my companion Kit and I are about to share it.

Scotsman should have hauled the train the short distance from Manchester where we and the other passengers boarded, but last-minute engineering work on the track meant the route had to be tweaked.

So instead it is taking over here from the stand-in vintage diesel loco. Soon we will be thundering through the Ribble Valley, past brooding Pendle Hill and Clitheroe Castle, then into the Yorkshire Dales before cutting across to Carnforth.

After that we will head out towards Lancaster and Morecambe Bay on the way back to Preston and finally Manchester Victoria.

The Scotsman only makes 15 outings a year on the mainline network these days and is restricted to travelling just 300 passenger miles. So not surprisingly whenever it does, huge crowds turn out to watch. 

Things became so bad earlier this year with people crowding station platforms and trespassing on the tracks trying to get a better view there was even ominous talk of stopping future outings.

So before this trip Network Rail, who are responsible for the railway network, and British Transport Police, both appealed to the public to stay safe by respecting the rules.

Going loco … Flying Scotsman is ‘mobbed’ at Preston StationNevertheless, the platform at Preston Station is crammed with eager trainspotters and photographers as Kit and I, after watching the engine coupled up, stroll back to our seats past the line of burgundy and cream-painted carriages.

Each coach bears the name of a stately home or castle and by each door is a little red carpet with a liveried steward standing to attention.

Ours is called Warwick. It is like a throwback to the 1930s with marquetry, oak panels inset with walnut, boxwood, satinwood and maple, and flower arrangements on the tables Even the toilet boasts fancy mosaics.

No sooner are we slumped back into the comfy armchair-style seats than, with a piercing whistle, the Scotsman is off. Puffs of white smoke, and then occasional clouds of darker stuff, drift lazily past the window.

Northern Belle managing director Jeanette Snape promised before-hand that we would be transported back to the golden days of rail travel; the time when how you reached your destination was as important as the destination itself.

I close my eyes, listening to the rhythmic clickety-clack of the wheels on the tracks, and for a few minutes vividly recall childhood days when catching a train was indeed an exciting adventure instead of the boring commuter slog into the office.  

Hot stuff … chef Matthew Green in his onboard kitchenBut my reverie is soon interrupted by a steward handing over our first glass of champagne and politely inquiring what wine we would like to order with the seven-course dinner that will shortly be served.

Onboard chef Matthew Green works in a kitchen that was fitted out nearly 60 years ago and is little bigger than a cupboard.  It is not, he admits, the easiest place in which to prepare slap-up meals for 276 passengers.

For a start there is barely enough room for two people to squeeze in, and when you’re racing round bends at 75mph, then pans can sometimes go flying. But despite that, the hot smoked salmon starter with Jersey royal salad and sapphire is delicious.

So is the Summer green vegetable soup that follows, before the main curse of roast corn-fed chicken with a herby crust and Cumbrian air-dried ham, served with asparagus, young peas, truffled carrots and a herb dressing.

Then comes the Great British cheeseboard followed by a dessert of Summer berry Pimm’s jelly with elderflower and lean verbena dream.

It’s all washed down with the very reasonable Côtes du Rhône that is included in the price, and a couple of glasses of port to finish off before the coffee.

Timetable restrictions because of the new route mean we don’t stop at Carnforth, which is a pity. The station has been restored to its original condition when the classic 1940s weepie Brief Encounter was filmed there, and if there had been time we could have puckered up under the iconic clock where Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson stole their illicit kiss.

Rhythm of the train … the Northern Belle’s resident musiciansBut never mind. Instead the train’s two strolling troubadours – one with a trombone, the other a guitar – are belting out a rousing version of “Just One Cornetto” by our table. Then to add another touch of magic, along comes a magician who somehow makes his handkerchief disappear only to mysteriously reappear hidden up my jacket sleeve.

Hmmm, I nervously check my wallet is still there after he has gone. Fortunately it is!

All too soon, some six hours after leaving Manchester Victoria station, we are pulling back into the platform. It’s been a wonderful trip. Kit and I look at each other as we climb off and both say the same thing: “Let’s do it again?”

More information

The Northern Belle runs trips to destinations all over Britain from stations all over the country. There’s even a top-hatted trip from London to the Cheltenham Gold Cup next year. For more details see www.northernbelle.co.uk or phone 01270 899681.

For rail holidays in the UK and overseas, Silver Travel Advisor recommends Great Rail Journeys and Railbookers.


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Malcolm Tattersall

Journalist, member of BGTW

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