Peter Ellegard enjoys a festive treat on the tracks
It’s Christmas week and London’s streets are bustling with shoppers looking for last-minute presents. Meanwhile, I’m settling into my comfy Pullman seat aboard an Inter-City carriage behind a vintage steam locomotive at London’s Victoria Station sipping Bucks Fizz with my partner.
We’re on the Steam Dreams Christmas Steam Express, a relaxing festive journey out of London, looping around the Surrey Hills for almost four hours before returning to Victoria – and I’m chuffed to bits.
And these nostalgic trips take place all year round, so you can take spring and summer day trips from London, with additional stops, to Winchester, Chesterfield for Chatsworth, Weymouth and the Garden of England, with many other great journeys too. Have a truly memorable experience in comfort behind historic locomotives.
Magical sounds and smells
I grew up with the magical sounds and smells of steam trains, stopping on a railway bridge I had to cross as a young lad in Southend on my way to and from primary school so that I could watch them pass underneath me before being enveloped in billowing smoke.
Travelling by steam train was an exciting adventure and I remember soot smudging the pages of books I was reading when we went through tunnels with the windows open.
I still get a thrill and buzz of nostalgia whenever I see or hear them, and even more so when I have the chance to ride on one.
The anticipation builds as the loco pulls into the platform. The waiting passengers are then directed to the correct carriage by the train’s friendly staff.
Our carriage is decked out with strings of Christmas lights and green, orange and yellow ribbons draped between the ceiling and the overhead luggage racks, while the windows are decorated with white and gold snowflakes and framed by green garlands hung with baubles, colourful bows and dancing reindeer. The high-backed seats all have red headrest protectors with a white swallow motif.
Everyone gets into the festive spirit by pulling the silver crackers on each table and putting on the coloured paper hats that spill out. We share a table with a pleasant couple who have taken several similar trips, the husband telling us that he is a model railway enthusiast and does much of the modelling himself.
With a shrill whistle the train chugs off into the skyscraper-dotted darkness for the evening excursion. Our ironclad steed The Sherwood Forester initially pushes the carriages before shunting into a siding in West London to haul us from the front for the rest of the trip.
During the journey we cross the Thames five times, the first occasion next to the chimneys of the regenerated Battersea Power Station and then at Staines after flirting with the river at Kew, skirting Heathrow and passing under the M25 motorway by Runnymede, where King John signed the Magna Carta.
We are oblivious to the nose-to-tail, rush-hour traffic above as we tuck into our three-course Premier Dining festive dinner, created by Steam Dreams executive chef Nick Allen, being rocked gently in our cosy, swaying cabin.
After the welcome Bucks Fizz our steward, smartly-attired in a dark grey shirt, green tie with a Steam Dreams tie pin and a light grey apron, brings the first of our courses: roulade of Loch Duart smoked salmon infused with lemon and dill, citrus emulsion and dressed shoots. It goes down a treat.
The main course is roast bronze turkey, goose fat barrel cut “roasties”, pigs in blankets, seasonal vegetables, rich poultry jus and cranberry sauce. I love a good Christmas turkey dinner and this hits the mark perfectly, as does the accompanying bottle of 2021 Simonsig Estate Chenin Blanc-Pinotage rose wine from Stellenbosch in South Africa we share between the two of us.
Dessert is a delightful warm apple and cinnamon tart with spiced crumble topping, winter berry coulis and “boozy” cream, rounded off with freshly-brewed coffee and mini mince pies.
Halfway through the excursion and before pudding is served, the train makes a 10-minute pit stop at Chertsey station for passengers to stretch their legs and take a comfort break before continuing its journey via Woking, Guildford, Reigate, East Croydon and Clapham Junction among other places. I stroll along the platform to take a closer look at the loco.
Built in 1936 for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and sporting the number 45231 it was given by British Rail when the railways were nationalised in 1948, The Sherwood Forester sports a shiny black paint scheme with red highlight lines. The Stanier Class locomotive was stationed at Carnforth until the last day of steam on British Rail in August 1968 and has operated charter trips and special services when it went into preservation immediately afterwards. It has undergone regular restoration since then.
The train’s engine crew are only too happy to let some passengers climb onto the footplate to see the cab close-up and blow the whistle, doing the same when we arrive back in London. As we disembark, the engine is puffing clouds of white steam up to Victoria Station’s rafters like an athlete exhaling after an arduous run.
Whether you are a steam train enthusiast or not, the Christmas Steam Express excursion is a wonderful way to kick off the festive season in style. You can choose from Premier Dining, First Class, with a festive snack box included, or Standard Class, where passengers can bring their own food and drink.
I wholeheartedly recommend pushing the boat out to enjoy the Pullman-style Premier Dining experience. It will put a seasonal smile on your face.
Find out more
Steam Dreams operates several Christmas Dream Express trips during December, in addition to Santa trips. The Guildford-based company, which was founded in 1999, runs 50 charter steam trains and four holidays by steam a year.
To book or, purchase a Steam Dreams Rail Co. gift voucher, call 01483 209888 or go online at www.steamdreams.co.uk.