A day from a golden age – The Northern Belle
I was never a trainspotter or a model rail enthusiast, it wasn’t really my thing. However from Charlotte Gray to From Russia with Love to The Hogwarts Express I’ve always had a fascination with the elegance of rail travel of days gone by, of individual compartments and fine dining cars. My first ever jouney out of Scotland by rail was in a six seater compartment and that feeling of travelling in style has never left me. Therefore I was delighted to receive an invitation to travel aboard The Northern Belle for the maiden journey of the new carriage, Duart, on the journey from Edinburgh to Oban in the beautiful Scottish west-highlands.
If you have ever travelled aboard Orient Express in Britain then there’s a good chance it was Northern Belle you were riding on. Like it’s older sister British Pullman they are part of Venice Simplon Orient-Express group. A name that immediately has your mind running to a golden age of glamorous ladies, elegant gentlemen, style, sophistication and the occasional Belgian detective. Stepping onto the train across the red carpet immediately takes you back to the 1930s, with the stunning handcrafted marquetry wall panelling, the train staff in burgundy uniforms and tables set with vintage crystal and hallmarked cutlery. Once seated it really is a chance to sit back, soak up the atmosphere and the history and enjoy an amazing journey.
The carriages of Northen Belle’s rake are all named after castles or stately homes along the routes that it takes. Warwick, Alnwick and Chatsworth were being joined by Duart, the seventh carriage, for the first time. A small and intimate carriage this was formerly a member of the Royal Household train and is named after the castle on the Isle of Mull. It was fitting that its inaugural journey should be to Oban where many a traveller boards the ferry to that beautiful island.
Boarding in Dumbarton which is the ‘Glasgow’ stop for the train on the west highland line we were treated to brunch. All four courses of it. An Orient Express Bellini of peach puree and prosecco in VSOE engraved flutes was followed by fresh fruit salad, served from a silver bowl it was these touches that really set off the elegance and reminded you why a journey like this was special. The ‘main’ course of smoked salmon parcel with scrambled egg, Whitby crab and hollandaise was spectacular. Well smoked salmon but not overpoweringly so, wrapped around rich creamy eggs atop a crumpet with little piles of sweet crab meat and sharp hollandaise. A little pile of caviar on top providing just a little more luxury. With coffee and tea served alongside this was the kind of breakfast that you dream about being served in these surroundings. Fruit bread and pastries provided a little sweet finish and I felt like going back to sleep as I sank a little deeper into my huge comfortable seat.
However the journey from Glasgow to Oban passes through some stunning countryside at a different aspect than you’ll see from the road if you, like me, are a frequent traveller north. Passing right alongside the Clyde estuary looking south of the river the train then sweeps up Gare Loch and Loch Long as you see the lovely little village of Arrochar below. The mountains start to become grander and more imposing either side as you travel further into Argyll and up Loch Lomond-side, the largest body of water in Scotland. As you pass Crianlarich, the sign that tells you the highlands have truly begun, you’ll see Ben More, probably the highest peak on the route. At Tyndrum the line splits north to Fort William or west to Oban. We carried on west to Dalmally where some of the passengers departed to join buses taking them over the hills to Inverary on Loch Fyne. Northern Belle carried on past the beautiful Loch Awe and Kilchurn Castle to Ben Cruachan, Loch Etive and finally met the sea at Oban. This is a quite breathtaking route as the rugged highlands of Scotland begin to rise all around you interspersed with majestic lochs and castles full of romance and bloody history. A trip through an ancient land aboard a mode of transport from yesteryear.
In Oban there was the opportunity to visit the town’s distillery. Dating from 1794 this tiny 2 still distillery is a really good visit with charming informative staff and affords and opportunity to taste the 14 year old malt which takes so much character from the sea which it sits yards from. A walk up the hill behind will take you to the landmark that is McCaig’s Folly, a 19th century unfinished collieseum type monument. In town there are many restaurants serving seafood which has been landed locally. However having had lunch as we departed Dalmally, beautiful roast chicken breast with barley risotto, a walk to breathe in the wonderful sea air was required more than food. The town of Oban is also home to the small Oban Bay Brewery, and it was here in the attached bar/restaurant of Cuan Mor that we sat for the last hour watching the world go by and sampling some delightful ales.
The return journey was another sumptuous affair, collars loosened and with more chat flowing with the fellow guests we boarded to a stunning array of canapes including anchovy sticks, blue cheese puffs and duck and grape crostini. All of this washed down with what seemed like never ending refills of Laurent Perrier champagne, the train staff now changed into black uniforms for the evening service. One thing I really don’t like is stuffy, false over officious service, it simply makes me uncomfortable, some people like it and that’s fine but it’s not for me. However the first thing that struck me on Northern Belle was just how unstuffy it was, how genuine but totally unobtrusive the service was and this really added to the journey. Lead Steward Simon and his team of Mihai and Jess were superb, never fazed by anything and were always on hand. As I walked through the other carriages with Anna, who was hosting the event from Orient Express, I was also taken by how lively and interactive the other carriages were and how genuinely happy everybody seemed to be, the air of cigar smoke and superiority that I expected wasn’t there and I apologise now to all the imaginary travellers in my head that I thought would be on board.
The reason I was walking through with Anna was to visit the kitchen. This was a real highlight and a real education, the genuine feet under the water of the graceful swan above. Carriage by carriage was plated up with the five course dinner on the correct crockery at the correct time and all to perfection from a tiny galley kitchen two thirds the width of the railway carriage and barely 10 feet long, under the expert eye of Chef Alex. The meal itself was a beautiful roasted red pepper and sweet potato soup, rich in flavour with intense pepper offset by the sweet potato coming through. The main course of roast loin of Aberdeen angus was moist and succulent. However the highlights were still to come. The cheeseboard was the kind carried by two men and that bridged the aisle of the train when being served. Isle of Mull cheddar was joined by Strathdon Blue, Somerset Brie and Isle of Avalon among others, a beautiful range of flavours and textures from all over Britain served with biscuits and chutneys. Being a bit of a cheese addict I did momentarily lament the lack of a goats cheese, but only momentarily. I contemplated a glass of port with such a beautiful full flavoured selection but decided to stick with my Chianti Reserva. If the cheese would have been even better with port then a dessert wine from the wonderful list would have rendered the sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream legendary. Rich, sweet, oozy with cream that was so concentrated in flavour that an involuntary smile appeared on my face, even the raspberry garnish was perfectly ripe and full of flavour. Coffee and petit fours followed and we were nearly home.
This was a truly memorable day, a once in a lifetime experience for some, probably for me, and one that I will remember for a long time. So many highlights to choose from along that stunning piece of railway in my beloved west highlands but what shone through for me was the feeling of style and glamour and slow paced enjoyment, a throwback experience from a bygone age, from the golden age of the railways.