Like so many, steam trains have held a nostalgic allure ever since watching the 1970 film adaptation of E. Nesbit’s classic The Railway Children and no Christmas is complete in my household without it; laughing and crying alternately with Bobby and her siblings as they wave to the 9:15 to Paddington and “send their love to Father”. If I wouldn’t exactly call myself a trainspotter, I do relish any opportunity to hop aboard a restored Pullman carriage and thereby time travel steam-hauled. It’s remarkable that it’s possible to still do this and also happens to be a unique way to take in more of the varied British landscape.
Steam Dreams and their London to York Christmas Market trip was the perfect occasion for heralding the start of the festive season whilst taking in one of my favourite British cities, an appropriate destination to arrive at via steam train due to the city being home to the National Railway Museum where they have a collection of over 100 important locomotives. I first visited the museum on a school trip and stood awe-struck on peering into the lavish interiors of the Royal Train, akin to a life-sized doll’s house, on which Queen Victoria (the first British monarch to travel by train) journeyed across the country with her household in stupendous comfort.
The early start certainly recaptured the excitement of waking up before dawn on Christmas morning, a feeling only heightened as we watched the train, puffing at full steam ahead, pull into the station. Departing at 7am from the Great Northern Railway’s London terminus, King’s Cross, designed by Lewis Cubitt and opened in 1852, the Steam Dreams stewards no sooner greeted us and invited us to settle into our comfortable Dining Car armchair seats than we were offered a Bellini (created with alcohol free sparkling wine in our case) and tea and coffee as we made our selections from the breakfast menu, all the more impressive when you know that it’s prepared on a moving train as we travelled out of the city towards Lincolnshire, along the edge of Nottinghamshire and into Yorkshire.
The much welcome tea and coffee continued to come round at regular intervals, along with a procession of breakfast dishes; tricolour melon and fresh blueberry salad in a minted syrup with natural yoghurt and seeded granola followed by a cooked breakfast of either Loch Duart smoked salmon with poached eggs, toasted sourdough and a chive Hollandaise or a hearty Full English, followed by freshly baked pastries. Although Steam Dreams offer more affordable packages, the sense of glamour afforded by their first class offering undoubtedly made the 5 hours or so northbound pass in a blink of an eye, not that you embark on a trip of this kind to get to your destination in any hurry! Steam train experiences are wonderful for reinforcing the oft-said cliché that travel should be about the journey rather than the destination and in today’s frenetic world it’s not a bad philosophy to embrace.
Founded in 1999 by steam train enthusiast Marcus Robertson (whose mother wrote The Wombles) Steam Dreams evokes the golden era of luxury steam train travel, with 180 journeys planned for 2024 each designed to capture the nostalgia and elegance of this mode of travel and combining the beautiful British countryside and a menu celebrating the finest produce from around the country. There is simply nothing to compare with the luxury travel of yesteryear and Steam Dreams, with their friendly and professional team of stewards revive the tradition so well. Seated in our atmospheric Pullman carriage at a linen-dressed table for two, husband and I were served beautifully presented dishes from fine bone china as smoke billowed past the window, smiling to one another whenever we were overtaken by high speed trains and waving at delighted crowds and dedicated trainspotters along the route, such as the sole enthusiast standing in a lonely field with his camera and tripod at the ready.
Call me biased, but our historic black Stanier Class 5 No. 45231 steam express locomotive, ‘The Sherwood Forester’, built in 1936 by Armstrong-Whitworth for the London, Midland and Scottish railway, is a real head-turner and once made a show-stealing cameo appearance in one of my favourite films, the Richard Attenborough-directed 1993 award-winning ‘Shadowlands’ starring Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis. Shot on the Great Central Railway, with Loughborough Central standing in for Oxford, amusingly, the loco had to undergo hair and make-up so as to make it appear as greasy and grimy as a commercial train of the 1950s would have appeared to passengers of the period. Fortunately for us, we had the pleasure of seeing the locomotive in tip-top condition.
After a few hours of leisure in which to stretch our legs and enjoy York’s world-famous St. Nicholas market, we were ready to enjoy the return journey to London on Braunton, with a traditional festive dinner complete with Christmas crackers, a glass of fizz accompanied by prawn cocktail canapes to kick off proceedings, a starter of smoked and poached salmon, Bronze turkey ballotine, British cheese selection (there is something rather hilarious about two stewards negotiating a cheese trolley down a train carriage), a decadent chocolate orange delice and coffee and mince pies for the final leg of the journey as guests chatted, played cards, read or, dare I admit it, dozed. Not only was I granted sweet dreams, but Steam Dreams that left me refreshed and ready to plan my next adventure.
We experienced the Steam Dreams steam hauled London to York Christmas Market full day journey on Saturday 18th November 2023, travelling in Pullman Dining priced from £395 pp. For more information on future Steam Dreams experiences please visit the website.
Images by Rebecca Lipkin.