“ Take a journey through England's magnificent countryside, cities or coastal regions aboard a historic carriage. Aside from the memories of yesteryear one can enjoy a delicious meal along the way. „
Buyer beware - if you choose to use this company, make sure you have travel insurance. My partner and I had a trip to Norwich planned to attend a carol service. Having travelled on the Orient Express this past summer, we were inspired to take a more local journey for a Christmas treat. It seemed relatively expensive to me, particularly as meals were not provided, and as I had not been impressed with the level of customer service experienced on the British Pullman section of our trip from Venice to London, but I went along with it.
Due to an immediate family bereavement overseas, we were not able to make the trip to Norwich. My partner emailed the company to request a transfer or refund but they did not reply, so I called them only to be told that I could only transfer 25% of the original value to another trip, the only option to a full cancellation forfeiting 100% of the price paid. Obviously, I was not impressed with their lack of compassion and flexibility and their short-sighted policy. We will not be using this company again.
I will start this review by saying that I am not a 'rail enthusiast', I don't know a lot about trains, and am no expert on trains. I will try to be as informative as possible, but I will provide links at the bottom of the page if you do want to know more. I realise this is a fairly lengthy review, but it is a lot of money to spend on something, so all the info I would want to know about it is here.
The Boy loves steam trains. So, for his 21st birthday/ Christmas/ our anniversary/ Valentines Day (very cunning, one present but 4 occasions!) I booked us a trip on a steam train from London King's Cross to Norwich and back again.
~ About Steam Dreams ~
Steam Dreams is a company which runs steam trains to various locations. Their website is well laid out and easy to navigate. Steam Dreams is internet based for buying tickets/ checking prices/ finding out about future dates etc. although there is a phone number you can ring. You can also order a brochure through their site, which arrives a few days to a week after ordering.
The site itself is typed in Comic Sans, which always worries me (don't ask!), but having spoke to the lady and after receiving the brochure to look through my mind was put at ease. Although the site doesn't look as professional as other sites do, I can assure you the site is completely legitimate and if you just look past the font you'll find a really good company!
Steam Dreams run Cathedral Express trains, which start at London King's Cross and travel to various destinations which have cathedrals, such as Norwich, Bath, and York. They also do Christmas journeys, which take you to, for instance, Bath to do some Christmas shopping, or Ely for a Carol Service.
The staff I have dealt with, online and by phone, have all been very courteous and helpful. There was a slight problem with sending out the tickets, and so they arrived a little later than stated, but the woman on the phone put my mind at ease.
~ Coach classes ~
There are various classes of travel for you to choose:
- Pullman: A bottle of champagne for a table of four. Brunch will be served on the journey out. Canapés and other such nibbles are served on the return journey, followed by a four course meal. I haven't actually seen any prices for Pullman Class, but I imagine it would be higher than Premier Dining. The phone number's at the bottom in case you wish to ring.
- Premier Dining: Champagne brunch served on the way out. A four course meal is served on the return journey. You can book a table for two, rather than four, for an extra £20-£25. Prices are around about £130-£170pp depending on where you're travelling to.
- First Class: Champagne served on the journey out, plus tea and coffee for both parts of the journey. Seating is in compartments of 6 people. Prices are approximately £65-£110pp.
- Standard Class: Seating is 4 people to a table. Prices are approximately £50-£75pp.
In First and Second Class you can pre order platters of cold meats. About £33 for First Class, and £30 for Second Class. This covers both the outward and return journey.
~ Ordering ~
I ordered two tickets for London King's Cross to Cambridge, Ely, and Norwich. You can choose to disembark the train at any of these stations along the way, but The Boy said he'd like to go all the way to Norwich, and that's what we did! You do have to decide before buying the tickets, as it's more expensive to travel all the way than it is to travel part of the way, obviously! We chose to sit in Premier Dining, and to have a table for just the two of us (which I'm very glad we did!).
I received an email about an hour after ordering from Steam Dreams, confirming I had bought the tickets, and a reminder of the date and destination of the train. The email was a personal email rather than a generated one, which was good!
The tickets were supposed to arrive 10 days before the journey, but they still hadn't arrived 5 days before. I got a little worried, so rang them to see what was happening. There had been some problems with printing the tickets, but the woman assured me that there would be men there on the day with a register of who was boarding and which seat they were in. The tickets did arrive, but only the day before we were due to set off. Included with the tickets (which were presented beautifully in a little paper ticket holder) was a letter outlining the times of the Choral Evensongs at Cambridge, Ely, and Norwich should we wish to attend, plus a few links to sites about Cambridge, Ely, and Norwich so we could plan our time at the place we departed.
~ Arriving ~
The Boy and I arrived about 30mins before the train was due to depart so he could take some pictures of the train before we left. There were 'officials' at the station ready to answer any questions. The train we travelled on was the 6233 Duchess of Sutherland train. Apparently 'she' (it appears trains are female) was one of 38 built at the L.M.S. Locomotive Works in Crewe and was recently restored for the measly sum of £352,508, top speed 75mph.
About 10 minutes before the train was due to leave we were told we could board the train. Finding the carriage and seats was very easy. On every seat there was a map of the journey listing all the stations we would pass through. There was also some information about the train we were travelling on, plus information about the cathedrals we would go past. There was also a detailed schedule for the journey, for example, 0.0miles-King's Cross-1033hrs, 0.7miles-Belle Isle-1035hrs, 2.5miles-Finsbury Park-1038hrs, and so on. There was also space for you to write the actual time we went through each station and hence work out the speed the train was travelling at. There was a rather large amount of people doing this, which I was surprised at! I did think it was a nice touch though.
~ The Journey ~
The Boy and I were sat on a table for two, I am glad we chose this, as some of the people on there were VERY talkative! I did feel sorry for some people as they were being bombarded by facts about trains and the speeds and the stations...! If you do choose to travel Premier Dining Class then I would advise getting a table for two if you're not the most sociable, or patient!, of people.
We were served a complimentary glass of champagne (or orange juice) once the train had started. We were also given an option of two meals for brunch - Croque Monsieur (posh cheese and bacon toastie!) or potato and onion frittata. I had the Croque Monsieur which was actually quite nice, and came with a little salad, and The Boy had the frittata which he said was nice, but perhaps a little bland.
The staff kept coming round with tea and coffee. They did seem to do it in quite a random way so some people were waiting up to half an hour for a cup of tea. Some of the 'regulars' mentioned that there was a different crew onboard the journey, and that they weren't as efficient. Admittedly they could have been more efficient and organised, but I didn't really see it as being a big problem. They were polite and cheerful. One of the crew on the return journey was saying how she'd been working since 6am (the journey started at 10.30am and finished roughly 12hours later) and was only allowed three breaks for some toast! Considering this, I'm surprised they were as nice as they were!
There were windows all along the train so you could really get a feel for the train. You could hear the train chugging along and you could smell the smoke. Little bits of soot did come through the window, but I quite liked it! It's not as if you'd be knocked out by one, they were just small flecks!
You could go to the end of the carriage (there were 13 in total) and stick your head out of the window if you so desired. I would really recommend sticking your head out at least once! It's amazing to see the smoke trailing along the landscape, with wind in your hair and soot in your face! Ok, so I've not made it out to be as amazing as it was, but trust me! It's a great feeling (and I'm not even a train fan!). There were some hardcore train people who had brought goggles with them, so as not to get soot in their eyes!
The train stopped once on each leg of the journey to fill up with water, you could see them hosing in the water!
During the journey, some members of the Steam Dreams team came round selling raffle tickets (1st prize was a trip into the engine part and staff quarters) and souvenirs. They weren't pushy though, and you didn't feel like you were being forced to buy anything.
There were many train spotters along the way with their tripods and long lens cameras. It was like being royalty! There was one man who was stood in the middle of a massive field with a deck chair and a massive camera taking pictures of the train!
The outward trip lasted roughly 3.5hours. At about 2pm we arrived in Norwich where you have a 4 hour break to wander around, see the sights, and attend the choral evensong, before boarding the train again.
I would advise, if you like trains, to get to the station maybe an hour to 30mins before the train's due to depart as you can see the front of the train (the engine?) on it's own as the rest of the train is turned round for the return journey. You can also see, and talk to if you'd like, the men who work the train. There was a little man with a flat cap and a very sooty face who seemed willing enough to answer people's questions.
The return journey was at 6pm, and by about 8pm it was dark. This meant you couldn't actually see out of the windows, so I think this part of the journey did seem to drag a bit more. I went to the window and stuck my head out for quite a while though. As it was dark, when the train went round a corner you could see the fire increasing as more coal was shovelled in. To see this against the night sky as your speeding through the countryside was exhilarating. Like I said before, I'm no train fan, but this really was a wonderful experience. If I loved it just think how excited the real rail enthusiasts were!
The train was an hour late arriving back at London. The 'regulars' said this was normal and they had never been on a journey where it hadn't been late. I would advise checking you will still have transport available if your train is late, i.e. will the tube still running?.
There are toilets onboard the train, not the nicest toilets, but toilets none the less.
Children are welcome on the trains though I think they may find it a little dull. It is 7-8hours travelling in one day, plus travelling to and from London.
~ The Food ~
On the return journey a four course meal was served -started, main, desert, cheese plus coffee. I will give you a little idea of the menu:
Starter: Potato and chive bilini with horseradish and smoked salmon. I was expecting this to be really flavoursome but it was actually bland. I couldn't finish the starter, as it was so bland. (Veg option: Tomato and aubergine stack).
Main: Chicken stuffed with mushroom and thyme, plus potato cake, beans and carrots. This was delicious! It had many subtle flavours, the beans weren't squeaky, and the carrots were delicious. I really enjoyed this course. (Veg option: butternut, cheese, and sage tartlet, potato cake, beans, and carrots).
Desert: Summer pudding brioche stack with berries and clotted cream. The desert was very tangy, and there was only a very small blob of cream. I think if there was more cream then it would have taken the edge off the pudding. However, quite a few people didn't finish the desert as they found it just too tangy.
Cheese: A slate (an actual piece of slate!) with two cheeses, some biscuits (4), grapes (4!), and some chutney. The slate was to share for the table, so if you were on a table with people you didn't know, then there was a bit of apprehension about what to eat! The cheese was lovely, not the best cheese but still quite nice.
I would have expected to pay maybe £30pp for this meal, as it was nice, but nothing special. The pictures on the website make the food look a lot more appealing than it actually was. I think it was quite nice food, but perhaps not worth the extra paid for the ticket. I saw quite a few people in First and Standard class carrying packed lunches, which I think is a very good idea!
You could order drinks from the staff throughout the journey at a cost, so if you are thinking of ordering drinks take some cash! To give you an idea of price: white wine ranges from £3.50 per glass to £25 for a bottle, similarly for red wine. Beers are £2.50-£3.50, spirits (50ml) are £4.50, coke (330ml can) £1.70, mineral water (500ml) £1.50.
~ Overall ~
I would think that this journey, or similar, would appeal to people who love steam trains (the look on The Boy's face was priceless!), but I think the cost of the journey is not really worth it if you're not that into trains. I enjoyed the experience, but I don't think it was worth £155, The Boy, however, absolutely loved it, and would definitely pay to go on a journey like that again.
Check out the website for more information, or message me if there's anything else you want to know.
~ Useful links/ info ~
Steam Dreams website: www.steamdreams.com
Steam Dreams phone number: 01483 209 888 (ask for Graeme Bunker, Chief Exec.)
About the 6233 Duchess of Sutherland: http://tinyurl.com/6zqsxg
Catering by Two Many Cooks