My parents NEVER spend a lot on holidays, they holiday in French cottages, off peak, they NEVER go on weekend breaks and they are content. So it came as a big surprise to us when they announced in the middle of last year that they had booked a 3 day train trip, in a Pullman carriage to Scotland, Pullman class (which I'll explain later) at a massive cost of £1300 for the two of them. The problem came when the week before they were due to go; I get a phone call from my Dad saying - not to panic but Mum has gone into hospital. By the Tuesday we knew she had suffered from a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism (not to panic indeed!) and I get the call I'd been dreading - by the way you're going to Scotland on Friday, your Dad will have the kids and feed the cats!
I'll be honest - for obvious reasons - I didn't want to go. However, in her somewhat fragile state and not having cancellation insurance Mum was adamant she didn't want the money to be wasted, so I duly spent the week in a state of heightened stress cancelling all my business commitments and knowing the last thing I wanted to do was leave my Mum in hospital and try and relax and enjoy myself. We also were not able to get in touch with the company to arrange to change the name on the tickets, this is because the office is only manned part time as all of the admin staff are the managers of the company who also go on the train trips, in the main this isn't a huge problem.
So it came to be that at 6.30 on a cold October morning, we were standing on Stroud station, with suitcases in tow not knowing whether we would even be allowed on the train.
Statesman Rail operates luxury train trips around the UK, the trips vary in pick up points so most of the UK seems to be covered. The destinations covered include the highlands, Edinburgh, Bath, Wales, The lakes. Full details for the next year are on their website www.statesmanrail.com a quick look through the site does show that many of this year's trips are already fully booked.
The trips take place in luxury Pullman carriages, think Orient Express with slightly different décor and you've got it. There are 4 classes of travel, here I'll detail what we had on our trip - again it will differ depending on where you're going.
Pullman Class: Accommodation at 3* Hotel we stayed at the Ballachulish hotel, breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, 3 course meal on Saturday and all meals on the train including a glass of bucks fizz with breakfast, champagne and wine with 3 and 4 course meals.
Premier Class: As Pullman class, but you had to buy your own wine and champagne.
First Class: A different 3* hotel, with breakfast and a 3 course meal on the Saturday, seating in first class carriages but no food on the train - picnic required.
Standard Class: As first class but seating in standard carriages.
Accessibility: These are old trains, so they are not able to board wheelchairs and because some platforms are very small you have to walk a long way down the train to get on and off.
So there we are standing on Stroud station, and we are met by a chap whose job seemed to be making sure everyone who was supposed to be on the train got on - a quick check with him reassured us that it made no difference which name the booking was in - we were good to go. A number of people were also on the station with massive picnic keep colds, I'm so glad we had the food option. The train arrived, only a couple of minutes late, and we are shown to our carriage at the back of the train, in what can only be described as 'the posh bit'. The detail was exquisite, the seats were plenty big enough and the carriage was laid out with 4 people tables on one side and 2 people tables on the other, with lovely old fashioned lamps on each table and the tables were laid out for breakfast. I believe my Dad had tried to book the exclusive 2 people option but they were sold out. We were seated next to a fairly elderly couple who also boarded at our station.
We were clearly the youngest on the train by a good 20 years, probably because most people of our age have families and the focus for holidays is very different - this was proved when after a few hours chatting to our neighbours we realised that the gentleman that we were sat opposite was in fact my childhood family doctor who had delivered me as a baby! That was a very odd moment!
As a consumer, the toilets are always an important consideration, and ours were very nice - impeccably clean, with a luxury liquid soap that everyone seemed to use and a dish of handmade Scottish soaps, these looked like they were for decoration but the disappeared pretty quickly on the way home, I'm guessing into peoples handbags.
There seem to be two main reasons people go on these trips, firstly they are into trains, or they are into food, or both!
Breakfast was served fairly quickly after we first boarded, it included cereal, fruit and the bit I remember the most smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, chives and a bagel.
Around lunch time, I was starting to feel hungry, this didn't happen very often on this trip, we had a small selection of finger sandwiches and a cake and it wasn't enough. However they certainly made up for it for dinner.
The champagne arrived with canapés, then the wine with a choice of starter, main course and desert followed by petit fours (which looked remarkably like a box of chocolates to me) the food was very classically English, or in the case of the Cranach an trifle, Scottish, Beautifully cooked beef with fresh vegetables, I think there was a fish option and you could pre-book vegetarian meals. I was no longer hungry, and wasn't again for several days after this break.
The hotel breakfasts were your standard Scottish 3* buffet breakfasts i.e. huge and delicious. The evening meal that we had was a gala meal that had a haggis piped in by the Scottish piper, whisky included in the meal, and of course wine. Once again, I was definitely no longer hungry. Just a quick word about the haggis, which on the rare occasion I'd tried it in the past was nothing short of revolting, I think it's all in the way it is served and prepared makes a huge difference, this was beautifully presented, masterchef style with neeps and tatties (suede and potatoes) and a rather lovely whisky sauce, there was not a scrap left on anyone's plate.
On the return route, they just seemed to keep bringing more food; we'd had the Scottish breakfast at the hotel. We were greeted on board by a piece of shortcake. (Well, a waitress offering a piece of shortcake) we then had the 3 course meal with wine and champagne. Mid-afternoon we had sandwiches, followed by a selection of custard tarts by this point we had started to refuse food and I know they offered other things but I don't remember what.
They did also offer an at table drinks service, but to be honest - you didn't need anything in addition to what you were served.
The service from start to finish was exemplary, even down to the subtlety of not expecting tips but seeing you off the train and saying goodbye, it was almost difficult to tip, they worked really hard and were clearly all very professional service staff, no part time holiday jobs here.
Most of the days, on the train is spent eating, so I did spend some time reading, getting up to stretch legs, and whiling away the time looking out the window thinking of Robert Louis Stevenson poems, and I didn't see a fairy or witch at all to establish whether we were faster or not.
The train made several long stops on the way up (slightly fewer on the way back) to take on water, so we did have to be aware of not using too much so we were still able to use the loo.
One of the highlights on the way up was the train had permission to take a short cut through the Glasgow underground system. By this time we'd got fairly used to being greeted at every station by huge numbers of train spotters, through the underground they clearly weren't expecting us so the looks we got on the way past were fantastic - they are not used to mainline trains, let alone ones with dining facilities.
We then pulled over at the foot of the highlands for a leg stretch and they had laid a piper on for us.
It was slightly sad that as soon as we got to the pretty bit, being October and it being a 15 hour train trip, it got dark.
I won't review the hotel as part of this review as I feel it is more appropriate for it to be in its correct category so will save that one for another day.
On the Saturday, included in the trip was a trip on the Jacobite train from Fort William to Mallaig, this is a steam train that goes over the Glenfinnan viaduct that was used in the Harry Potter film, the Chamber of secrets. Now to be honest - 30 hours on a train over a weekend, I didn't want to spend another day on a train, so we did a walk instead, it was lovely and very welcome. Nothing better than the solitude of the Scottish highlands, and if any of you are familiar with the feeling of being eaten alive in the highlands in summer, October in the highlands is heaven - not a midge to be seen.
The trip back over through the highlands was another highlight, seeing the train going round the corner, reminiscent of a Kipling image of trains in India, without the people sitting on top, really brought home how long it was, and Rannoch Moor from a train carriage is glorious.
But the very best bit of the trip happened relatively early in, when we were just being served our first breakfast (that makes me sound like a hobbit) and I took a phone call from Mum saying she would be home on Monday. So I was able to relax, a bit and enjoy the experience.
This is a wonderful, indulgent way of spending a weekend and yes I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Would I book it myself? - No,
Would I do it again? - probably not, I don't like trains that much.
Did I enjoy it? - Most definitely
Mum's illness in some ways was a blessing in disguise, she is not a fit lady and suffers with swollen ankles regularly - I never have, I've been lucky, but on arrival at our hotel on the Friday evening for the first time ever they were like tree trunks. So if she had gone, I'm not sure she would have come back. So don't underestimate how tiring sitting doing nothing except being fed to excess is. This may be helped in 2011 as they are adding an extra carriage for Pullman class customers as a lounge area which will be much better.
The staff and the service and everything connected with the package was perfect and cannot be faulted in anyway whatsoever.
So in conclusion, if you like trains you will love this.
And thank you Mum and Dad for a truly wonderful weekend.
Thank you for reading