Passengers on the Belmond British Pullman are transported on a journey back in time to the golden age of travel
Words by Corrie Bond-French
British Pullman carriages would transport guests, cocooned in exquisite bespoke Belle Époque carriage interiors, to the Channel and beyond.
Fast forward the best part of a century and the magic still begins at Victoria, where lovingly restored Belmond British Pullman coaches sweep travellers away in a ﬂurry of reﬁned luxury to join the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
It’s a journey that would be familiar to a certain moustached, slightly rotund, Belgian detective and it remains a unique experience that is the very acme of luxury travel.
“You are whisked back to an era of glamour, elegance and decadence.”
Past passenger lists of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express glittered as much as the silverware, with characters such as Marlene Dietrich, Mata Hari – she who famously blew a kiss as her ﬁring squad executioners took aim – Sergei Diaghilev and Lawrence of Arabia taking their seats in the wagons-lits.
At one point the service was reputedly so popular with secret agents that it was nicknamed the Spies’ Express.
One such spook was Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell, who disguised sketches of Dalmatian coastal fortiﬁcations as drawings of butterﬂy wings, and in ﬁction, of course, James Bond was in his element.
It was in one of the service’s famous coaches that Germany signed the armistice with the Allies in November 1918, and in June 1940, Adolf Hitler forced the French to sign their own surrender in the exact same coach.
The Second World War interrupted the service. Many British Pullman carriages were damaged or destroyed, including when air raids hit Victoria Station directly during the Blitz.
Restoring coaches and reviving the services offered by Belmond British Pullman and the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has been a labour of love since the 1970s, when American entrepreneur James B Sherwood decided to revive it.
So began the painstaking process of finding and restoring the old carriages to their former glory. One was being used as a brothel in Limoges. Another was housing racing pigeons and had been turned into a gazebo.
In Blighty, seven Pullmans and two baggage cars were restored ready for the 1982 launch of the new Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
Since then, further carriages have been restored and readied, and Belmond British Pullman now operates as the sister train and day carriages to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
The magic of the service on Belmond British Pullman is far from lost on Gary Franklin, vice president of trains and cruises for Belmond, who has shared the same frisson of excitement.
“My most memorable experience was my ﬁrst journey with my wife,” he says.
“I had heard so much about the train and was so excited to ﬁnally experience it.
“There was so much anticipation in the air and it was amazing to share the journey with fellow passengers who were all equally excited to get on board at our lounge in Victoria Station.
“I grew up in New Zealand and so perhaps one of my most poignant moments was being able to take my parents on the train, because even in New Zealand, this train is famous.”
Each carriage is named and their detailed history is sent to passengers prior to travel. Gary is rightly proud of the restoration involved, and confesses to a soft spot.
“It’s probably Gwen – the carriage and its design are quite different to the others, and it also re-entered service since I have been with the company. I saw it when it was found in its state of disrepair.
“You feel a sense of responsibility to maintain and keep these beautiful and historic carriages running. They need lots of love and care.
“When Phoenix returned from its major overhaul – we updated its decoration with some new designs and little touches – to see the carriage ready for its next life stage in service was very rewarding.”
Belmond British Pullman offers a wide range of day trips and excursions, often with celebrity chef specials and trips to events such as Goodwood.
Upcoming afternoon tea journeys include an event hosted by Mary Berry, a Mary Poppins Returns-inspired tea, Mother’s Day lunch trips and of course, murder mystery events.
“You are whisked back to an era of glamour, elegance and decadence,” says Gary.
“The train’s carriages are all genuine vintage 1920s carriages and each one has its own history. Cygnus and Perseus joined Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral train and Phoenix was completely rebuilt after having been accidently burned down in 1936.
“We are extremely proud of the train’s history but there is no denying that it is our staff that can really make the experience for our guests. The staff are so proud of the train and the love for their jobs really shines through.
“As an example, Belmond British Pullman has seen three generations of the same family work on the train as stewards with the youngest currently the head steward on the train – it is this loyalty which really makes the guest experience.”