Monday, 28 December 2009

Scottish Training in Style

The very name Orient Express conjures up romantic notions of luxurious rail travel and is synonymous with a journey from Paris to Venice. But the same company runs a comprehensive programme of trips throughout the UK on trains such as the Northern Belle.

Given the option of travelling from London to Cambridge, Mike Souter chose instead to head north to his native Scotland to combine the journey with this year’s Homecoming Scotland celebrations


Whichever weather forecaster came up with the phrase ‘Barbecue Summer’ should have been at Dumbarton Central station to await the arrival of the Northern Belle. This was western Scotland at its wet and windy best, in a railway station which certainly lacked anything approaching a luxurious setting or facilities.

Trying to run a private train and dovetailing the schedule in with existing timetables is a hugely complex operation. That was one of the reasons why passengers, many dolled up to the nines, were lingering at such an uninspiring venue for the train which had set off originally from Edinburgh.

While Glasgow Queen Street’s impressive canopy would have been a much more attractive departure point with immensely superior facilities, non-availability of platforms and slots in Network Rail’s schedule meat that wet and windy Dumbarton was the only workable option.

In fact the Orient Express people slot the day trips into the trains’ busy schedule while passengers on longer journeys are off enjoying other activities. Our train, normally based in the upmarket surroundings of Crewe South Shed, had journeyed up from London the day before, decanting passengers to enjoy a 24-hour stay at Loch Lomond while we journeyed north to Oban.

It was slightly disappointing for all joining passengers to be handed a map giving the distances only from the point of origin. We were not, after all, journeying from Edinburgh to Oban via Falkirk High. It’s a small detail, but I would expect it from the Orient Express of the North.

For the first part of the journey, we caught only a glimpse of the views through the rain-soaked windows. Mind you, the foliage at the side of the track is so dense, that there would not have been much to see even had the weather been perfect. But we snatch just a glimpse, far below, of the Clyde Submarine Base with its Trident nuclear-equipped boats.

But, to my mind, the view is secondary to the experience of the train. We were travelling in the exquisitely decorated Alnwick carriage, configured like normal first class rolling-stock, but with wonderful inlaid woodwork and splendidly upholstered armchairs.

Nowhere on National Express do you get fresh flowers and Molton Brown accessories in the toilet plus individual cotton hand towels. Nor, sadly any more, table service in a restaurant car.

The much-vaunted Orient Express Bellini, a sparkling white wine with peach juice, arrives. Not at all to my taste, I’m afraid. We are badly in need of a coffee but it takes several requests before it appears. (It later transpires that the machinery involved in coffee production is rather antiquated and hence rather slow).

While ‘scrambled eggs wrapped in a smoked salmon parcel finished with fresh Whitby crab, Hollandaise, tomato and chives’ sounds lovely, the star turn in the brunch menu turns out to be an excellent fresh fruit cocktail.

At Crianlarich, the train heads west for Oban, the weather clearing perfectly in time to catch a splendid view of Loch Awe.

The previously-mentioned difficulty in scheduling has also meant quite a drastic change to our programme. The six hour stop in Oban originally included a trip on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Mull and a visit to Torosay Castle and Gardens.

But CalMac wouldn’t wait if the train was late, nor guarantee an on-time return to Oban, so, to fill some time, they’ve put on afternoon tea and a Scottish ceilidh in the Argyllshire Gathering Halls. It’s a good effort with a very good band and the excellent champion Highland Dancer, Eilidh MacInnes. But it’s hard to see why there is such a cachet being invited to apply for a £200 plus ticket for the official ball after the region’s main Highland Games. The hall is long overdue for a major make over. Mind you, the tickets buy never-ending alcohol and by the time the great and the good head home at 7am after a bowl of Scotch Broth, they are probably past caring.

I’m afraid my view on Oban is that it, too, is tired and in need of updating. Much as our most excellent and hard-working guide, Eileen Stewart, herself a native of the town, tries to persuade me otherwise. Oban has, to my mind, become a horribly touristic and tatty town, with too many fish and chip, jumper, stick of rock and postcard shops.

It’s significant that, long before we are allowed to re-board the Northern Belle for the return trip to Glasgow, most of the passengers are queuing patiently at the platform entrance.

Clearly there’s a bit of embarrassment at Orient Express at the change to the schedule, which caused 20% of those booked to cancel, so every couple is presented with a complimentary bottle of champagne. (I suspect that, behind the scenes, CalMac will have been getting a tough time from assorted castle owners and senior Orient Express folk).

On the return journey, there’s quite a nice game terrine and an excellent cheeseboard, but the canap├ęs are dreadful and the venison main course is overcooked, tough and looks rather lonely on the gigantic plate with its pitiful bit of potato puree.

The carriages of the Northern Belle are beautifully appointed and extremely comfortable. Service from the largely Liverpudlian and Mancunian crew is friendly without being servile.

But I can’t give a gold star to the food.

ENDS 888 words

Fact File

The Orient-Express of the North, the Northern Belle, (www.orient-express.com) runs trips throughout the country. The Oban Excursion on the Northern Belle enjoyed by Mike Souter cost £285 per person, including all meals and the ceilidh.

Homecoming Scotland 2009 is a year-long programme of events and activity celebrating many of Scotland's great contributions to the world and providing a platform for Scotland to re-connect with the many millions of people around the globe who have Scottish ancestry or affinity with the country. This is a Scottish Government initiative being delivered by EventScotland in partnership with VisitScotland www.homecomingscotland2009.com/default.html

ScotRail is the largest regional operator in the UK, operating more than 340 stations and running more than 2,100 services every day. ScotRail also serves famous rural and scenic lines such as the Far North and West Highland routes and runs the Caledonian Sleepers to and from London. ScotRail offers day return trips from Glasgow Queen Street to Oban for £23.70 per person. For details, visit www.scotrail.co.uk.

PHOTO CAPTIONS

Champagne all the way on the Northern Belle

The Northern Belle offers a high quality dining experience

Oban is very much a working harbour

Scratches on a carriage from trackside bushes

Serving cheese in the Alnwick coach

The table setting for dinner

Stewards welcoming passengers aboard

All photographs Mike Souter, SouterMedia.Com



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