The Northern Belle – Review
The Northern Belle
Matt Callard gets on board the Orient Express’s northern flagship train, The Northern Belle, for an afternoon of decadent dining…
The last time I had food on a train a cheese and pickle sandwich gave my constitution such a thorough and rigorous examination I got double vision and had to disembark at Peterborough until the cold sweats abated. But fear not. Comparing your average inter-city catering efforts with the delights of the Orient Express Company’s Northern Belle is akin to comparing Viz Comic’s Drunken Bakers with Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.
Here, then, is an experience. A rarefied one, in fact. Where time and worries can be put to one side (for four hours and 234-miles, at least). You will travel diesel-electric style from Leeds to York. Then, via a lovely coastal route through the north east to Newcastle, and finally back south through the North Yorkshire countryside. Throughout the journey you’ll be treated to a tremendous five-course meal (expertly timed), a two-piece brass band, some close-up magic and the kind of old-fashioned, ultra-friendly attentive service that went out of fashion with the age of steam.
“Smooth and amazingly quiet”
The Northern Belle train itself is a beaut. As I’m sure the terrifying huddle of trainspotters gathered to see its arrival at York would concur. A dark red and cream combo seemingly devoid of even the merest hint of dirt or dust (inside and out). It is also incredibly smooth and amazingly quiet. It’s unlikely you’ll be lurching around the aisles after a sudden jolt of the brake, or mopping up spilt Champers from your best suit. Yes, you better remember to dress up folks – lest they leave you at the station.
Inside the tables are immaculately laid out and the seats plush and comfortable. Once you’ve slid into position (not quite as easy as that sounds), it really is time to relax like you’ve never relaxed before. Let time and the countryside slip past your window and luxuriate in four-hours of food, service, scenery and comfort.
Course, you pay for the privilege. The Northern Belle isn’t cheap. It’ll cost around £250 each for the trip, with which they include a £25 ‘gratuity’ enabling you to (just about) afford the house wine. But if you want to indulge in other wine options you’ll be dipping into your coffers even further. To the company’s credit, they don’t endlessly foist the additional extras and mark-ups on you. But if you’re that way inclined there’s more to purchase once on board, from flowers to bone china mugs, cufflinks to photo frames. But really, if you’re expecting the Orient Express to be a bargain, I’m sorry, but you’ve caught the wrong train.
What you are paying for and what you should be expecting – and what you most definitively get – is an experience. The five courses come perfectly timed throughout the four hours. You’re rarely left (should conversation lull) to gaze blankly out of a train window. The friendly two-piece band will pass back and forth, adding authentic thirties musical character to proceedings. A close-up magician will come and steal your partner’s watch while making giant foam balls appear out of thin air. Don’t worry, he’ll give the watch back.
But once settled in, it’s the food and service combination that is the essence of the Northern Belle experience. A glass of fizz is served upon embarking and the staff politely introduce themselves. Once the train is rolling, it’s not long before the first course appears. A Duck Liver Parfait wrapped in Pancetta kicked things off. It came with a surprisingly wild Rhubarb and Apple Salad. It suggested the food might not be quite as traditional as the surroundings. A lovely, creamy Jerusalem Artichoke Soup followed before the first appearance of the brass band.
“Quaint and old-fashioned”
Mains were good, if a little short of the highest tier of fine dining. Although this is easily explained when you realise just two chefs are working in a tiny 1930’s-style kitchen with roughly 200 people to serve. Everything was well cooked, well presented and – importantly – well timed. My Seared Pork Fillet with Langoustine Tail was delicious. They even managed my request for extra sauce. Portions are admirably restrained. After all, it wouldn’t be much of a journey with half a carriage full of snoring passengers.
By the end of mains you’ll be approaching Newcastle, having passed a particularly pleasant stretch of Durham coast and you’ll be fully immersed in the experience. In fact, for me, it’s this immersive aspect that is the most pleasurable factor of the whole thing. How you’re (literally) transported out of your everyday surroundings into a world where everything is quaint and old-fashioned and, well, nice. You know it ain’t gonna last, but for four-hours at least you get to live like a king. Really, what’s not to like?
“Fulfilled and sated”
A fine cheeseboard came and went as the timeless wonders of the North Yorkshire countryside did the same. Then the dessert lovers got a real treat. A White Chocolate Mousse with a Champagne and Strawberry Glaze. There was even time for some very good coffee. Much needed, if only to break the spell and prepare you for your journey back into reality. When you do finally disembark you should be feeling thoroughly fulfilled and sated. Perhaps even with a spring in your step. Yep, don’t underestimate what an afternoon of luxury on board The Northern Belle can do for the spirit.
The luxurious Northern Belle train departs throughout the year from over 60 regional stations across the UK, offering a host of journeys to some of Britain’s most famous historic cities, castles, country houses and sporting events. Prices start from £195 per person, for more information and reservations call Orient-Express on 0845 077 2222 or visit orient-express.com/uktrains