Andrew Kay steams into a delightful dinner on The Bluebell Railway

I never had much interest in train sets as a kid, Lego was my thing but I do have one enduring memory of steam trains, yes, I am that old. It is of me standing on the platform at St Helen’s Junction with my mother. She was wearing a white dress covered in tiny red pink roses and we were going to Blackpool for a day out. I remember the dress well because against the big black steam engine and billowing smoke and steam she looked so pretty.

Now my interest in trains has been re-ignited, and not I might add by the dismal and undignified service offered in the UK by some operators. No, I love the Bluebell Railway. So when an invitation arrived to dine in their Pullman car pulled by the Golden Arrow I was quick to accept. Mr R Junior has no interest in trains, but Mr R Senior is crazy about them and about to embark on building a train set of his own – so I asked him along.

One thing I really love about the Bluebell Railway is the comprehensive approach to detail. I love that once through that ticket office door you are taking a step back in time, and this time at dusk I was met by the sight of the Golden Arrow and soft brown Pullman coaches. It was an impressive sight.

We checked in at the station bar, had a pint of WJ King and waited to be called by the liveried pursers. I have to say that the team, most of whom are volunteers, took it all very seriously and as a consequence the experience was first class. We were directed to our table in the plush carriage where cutlery and glass jingled on crisp white linen. The carriages were lined with inlaid wood panelling depicting bowls of fruit with parrots on them –how times have changed.

The menu for dinner was short but offered good choices. Mr R Snr chose a smoked chicken starter and I had bruschetta. I’m not normally a bruschetta chooser but I was in the mood and I have to say I rather liked it, it was lighter than I expected and I would certainly have it again. Mr R Snr’s salad was lovely, or so he told me, he certainly polished it off without complaint. I was not in the mood for soup but I was very impressed by the waiter, who negotiated the carriage with a tureen without spilling a drop.

For his main course Mr R Snr had chosen the roast beef fillet. I was happy to have something different and chose the confit duck. The main courses arrived partly plated but the waiters once again come round with dishes of vegetables and employed the dying art of silver service. What a joy to see that done, and done so well.

The beef was perfection I was told, thick rare slices that simply yielded to the side of the fork. I looked on with some envy it has to be said. But my duck with puy lentils was equal to it in every way and the Madeira jus came in a worthwhile quantity that made trendy smears and dribbles more laughable than ever.

My biggest delight though, was the potatoes. Pommes Parisienne to be precise. I once (when at art school) wrote an essay about Pommes Parisienne (don’t ask, it would take too long to explain). I love them, tiny spheres made with a Parisienne scoop (melon baller) then roasted or deep fried. Yum, I mean what is not to like about that as a culinary concept, and why is it so neglected? The veg was good too; an excellent assortment and all piping hot.

Outside we watched the Sussex countryside roll by, primrose covered embankments and newly planted vineyards side-by-side.
Finally came pudding, a raspberry syllabub for me that was very good, and a chocolate tart for the father-in-law that put a very silly smile on his face. We finished with coffees and mint chocolates and, after one and a half trips up the line, sadly disembarked where we had come from.

Dinner on the Bluebell Railway costs £22 for the train ticket and £45 which equates to the price of a West End theatre ticket, and that comes without dinner or transport. As a night out it’s pretty hard to beat, a great and nostalgic experience that reminded me of that sunny day up north and the white rose speckled dress.
The Bluebell Railway, Sheffield Park Station, East Sussex TN22 3QL
01825 720800,

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