Saturday, October 21, 2006
The alarm goes off at 4.40! Only I could plan a surprise trip that would necessitate such a hideously early start. Today we are boarding a Northern Belle train and heading off to Bath for the day. The Northern Belle is the burgundy and cream member of the Orient Express family. You get the British Pullmans down South - like our trip from London Victoria to Folkestone, the Northern Belles covering the Midlands and the North and the Flying Scotsman covering Scotland in tartan splendour.
The Northern Belle carriages are themed around Great British stately homes or castles, ours is Glamis. Glamis is a 14th century castle in Tayside, Scotland and the former childhood home of both the Queen and the Queen Mother. The carriage has the castle and a subtle thistle theme inlaid in yew, sycamore and pear tree pale woods in the panels. There are more thistles in the ceiling murals and the silver vases on all our tables also contain thistles as well as roses. We are encouraged to explore the other five dining carriages and my favourite is Belvoir as it has a fabulous honeycomb and bee design inlaid into the white oak panels.
The liveried stewards serve us a leisurely brunch. We have Bellinis (shades of Harry's Bar Venice) followed by a Fresh Fruit Cocktail and then Scrambled Eggs wrapped in a Smoked Salmon parcel, served on a warm buttered Crumpet finished with fresh Whitby Crab and Hollandaise. Finally there's a selection of Danish Pastries and a Morning Bakery Selection with Jams and Preserves. This is all seriously tasty as you'd expect, though maybe just a notch down from the food on the Orient Express itself. I was wondering why this might be. It might be because on the Orient Express there are three dining cars and there are sittings for meals, you place your order and are attentively served by the maitre d'hotel and all his staff so the whole experience is like a fine restaurant. On the Northern Belle everyone is dining at the same time and as we happened to be sitting at the end of the carriage closest to the kitchen we were the last to be served on every occasion. This meant that every plate of smoked salmon parcels wafted by our noses and as we were hungry, this only served to tease us. Also either because we had a long journey to and from Bath or because they had so many to serve there seemed to be a long lag between each course. I suspected the former and wondered if the journey were shorter we would have the meal delivered in a more realistic timeframe. This wasn't a huge problem but just a slight niggle both M and I commented on.
On arrival in Bath we visited the assembly room where Jane Austen and her friends would have danced and played cards and drank tea. We were informed that tea would cost about £10 a pound whereas gin was only 7 pence a bottle therefore only the rich drank tea and the poor stuck to gin!
After a visit to the pump room and the Roman baths we took a little of the infamous water and went in search of a place to take a little of the rich man's drink, tea. Though actually the queue for an afternoon tea in the pump room was a little scary so we descended on the next nearest place which turned out to be a Valrhona chocolate shop – how fortunate! We had their double Minerva – a heady rich hot chocolate and shared a kind of chocolate brownie (though I think it has essence of fridge cake about and shouldn’t really have been called a brownie – it was rather nice though!)
After further exploring the delights of Bath we headed back to the train station and awaited our carriage back up to Manchester. We had purposing eaten little in Bath as we anticipated a four course fine dining experience.
Starter was a spiced parsnip soup but I had asked for this to be substituted and they delivered a very fresh tasting Leek and Potato Soup with a warm Apple Scone sat in the middle instead. The main course was Aissette of Wild Game, Braised Red Cabbage, Roasted Cocotte Potatoes with a Burgundy Jus. I really enjoyed this, M suspected she had a duff knife and found the meat difficult to cut but I didn’t have this problem. The game was a juicy selection of pigeon, venison and wild duck – extremely tasty! And to finish a Great British Cheeseboard followed by White Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding with Vanilla Pod Ice Cream and tiny yummy Chocolate Truffles. I had some Cornish Brie (this could have been a little oozier for my tastes – but I appreciate some get scared by runny cheese!) The dessert was a surprise I thought it would be pretty heavy after all that but it was very delicate. A really lovely meal again! There was the same overlong delay between each course but this didn’t mar the experience. I think the Northern Belle has to have three forks really; the food, the service and the experience are really all so magnificent. I am looking forward to be back on board again in the future!