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Travel: The Northern Belle railway

The Northern Belle, from Edinburgh to Oban.

The Northern Belle, from Edinburgh to Oban.

  • by Jonathan Trew
 

If you regularly have to travel on overcrowded commuter trains you may wish to avoid ever taking a trip on the Northern Belle, part of the Orient-Express collection. It will ruin you.

After a few hours of spacious, deep seating; silver service meals and courteous, smartly turned out staff, you will vow to never again set foot on the bog standard 7:45am shuttle service to Glasgow. Haymarket appears in a different light when seen with bone china in your hand, rather than a cardboard cup of something pretending to be coffee.

We took the Northern Belle from Edinburgh Waverley to Oban. Admittedly, probably not the most busy of commuter lines but, with a route that includes a healthy section of the West Highland Line, it was suitably scenic for the launch of the Northern Belle’s seventh and latest carriage – the Duart.

Like the other six carriages, Duart is named after a British castle or stately home. In this case, it is named after Duart Castle on Mull, the seat of the Macleans. The clan’s ancestral base is depicted in detailed marquetry panels at each end of the 24-seat carriage while six other panels along the walls show pink heather and white flowers found on Mull set against a dark walnut burr.

The marquetry was crafted by Dunn & Son, a British family owned business, which also had a hand in the artwork for the Titanic, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth cruise liners. The nearest loo had perhaps taken the stately home theme a little too far and featured a mosaic of Chatsworth House immortalised on the spotless floor.

The Duart carriage started life as part of the Royal Household train but the Orient-Express group acquired it in 1999 and spent more than a decade fitting it out to join the Northern Belle. Apparently, the house style is like that of the Belle trains of the 1930s. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on bygone British rolling stock but, for those who know their MK SO1 from their TSO, these things matter, and many of them enjoy riding the Northern Belle.

Those enthusiasts who weren’t on this trip could often be spotted taking pictures at the side of the line as the train passed. Snaps done, they would jump into their cars and race to the next vantage point. I imagine that crossing train spotting with car rallies can only improve the adrenaline potential of the spotters’ hobby. For those of us who appreciated the broad sweep of the Northern Belle’s luxury more than the authenticity of the details, a trip is akin to being on a cruise ship. The main point in common is that the destination plays second fiddle to getting there. It is said that Oban has its charms but so does sitting back and watching Loch Lomond and Ben Vorlich swing by. It helps that the train proceeds at a regal pace – all the better to see the swirls of mist on Loch Lomond; sun patches on mountain flanks and the occasional waterfall on nearby slopes. If you were a first-time visitor to Scotland’s west coast then this would be an elegant introduction.

The second similarity with a cruise ship is that on board the Belle you are never far from a multi-course meal. Even our breakfast started with a Bellini and featured three courses. Those brief interludes are punctuated by a glass of something fortifying, or perhaps a pot of tea and plate of cakes.

During the return leg dinner, the table lamps glowed and the crockery gleamed on the pristine white linen tablecloths as the gloaming beyond the window faded away. By this point, the stewards had changed uniforms in preparation for performing the ballet of the evening meal. The aisles are not pinched, but neither are they Parisian boulevards and the poise needed to serve food and pour wine while not jostling one another, all the while compensating for the train rattle, is impressive.

With its stately home-themed carriages, liveried staff and repro Arts & Craft interiors, the Northern Belle appeals to the heritage market. National Trust for Scotland members and train passengers probably have quite a crossover.

It’s not a yearning for a more genteel, possibly imaginary, past that makes a Northern Belle journey attractive. If you want it to be then it is also a very romantic experience. The 7.45am shuttle to work may not kindle many sparks, but a trip up the West Highland Line in a train carriage from another era is a pleasant bubble to be in for a day.

THE FACTS

• The Northern Belle departs from several Scottish cities throughout the year for trips throughout the UK. Trips start from around £200. See www.orient-express.com/uktrains

• Jonathan travelled as a guest of Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Limited.

 

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