I can’t think of any better way to get into the holiday spirit than with a special Christmas train trip that hearkens back to the golden age of train travel. I love taking unique rail journeys, and the British Pullman day trip from London to the Winchester Christmas market certainly promised to be a magical experience.
My Christmas Train Trip
When I visited London in early December, I knew that one of the special holiday outings I wanted to do was to take a Christmas train trip on the British Pullman. I had experienced a scenic railway journey on a Belmond train just a few months earlier when I took both the Andean Explorer and the Hiram Bingham trains in Peru.
I had also been on the British Pullman once before when I took the Venice-Simplon Orient Express from Venice to London for my husband’s and my 30th wedding anniversary a few years ago. That train trip was a memorable experience the first time and I knew that taking the British Pullman Christmas train would be an unforgettable journey once again.
Besides being the British leg of the Orient Express journey, the British Pullman also does a variety of day trips and weekend short breaks, all leaving from Victoria Station in London.
Throughout the month of December, there were many Christmas themed British Pullman day trips to choose from. The journeys included short Christmas lunches or afternoon tea as the train rolls by the scenic countryside. Longer trips take a whole day as they go to the Christmas markets in Bath or Winchester, or to Canterbury to listen to a Christmas carol concert at the cathedral.
Tickets for these trips go on sale as far as a year in advance, and the very popular journeys (like the one going to Highclere Castle in the spring) can sell out early. When I went to book my British Pullman train trip in mid November, I did not have many options available during the first week of December when I was planning to be in London – almost every journey was sold out. Fortunately, a few seats became available on the trip to the Winchester Christmas market and this trip was on a day that worked in my schedule. Sold!
A British Pullman Day Trip
My British Pullman day trip started early with complimentary coffee and tea in the Belmond lounge at London’s Victoria Station. Once it was time to board, stewards showed us to the trademark cream and umber colored cars and to our individual seats. Then the personal service started with the offer of a champagne cocktail.
The train cars are all restored vintage Pullman cars that originated in the 1920’s to the 1950’s. Some modern conveniences have been added, like electric heating, but in general, the period look has been maintained and augmented with marquetry and art deco details. (Don’t miss seeing the bathrooms at the end of each car, each with its own unique mosaic designs). For the holidays, the cars were also elegantly decorated with greenery and Christmas baubles.
In the US, Pullman rail cars were usually sleeping cars, while in the UK the Pullman cars were lounge cars. Today, each of the 11 Belmond British Pullman cars is a one of a kind creation with its own name and decor. The history of each car is identified with a plaque in the car’s boarding area.
My trip this time was in the Ione, named after one of the nymphs from Greek mythology. This car was built in 1928 as a First Class kitchen car. Originally, she was used on a variety of historic luxury rail lines in the UK like the Queen of Scots and the Golden Arrow, until being retired in 1968.
In keeping with the luxurious nature of this trip, travelers were dressed both for the occasion and for the experience. In fact, the couple sitting across from us was in period dress from the 1920’s as they were celebrating a special birthday on this journey.
Our train pulled out of Victoria Station promptly at 9:40 and we started heading south toward the town of Winchester. Once we left the city behind, the scenery changed to pastoral countryside and small villages. As we enjoyed the views from our oversized wing-back chairs, we didn’t have to wait long for the delicious brunch service to start. For the next two hours, we enjoyed a leisurely meal as the wait staff plied us with continuous food and drink.
- Champagne Bellini
- Mixed fresh berries with husk and honey spiced mulberry, yoghhurt and honey
- Trio of fresh pastries: cinnamon bun, pain au chocolat and fruit danish
- Beetroot-cured salmon with Schwedter potato and pickled cucumber salad, watercress, green goddess sauce
- Lemon and olive oil cake with vanilla scented whipped cream
Before I knew it, it was 12:30 and the train arrived at the Winchester train station. We had a little over four hours to tour the historic cathedral and stroll through the Christmas markets. Then it was back onto the British Pullman for our dinner train ride with Christmas crackers, a leisurely gourmet meal and a bottle of wine on the three hour journey back to London.
- Tea smoked duck slices on a kohlrabi salad with kirsch soaked cherries and a plum and cardamom dressing
- Venison and ox cheek Wellington, served with parsley crushed potatoes, turned winter carrots, patty pan squash, wild savoy cabbage and roasted chestnuts and a juniper and port wine jus.
- Selection of English cheeses served with Pullman chutney, oatcakes and crackers
- Black Forest Gateau in a Hennessy cognac cream and a berry coulis
The Winchester Cathedral
Our stop in Winchester started with a guided tour of the Winchester Cathedral. The historic roots of the Winchester Cathedral go back 1500 years to the pre-Norman 7th century when the original building was the most important church in Anglo-Saxon England. The architecture we see today is a blend of Norman reconstruction from the 12th century and Gothic remodeling from the 14th century.
The imposing Winchester Cathedral is recognized as one of the largest cathedrals in Europe and is the longest of any existing Gothic cathedral. As with all the Gothic cathedrals I have visited in Europe, there are also beautiful stained glass windows, lots of sculptures and paintings and impressive arches on the inside and huge buttresses to support the weight on the outside.
In the crypt, a statue by Sir Anthony Gormley, titled “Sound II” contemplates the water level as it rises through the floor during the rainy season.
For the literary minded fans of Jane Austin, the Winchester Cathedral has the distinction of being the famous English novelist’s burial site. You will find a plaque identifying where she is buried in the north aisle. Though for those of us of a certain age, we are more inclined to associate Winchester Cathedral with the one hit wonder by The New Vaudeville Band that became a number one hit in the US in 1966 and won a Grammy in 1967:
“Winchester Cathedral, you’re bringin’ me down
You stood and you watched as my baby left town…….”
The Winchester Christmas Market
Once the formal guided tour of the cathedral was finished, we had plenty of time to wander through the many wooden Christmas Market huts. Some of these little chalets were nestled under the flying buttresses of the church, much like shops and craftsman’s cottages may have been in the middle ages.
The Winchester Cathedral Christmas Market was very large and has been recognized as one of the top Christmas Markets in Europe. There were well over 100 exhibitors showing off many unique crafts and products along with artisanal food and all manner of warming drinks.
As a foreigner, it was fun to see the different handicrafts made and sold in the UK. Some things, like soaps and candles, were similar to what I can get at craft shows in the US. But others, like the little hat and glove set I bought for my grandson, were unique. (The hat looked like an old time ace pilot helmet with goggles but was made out of fleece). I kept having to remind myself that I only had a carry on suitcase and did not have room for huge purchases -unfortunately. (Bad planning on my part).
I almost wished that I did not have a fantastic meal waiting for me on the train because it would have been nice to sample some of the food and drink that was wafting tempting smells throughout the market. The Gourmet Grilled Cheese Company definitely had a sandwich with my name on it paired with a drink from the Original Edinburgh Mead Company, followed by some chocolate from one of the many confectionery stands. Oh well -I’ll have to come back to experience a Winchester Christmas again another time.
This vintage train ride on the British Pullman was everything I had hoped for. It was elegant, delicious, fun, and a relaxing day out. For a few brief hours I was transported – not just to Winchester, but once again, to the golden age of train travel.
This holiday train trip was just one of the many activities I did during the Christmas season in early December in London. I discovered a Santa bag full of seasonal activities while I was there. You can read about everything else I did on my full post about the 25 Things to Do in London in December.
You can find the latest information about Belmond train journeys at https://www.belmond.com/trains
Thanks for visiting.