Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Rog Tuesday Reviews #1 - Steam Dreams Daytrip to the Settle & Carlisle Railway

Welcome to the first in a new series in the Barnet Eye. There are many great things in London, which residents of The Borough of Barnet have on their doorstep. A couple of readers of the blog have mentioned to me that I often talk about the things I do and the places I visit. They have suggested that it would be good to do reviews, so that any readers who are interested will know a little more. We will be concentrating on things that you can do in a day from Mill Hill Broadway. I hope you enjoy this series.

We start with a rather special day out. As our wedding anniversary is shared with our daughters birthday, we normally do something special on a different day. This year, we decided to take a luxury vintage train over the scenic Settle & Carlisle route. We did a similar thing last April, going on a train from Mill Hill Broadway to Bristol. It was a glorious day and we thought that we'd do it again.

We selected the most expensive package, in the Pullman carriage with a full English champagne breakfast and a four course dinner. I made a short video of the day, which gives some idea of some of the amazing scenery we were privileged to see.

The train was hauled by a steam engine between Carnforth and Farington Junction, which is near Blackburn. The passengers were divided between people like us, who were there for a special day out and the hardcore rail fans, who were primarily excited by the prospect of being on a steam train. For us, the excellent food, the magnificent scenery and the chance to see the historic town of Carlisle were the main draws. In the Pullman carriage, I'd guess that most were there for the same reason. The enthusiasts were in the cheaper seats, with packed lunches and thermos flasks!

The train left Euston at ten past seven, so it was an early start. The engine for this section was a preserved electric locomotive. It was immaculately turned out, with an impressive, gold embossed name plate. When we boarded the train, we immediately noticed something that would be a bit of a feature of the trip. The coach was cold. Our hostess, the very efficient Aimee Stevenson told us that the electric heating was being switched on and the carriage would soon warm up. In the meantime, blankets were distributed. The date of the trip was Saturday 17th March, which was the coldest day of the year and a blizzard was blowing as we left London. Aimee informed us that normally the Champagne was the first thing dished out, but they were bringing tea and coffee first to warm us up. As we departed Euston, the heating started working and the carriage started to warm up.

Breakfast was excellent, washed down with a rather nice glass of champagne. As we left London, the snow was coming down, but by the time we got to Staffordshire, it was actually quite bright and sunny and there was no snow on the ground. Clare took the opportunity for a snooze, whilst I read the papers. It is quite pleasant just watching the world go by. At Carnforth, they swapped engines. I was a bit disappointed. The station at Carnforth is famous for the tearoom being used as a location for the iconic film Brief Encounter. I'd been looking forward to having a look around, but they changed loco's in the good yard, so we couldn't get off. The changeover took approx 30 minutes, and we left more or less on time. As we approached Carlisle, we were moved into a passing loop and several express services passed. This meant we'd slipped behind schedule. We arrived late at Carlisle, which meant we only had an hour to look around, which was a bit of a shame.

It was however bitterly cold and the snow had returned. We had a look around the Cathedral, which is magnificent and the Castle, although we didn't have time to go in. We returned to the train at the suggested at the time.  The engine had not come back to pull the train, so we waited around for half an hour. Eventually it returned, it turned out that Network Rail had held it up in a siding, whilst it was turning around. When we set off, the train was approx 30 minutes late. We were told that they should make up the time.

As we set off down the Settle and Carlisle route, the snow really set in. There was a massive blizzard and the wind was blowing at 40mph. We were told the outside temperature was -5C. Unfortunately, the steam engine was unable to heat the carriage due to the steam heating pipes freezing. This meant the carriage became bitterly cold. The blankets came in very useful. The scenery was spectacular and it was quite magical seeing the moors in the snow. Despite the cold, I am really pleased that we got to see the moors in their winter glory. The Steam engine had to have a couple of watering stops. Although we had the opportunity to get off at Appleby, we declined as it was blowing a blizzard and we didn't want to get even colder.

As we progressed, dinner service started. We started off with some excellent canapes, the roasted courgette were the tastiest, really delicious. The starter was sun blushed tomatoes with mozarella cheese and broad beans. Very tasty. The main course was a Duck leg with Mash. It was delicious. We also had a bottle of decent red wine. The desert was caramalised Apple Tart with cream, which is one of my favourites followed by cheese.

When the electric engine was reattached, the heating came back on, which was very welcome. This happened just before sunset, so that was really the end of the nice scenery. When we finished off the wine, we had a beer to finish. The drinks are reasonably priced, which is unusual for transport companies.

Despite the problems, the Steam Dreams staff were excellent. We were kept informed of everything and were made to feel looked after. I emailed the company with some comments about the cold and other issues and the managing director called me back to explain the issues, which was appreciated. Steam Dreams is run by people who love vintage rail and want to make sure everyone has a great time. He explained that there are many logistical areas that are outside their control and that delays etc were down to Network Rail prioritising express services over charter trains. As to the cold, this was due to an unprecedented cold snap in March. I was assured that my comments would be taken on board and lessons learned. You can't really ask for much more.

All in all it was a fantastic day out. It is a great way to spend a special day out. We will definitely be doing something similar again when we see a suitable destination and have something to celebrate. I would recommend it to anyone, but check the weather forecast and if sub zero temperatures are forecast, bring some warm clothes.

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