All Aboard the Pullman


My wife and I had not taken a significant journey from Victoria Station for 40 years. On that occasion we were heading to Paris for our honeymoon. We had spent our wedding night at Victoria Square in the home of our good friend Bunny Austin (the best player who never won Wimbledon). While I lagged with our cases, Bunny was keeping my wife dry from the drizzle with an umbrella and regaling her with stories of his appearances at the French Open where he played in the final in 1937. My pleasant reverie ended when the Pullman Director called us forward to board the train to Oxford Parkway. Our children and some other relatives had clubbed together to send my wife and I on a Pullman train journey to celebrate her sixtieth birthday.

From arrival at Victoria to our return at the end of the day this was a wonderful experience. Smartly dressed and very pleasant young staff greeted us on Platform 2 and liveried staff lined the platform at the doors to the carriages. The coaches were all individually named. Ours was the George Floyd carriage (actually, it was called Perseus) and we were shown to our seats at a table crammed with cutlery and crystal. From the marquetry and mirrors to the brass fittings the overall impression was one of stepping back into another age. The armchairs were not even bolted to the floor.

The train had barely moved when the brunch service began. Fruit, yogurt, poached eggs and salmon were all washed down with enough bellini to float the Flying Scotsman and the three-and-a-half-hour journey to Oxford Park passed remarkably quickly. The weather was blistering, and we had to rely on the national system of air-conditioning: open windows. But the view was glorious once we left London and passed a few major conurbations including Slough and Reading. The rolling collectivised prairies of Oxfordshire were cropped and parched, and we edged along the upper reaches of the Thames as we approached the gleaming spires.

Several destinations were possible from Oxford Parkway, and we had selected Blenheim. To my shame I had never visited but my wife had been in the grounds. I was simply not prepared for what I saw when we entered the main courtyard. The size, the scale and the beauty of the main entrance to the palace are breathtaking and only slightly less so than the view when you turn round and realise that the grounds go on, seemingly ad infinitum, in all directions.

As the family were in residence, the tour was restricted to the state rooms, the library, Churchill’s bedroom and a marvellous exhibition of paintings by Churchill’s friend Paul Maze. Clearly, he was prolific and wide in his subjects from landscapes to architecture through lovely but modest nudes of his second wife and a very touching portrait of Churchill, engaged in his own watercolour painting.

The millions of pounds on the walls in paintings by big names like Sargent, Stubbs, van Dyck and Reynolds amongst others is impressive. These are only outdone by the enormous tapestries, mainly depicting the French army receiving an early indication of why we voted for Brexit, their copious defeats at the hands of the British.

However, one thing concerned me greatly during the visit to Blenheim. There was not a single trigger warning. And there was so much to be triggered about: colonialism; privilege; cultural appropriation; the heads of dead animals; and stolen artefacts. I could go on but just thinking about it all brings me out in a cold sweat.

After a few hours basking in the heat at Blenheim it was time to return to the train and get set for a further three-and-a-half-hours of culinary and Bacchanalian indulgence. We were barely seated when the Veuve Clicquot (other brands are available but…) began to flow and a series of perfect dishes began to arrive. From the amuse bouche, through the lobster tail and the seared duck to the choux bun, it was all perfect. But it had to end and did so where we started, at Victoria Station. I would love to have been watching—sober—a couple of hundred sozzled sexagenarians staggering along the platform and off into the warm London evening.

Put this on your bucket list.