The Snuff That Dreams Are Made of
Emailed invitation cards are so dreadfully last season. This fall it’s all about (minimum 600 gsm) hard copy personalised travel journals arriving first class. Ever since George Pullman launched his eponymous coach in 1874, that surname has become synonymous with luxury train travel. The British set of sumptuous carriages dates back to the swigging swirling Swinging Twenties. The Belmond British Pullman service forms part of Venice Simplon-Orient Express’s British journey. You really can’t overdress on the Orient Express. And certainly not on this ride for it could be your last. Best looking drop dead gorgeous, so to speak. Wait, just dress to kill or be killed! Now all aboard! There’s a murder mystery to solve – although not before five course table d’hôte lunch is served on William Edwards Phoenix Blue (The Queen Mother’s favourite hue) finest bone china.
Murder on the Orient Express isn’t just an Agatha Christie novel. Avoiding Istanbul and Calais, it’s a thriller of a circular route (with some twists) from London Victoria through the Kent countryside and back again in time for gold rush hour. We’re in Minerva (1927), one of 11 Pullman carriages or belles. Minerva, Cygnus (1938), Perseus (also 1938) and Phoenix (1927) are all 26 seater carriages. Six carriages are 20 seater: Audrey (1932), Gwen (1934), Ibis (1925), Ione (1928) Lucille (1928) and Vera (1932). Zena is the only 24 seater carriage. Our dining car – all marquetry panelling and art deco detailing just like The Gore (pun) on wheels – is filled with accents as polished as the overhead latticed brass luggage racks.
As the long lighted platform fades from view, we start breezing through the Garden of England. The 270 kilometre journey departs via Ashford passing Leeds Castle and on to Canterbury before following the south coast taking in Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Margate and Whitstable. Not that we’re paying much attention to the great outdoors – there’s too much action in our carriage. Amidst smoke (or at least cigarette holders) and mirrors (bevelled not crack’d), there are flapper girls sporting cloche hats, turbans, fringed shawls, boas and strings of pearls as well as dapper guys in black tie. The zesty citrus notes of Laurent Perrier La Cuvée and the fruity aromas of Terre del Noce Pinot Grigio Dolomiti 2018 lace the air.
Bang! The dashing self proclaimed wine connoisseur Van Quaffleur bombastically bursts into our carriage. He was a close friend of Nicholas 6th Lord Deville who was poisoned a few days ago at a dinner party in Knightsbridge. Van Quaffleur is now a suspect in his murder. “Nicholas face planted the semolina,” he howls. “A splurge and a splat!” Hang on, there’s something fishy and we’re not just talking about the off menu red herrings. Lunch – the Chef de Train has clearly been scouring the archives for some vintage seafood favourites – is served:
- Creamed Worcester goat’s curd, house pickled beets, savoury spiced granola (1950s Pullman Golden Arrow Service – this luxury boat and train service, which included Cygnus, Minerva and Perseus, took passengers from London to Calais where they joined the Golden Arrow train to Paris)
- Norfolk tomato and basil soup, herbed crème fraîche and sourdough roll (1930s Brighton Belle Service – it carried daytrippers and West End stars between London and Brighton on Audrey, Gwen and Vera)
- Seared sea trout, turned baked potato, chervil blanched greens, red pepper and orange nage (1920s Harrogate Pullman Service – five now defunct carriages operated between London King’s Cross and Newcastle-upon-Tyne)
- Apricot and amoretti tart, cherry compote and apricot coulis (1950s Rees-Tyne Pullman – this train whisked guests from London King’s Cross to Newcastle on Zena)
- Tea by Tregothnan of Cornwall and coffee by Drury of London, hand rolled chocolate truffles
The supremely attentive exquisitely liveried marvellously mannered completely courteous waiters cater to our every caprice. All is calm, serene, peaceful. Sleuth! Strewth! A fracas breaks out in the middle of our carriage. “That nurse is a gold digging little trollop! I would’ve killed her, not dear Nicholas!” Lord Deville’s close friend Mrs Tamara Crispin-Pettipace aka TCP has arrived. Tamara’s referring to Brenda Elsie Ware aka B E Ware, a rather attractive and by now very indignant nurse from Tender Temps who has turned up unexpectedly. Awks. Brenda was engaged to the somewhat older Lord Deville and is now suspected of senicide. As the quarrelsome madams jostle their way into the next carriage, the Honourable Jezebel Horne-Deville, the 6th Lord Deville’s younger sister, rocks up, dressed head to toe in blood red. She’s suspected of fratricide. “I arranged a huge life insurance on Old Nick just for the fun of telling him he was worth more to me dead than alive!”
Smith the Butler, Lord Deville’s faithful manservant, joins in the melee. He cuts quite a swathe. “I have no motive! But the nurse is a flighty thing. So vulgar! She was very hands on with His Lordship!” he smirks. The frisson of intrigue intensifies but surely we’re not losing the plot? “Oh, do you know Nick? I think we’ve seen you at one of his soirées perhaps?” Flummoxed, banjaxed, poleaxed, we slink off to the bathroom. The Indian summer sunlight streaming through an oeil de boeuf window illuminates its mosaic floor. Floris, The Queen Mother’s favourite handwash, stands next to the marble basin.
Back in Minerva, the final suspect introduces himself. “I am the Honourable Seyton Deville, Old Nick’s son and heir.” He’s suspected of patricide. “Ask me questions, I’ll tell you no lies. The others have all spoken complete poppycock.” Van Quaffleur reappears: “The more you drink, the easier it is to solve the murder!” We start tying up the loose ends. And then there was one. So whodunnit? Well, we couldn’t possibly say – only servants tell tales before bedtime. A rumbustious scuffle breaks out. Mercy! Such brouhaha! Somebody makes a dash for it. Is the guilty party about to escape? You really can’t overstress on the Orient Express. The Murder Mystery Lunch on the Belmond British Pullman is a day of curious tensity, filled with indulgent fun, and heaps of occidental decadence.