I think it was the moment a fried egg was placed delicately on my plate as we chugged gracefully through vibrant morning fields that the thought hit me.
This is as good as rail travel gets in England.
There we were, sitting in the plushest seats, in a carriage kitted out in decor that seemed teleported from a bygone age, being served delicious food. The landscape was already playing its part in this glorious scene and we were barely out of Warwickshire yet.
For those of certain and fairly commonplace tastes, this is, indeed, the life. You sit there; you are fed; some of the nation’s most glorious countryside flies by, though not so fast as to be a mere blur but rather at a speed where you feel you’re properly in it. A lot of this is done in the knowledge – to many, utterly thrilling knowledge – that the machine leading you through all this is an elegant, fiery, pulsating, clanging, hissing beast, powered by coal and engineering and memories and romance.
We were on the Winter Cumbrian Mountain Express, operated by the Railway Touring Company, which runs similar journeys throughout the year. It started at London Euston, coming through Milton Keynes Central and Rugby – where we boarded – with passengers joining on special service trains from Watford Junction and Northampton.
Within seconds, it was like being in another time and place. The carriage felt vast and opulent, nothing like the perfunctory, cramped things so many of us are forced to travel in today. There were rich wood fittings; there were lamps on tables, which were laid with linen and cutlery; the ceiling bore subtle decorations. Remember when you were excited to go on a train? Well, here’s that feeling again.
We were hauled on the first part of the journey by an electric locomotive, which was charmingly vintage itself, having been built in 1965 and going by the name of 86259 Les Ross. It powered us up through Nuneaton, through some of Staffordshire’s prettiest corners, along the West Coast Main Line through Crewe to Preston, the final stop to pick up passengers.
From there we sped through Lancaster to Carnforth, where a transformation occurred. Off went our bright blue loco; on hooked 45699 Galatea, built in 1936, running as 45562 Alberta. From here we would be carried by the awesome power of steam exquisitely exploited.
Up through Lune Gorge; up and up again on the ascent to Shap; across the Cumbrian Fells; through Penrith; and finally to Carlisle, where it was time to remember how to use those legs.
First was a quick inspection of the engine. It was the earliest chance the passengers had had to appreciate it fully, and it looked a fine specimen indeed. A few youngsters were even allowed into the cab; the memories will doubtless linger.
We had time to explore some of the city. And you need not venture far to become immersed in its history. The imposing Citadel looms just across from the station. A few minutes further along is the city centre, which seems in remarkably good health; a few minutes around the corner is the cathedral, charmingly unassuming and far more intimate than many, with an especially delightful ceiling and a welcome lack of pomposity.
A pie later, we were back on the train.
The landscape had been impressive so far, but reached new heights, metaphorically and literally, as we made our way along the celebrated Settle-Carlisle line. The experience was little short of cinematic, eliciting gasps aplenty. It somehow manages to be simultaneously epic, homely, rugged, pretty, forbidding, inviting, bare and lush.
There are soaring peaks and expansive valleys. And judging by this visit, it suits a range of weathers: the initial grey sky brought out the slate and the dry-stone walls; this was then complemented by lemony rays of sun, before warmer, honeyed light made the grasses sing.
How could this get any better? Ah yes: a four-course dinner. For me, this entailed carrot and coriander soup, a dainty roast beef fillet, sticky toffee pudding, cheese, biscuits, wine, port.
The sun was setting; our journey was ending. By the time we returned to Rugby, we had spent about 10 of the most relaxing and enjoyable hours you can spend on a train. What a treat.
* The following services will be running through Milton Keynes, Rugby and Northampton in the coming days and weeks:
Saturday March 12: Cumbrian Coast Express
Saturday March 19: The Cheshireman
Saturday March 26: The Mancunian
Saturday May 21 and Saturday June 25: Cumbrian Mountain Express.
Visit railwaytouring.net to book and for more information.