Luxurious rail travel from the golden age of steam takes Sussex residents to Bath and Bristol

The Steam Dreams Rail Co revived the golden age of rail travel on a tour from Horsham via Chichester to Bath and Bristol in April 2024. The 61306 Mayflower is one of two surviving BI Class locomotives and this powerful engine took Premium Standard, First Class and Pullman passengers on an unforgettable journey. Gary Shipton was on board.

It wasn’t quite Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station. Harry Potter was not among the passengers. We were not about to board the Hogwarts Express.

But as this wonderful locomotive, with its snake of carriages winding behind, pulled into Platform 2 at Chichester Railway Station there was a momentary tingle of excitement reminiscent of the JK Rowling classics.

For many of us of a certain age, steam trains enthral and fascinate. Certainly our childhoods were imbued with them – be it Thomas the Tank Engine or E Nesbit’s The Railway Children.

Every major period television drama – perhaps most notably Downton Abbey – features a Victorian railway station and a steam locomotive.

Agatha Christie set a number of her most famous murder mysteries in their precincts – Murder on the Orient Express, The Mystery of the Blue Train, and 4.50 From Paddington.

In 1945, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter was to become the definitive love story of the time – all set against the backdrop a railway station.

Quite apart from childhood affection and the romanticisation of steam trains on film and TV, it is not hard to understand why so many of us love them.

Their bodies have a beautiful rhythm with a beating industrial heart. Their smell, their noise, their sweat, gives them an almost human dimension.

They are less a means of transport and more a favourite relative.

Maybe it is pure nostalgia – a glance over our shoulders at a world that is fast disappearing; or sheer indulgence in the luxury the Pullman still represents.

Environmentalists might debate the impact of the steam train but the truth is there are now so few of them that their contribution or otherwise to pollution is insignificant anyway.

What they do achieve is to maintain the heritage and sense of romance about train travel – helping to enthuse us all into using trains more, despite the bland, grim, utilitarian nature of modern electric successors.

So what a joy, a treat, and a privilege it was to hop aboard this special charter tour at Chichester – and it was not just the passengers who experienced that tangible sense of excitement. The crew were even more enthusiastic.

They clearly love their jobs. They radiate pride. This is not simply a job – it is part of their lives.

We had the treat of dining in the Pullman with Dec and Amy supplying a very welcome Bellini as we settled into the hyper luxurious seats. Janet showed us photos of other tours and inspired us to try them too.

Sadly, you won’t even get a cup of coffee aboard a modern Southern trip from the coast to London.

But as we turned the clock back to 1948 when the Mayflower was built by the North British Locomotive Company, our Bellini was followed by melon and fresh blueberry salad in a minted syrup served with natural yoghurt and seeded granola. Then a full breakfast with Stornoway black pudding or smoked salmon, toasted artisan sourdough, poached egg and chive hollandaise.

Despite a stop to take on more water to generate the steam, the journey to Bath went by all too quickly. Three and a half hours after leaving West Sussex we stepped off Coach B.

On a rare balmy day this year, Bath was bathed in sunshine. We chose not to venture as far as Bristol, enjoying the sightseeing and the shopping that the city of Bath had to offer. The Roman Baths, the Abbey, the Royal Crescent and the wonderful green spaces.

Then the return trip beckoned.

‘Tasting of the River Avon’ was the aptly named starter for dinner, accompanied by champagne. Then poached ballotine of West Country chicken stuffed with truffled native mushrooms, wrapped in cured ham, with wild garlic creamed potato and vegetables. The cheeseboard was a masterpiece. Forced rhubarb and almond tart with vanilla cream and almond tuille, provided the perfect conclusion along with fresh coffee and petit fours.

The 61306 Mayflower has had an illustrious past. Acquired by Steam Dreams owner David Buck in 2014, she returned to the mainline in 2015 before being withdrawn for an extensive overhaul. She has two cylinders, six driving wheels, a firebox grate area of 30 square feet and can operate at 75 mph.

Although we were guests on the journey, our tour would not have been as cheap as a super off-peak day return to London. But for sheer luxury, fun and wonderful nostalgia it proved a great adventure.