If you want refreshments on a train journey today, your choice is pretty much limited to plastic-wrapped sandwiches and instant coffee served in a paper cup. But there was a time when the meal was as important as the journey itself. You would sit at a linen-clad table and eat from china plates using steel cutlery; smartly uniformed waiting staff would provide silver-service at your table; and all this would take place in a specially designated restaurant car.
You can still recreate this golden age of railway catering on Hampshire’s Watercress Line, where the Countryman Dining trains offer Sunday lunch and Friday and Saturday dinner excursions. Ideal for that special occasion, or when you want something a little different.
My wife and I recently tried the Sunday lunch option – and it was wonderful. The meal consisted of three courses which were served during two return trips from Alresford to Medstead & Four Marks (the line on to Alton is temporarily closed owing to highway repairs).
We started with soup; followed by roast beef; and finished with apple crumble – and custard (of course – as I replied when offered the choice between custard and cream). All prepared in the train’s own kitchen, and served to our table on patterned china.
It was a delightfully relaxing pace of eating – there are not many restaurants that are happy for you to spend three hours over your meal; more often they are anxious for you to eat quickly so they can use the table again.
In between courses we sat back and admired the views from the train – we were blessed with a beautifully clear and sunny day – and explored the stations at each end of the line, both faithfully recreating how they would have looked in their day, as these following photos show.
And no review of a steam-hauled rail trip would be complete without photos of the locomotive itself:
All in all we thoroughly enjoyed our experience, and our trip back to the golden age of rail travel.
- The Dining trains operate on various dates during the year – see website for details. However, they do get booked up early. At the time of writing, it looks as if most dates for 2019 are already sold out.
- Bookings must be made for complete tables of two or four. This is because of the fixed layout of the tables. You’ve been on a train; you know what they look like.
- All trains depart from (and return to) Alresford.
- The dining trains have a fixed menu; the trains don’t have the facilities or resources to cater for a wide range of options. Having said that, dietary requirements can be catered for if requested in advance.
- The dining trains have a dress code. Shirts and jackets for gentlemen; dresses or smart trousers for the ladies. Yes, I had to put on a jacket and tie!