It might be regarded as one of life’s many platitudes that the journey is more important than the destination, but sometimes it is gratifying to be reminded how true the adage so often is: that how you get somewhere can be more enjoyable than what awaits when you disembark.
Step forward and blow your whistle; the Royal Windsor Steam Express will be whisking people away from the capital and into a bygone age of luxurious train travel throughout the summer – the first regular steam service from London Victoria in over 50 years.
There are two such routes operating through the coming months, the other being the Sunset Steam Express, which is a longer circular journey through the Surrey Hills. On this occasion though my partner and I were lucky enough to be able to experience one of the early excursions on the Royal Windsor just as the first summer heatwave embraced the country. This concomitantly made the Underground tube ride to Victoria a bit more oppressive but then made you appreciate even more the sunny morning scene of the steam express chugging into view at the far end of the station’s platform network.
Stepping onto the Pullman dining carriage – the most luxurious of the three classes of carriage on offer – is like entering a movie set for a classic railway-based film like Murder on the Orient Express, complete with varnished wood panelling, period light fittings and embroidered curtains. We sat in spacious armchair-style seats around a dining table draped in white linen and laid out with champagne glasses, silver cutlery and folded napkins.
A sudden shrill whistle and we were off in a cloud of steam, chugging our way through London and past its westerly landmarks like Battersea Power Station and Chelsea Bridge, but now with smartly-dressed waiting staff filling our glasses with bubbly before serving an Eggs Royale brunch with hot coffee.
It’s certainly a novel and stylish way to experience traversing the city you know so well, before the train finally breaches the outer perimeter and carries you through some greener bursts of rural Berkshire before the elevated royal castle of Windsor eventually hovers into view. The relaxing 90-minute journey certainly flies by swiftly, but then you have a day out to enjoy in one of England’s more popular destination towns.
Windsor is dominated by its 1,000-year-old edifice, which is actually the largest inhabited castle in the world. A wonderful view of it can be had on the historic Long Walk through Windsor Great Park, or alternatively aboard a steamboat along the Thames, which operates in partnership with the Royal Windsor Steam Express, and is timed with its schedule.
One impressive feature of the train on an ecological note, as well as the others run by owning company Steam Dreams Rail Co., is that they are carbon offset, with theirs being the first rail charter to be carbon neutral. Also all Steam Dreams excursions are fully compliant with existing government guidelines on social distancing, while all individual bookings that are delayed due to Covid can be rescheduled to a later date with no amendment fee, affording added peace of mind in these uncertain times.
My only slight quibbles about the Royal Windsor rail experience is that the journey might have been enhanced by some light background music of classical or even 1940s swing jazz to further set the period scene, or maybe more in the way of vintage outfits for the staff for added authenticity. The only other point, which couldn’t be helped, is that the antique carriages don’t have air conditioning so make sure to dress accordingly if travelling in sultry summertime warmth as we did, or carry some layers in case it’s a cooler day as temperatures can vary on the train.
All things considered though, the Royal Windsor Steam Express offers a memorable day-trip occasion that is as evocatively British as it gets, giving you an immersive glimpse of the golden age of steam travel which looks never to go out of fashion. It would make for a fantastic gift, too, for parents or even grandparents who might have been lucky enough to experience it the first time round.
Tickets from £89pp for Pullman Style Dining (child £69). All classes of tickets can be purchased online at steamdreams.co.uk.