Dinner on the Bluebell Line

Bathed in late summer light, the Sussex Wealden countryside, a profusion of lush green fields and woodland, was at its most beguiling. As the Blackmoor Vale, a West Country Class locomotive pulled out of Sheffield Park station in the still evening air, cows continued munching, but horses looked up as we trundled through their pastures. Percolating through our 1928 dining car, and mingling with the aroma of lamb, beef, and sea bass, was a nostalgic whiff of steam, as the slight incline forced the massive 1946 locomotive to puff more eagerly. A tiny flake of soot floated through the open window into my eye. It was all coming back to me now…the romance of the steam age.

Station mistress: Vivianne

We were dining in Lilian, once in service with the Brighton Belle – a splendid Pullman car on what the Bluebell Railway Company like to call Golden Arrow dining trains. But there was little point in the driver putting his foot down, as it were – we would run out of track soon enough, even at this sedate speed. The line only goes as far as Kingscote, and in order to make a meal of it, we would be making one and a half return journeys along the eight-and-three-quarter-mile stretch of line, visiting Horsted Keynes three times in the process. It was the only way of allowing us to enjoy a leisurely and excellent meal while keeping on the move. But since the sun would soon be setting on this bucolic scene, it hardly mattered – it was soon too dark to notice.

Comparisons with the Orient Express are inevitable. For corporate events, murder-mystery events can be laid on – and Hercule Poirot would have been very much at home in our marquetry panelled dining car, with its gleaming brass fittings, discreet Art Deco table lamps and comfy little armchairs. Well-mannered waiters and waitresses were soon serving our starters – half-lobster salads and huge avocados brimming over with prawns.

It was a hot, sultry night, and as we stretched out legs at Horsted Keynes, in search of cooler air, a poster informed us that Paramount’s “All-talking-singing Marx Brothers musical comedy hit, The Coconuts, was “Coming soon!”. A little water bowl on the platform advertising Hudson’s Soap invited dogs to “drink-puppy-drink”.

All aboard: Vivianne joins Samantha and her family on the train.

In future it will be possible to make longer excursions. As we disembarked, we noticed a metal box in the waiting room with a sign saying: “Pennies on the line. Each pound buys half an inch of track towards East Grinstead.” One day I hope to savour the moment we trundle over the inch that we bought.

© Arnie Wilson

The Bluebell Railway, Sheffield Park Station, near Uckfield, East Sussex TN22 3QL runs services every weekend throughout the year and every day during the summer months. Diners can opt for dinners (£35) on most Saturday nights from March until October and lunch (£30) on most Sundays from the beginning of February until the end of November. There are numerous “specials” during the Christmas period. Rail tickets (£18) are extra. The entire train is available for private charter luncheons and dinners for between £1,200 and £1,500. For further information telephone Newick (01825) 720800. Travel details were correct at the time of writng, but may have changed.