Up until the mid 1990’s there were 250 restaurant car services across Britain, serving both first and second-class ticket holders on main line routes. Sadly the last dining car hit the buffers in May 2011, but remember my meals on wheels with great fondness.
Flashback to 1982 and I’m boarding a train from Newton in Wales on my way to London for the weekend – a welcome break from my hotel training. Little did I know that Pauline, the rather scary head receptionist was travelling on the same train and I had no choice but to sit with her! The journey from Welshpool to Shrewsbury was slow and conversation was a little stilted but when we boarded our British Rail service to London Euston train she suggested we take a table in the dining car for lunch … my opinion of her immediately changed!
There’s something very nostalgic about eating in a moving restaurant. As railway historian Bryan Morgan wrote: ‘Diners are much-loved things, for we never quite outgrow our childhood amazement at the idea of refreshment on wheels. The moving sunlit countryside; the strange cries from the hell-hole of the galley; the stewards trying to steer a steady course — all these impart a glow . . .’
As Pauline and I were shown to our table, I recall being very impressed by the starched white tablecloths, and the silver cutlery. I also remember the bone chine cups clinking in their saucers as the train trundled along rhythmically.
We started with an aperitif, (which in the early ‘80s had to a cream sherry!) served by a smartly dressed waiter. When the main course arrived it was silver served from a platter onto my plate with balanced precision – I was so impressed. I had just finished my restaurant training and had struggled to silver serve in a stationary hotel dining room, never mind at 70 mph!
Despite the tiny kitchen, the chef managed to produce a delicious 3-course lunch, all washed down with a half bottle of Sancerre, followed by coffee and liqueurs. By the time we reached London we were giddy and the best of friends. Just goes to show what the sharing of lunch in a convivial atmosphere can do!
Whilst researching this piece I discovered that the early waiters, in Victorian times, learned their trade in special sealed-off dining cars where they were trained to walk along a white line wearing a blindfold while the train moved at speed. Lunch aboard the train in Victorian times would have been a five-course affair, with staples such as grilled turbot, roast sirloin, salmon with hollandaise sauce, bread-and-butter pudding, apple tart and crème caramel. Blindfolded training was probably essential!
Travelling from Kings Cross to Gleneagles on honeymoon last year was a bittersweet journey. How wonderful it would’ve been to while away the hours in the dining car, deep in conversation with my new husband whilst the beautiful scenery of the Yorkshire and North Eastern coast whizzed by. There was a time people would see a train journey as a bit of a break from work, a chance to have a good meal and a chat –now people see it as an extension of their working day and bury themselves in their laptops and phones.
Further reading – a link to British Rail dining menus from the 60’s and 70’s can be found here.