Gloucester: county town of Gloucestershire, historic city in the Cotswolds, home to Fred and Rosemary West. Possessor of a stunningly beautiful cathedral, a past going back two thousand years, and miles of scenic waterways, it's a gem of the South West and definitely worth a visit.
Gloucester train station, on the other hand, is a shithole.
I mean, look at it. It's horrific. There are blocks of council flats that were designed with more care and panache; public toilets with a greater sense of aesthetic consideration. Opened in the mid-Seventies, this is the kind of station building which just underlines why everyone stopped taking trains. It has contempt for the traveller. It's about getting you onto that train as quickly as possible and with as little inconvenience to the railway provider. The fact that here, nearly forty years later, it's still allowed to fester, underlines how low passengers can be in a railway operator's priorities.
I mustered up a smirk, and ventured inside. I was here in Gloucester to travel on the Northern Belle, the Venice Simplon Orient Express company's tour train. Designed for excursions in the UK, the Northern Belle is a glamorous throwback to the 1930s. It's designed to be redolent of a time when women turned up for their journey swathed in furs, when men wore pin striped suits and thin moustaches, and when a train couldn't travel more than fourteen miles without someone getting stabbed to death in an excitingly mysterious way.
The Bf had managed to score a couple of complimentary tickets for an afternoon tea journey on the train, and I was tremendously excited. I was in love with the idea of the glamour and the sex. I was thinking flappers, Cole Porter, cigarettes on long holders. People for whom a Martini was a requirement, not a luxury. I wanted to stride manfully though a billowing ball of smoke, mysterious, secretive, ready to experience an intrigue filled railway journey amongst minor European princes and faded Hollywood actresses. I considered growing a Poirot moustache for the occasion, but I couldn't lay hands on one of those little protective upper lip hammocks Albert Finney wore in Murder on the Orient Express, so I decided not to bother. Frankly, if someone wasn't murdered in a tunnel I was going to be severely let down.
We were a bit early, so while the Bf nipped to the loo, I had a wander round Gloucester station itself. Fact: it has the second longest platform on the British rail network. Fact: this is the nicest thing you can say about Gloucester station. It was just horrible. I actually felt embarrassed for it. I also realised that there was no way I could stride purposely through the smoke in this place. When James Bond boarded the Orient Express, it was at Sirkeci station in Istanbul. He wouldn't be caught dead dragging a Russian double agent onto a train at Gloucester station. He was more likely to install Tatiana Romanova in a Premier Inn than try to have sexy times with her here.
We were there in time to watch the Northern Belle slide into platform 4, and I couldn't help but be entranced by the cream and maroon coaches. They looked beautiful. But wait: what was this on either end of the coaches?
I mean - what the fuck? I signed up for an afternoon of retro glamour, not a recreation of a coal transporter headed to Harwich. Where the hell was my massive iron giant, gasping for air and water and coal, powered by a fire hotter than Satan? Where was my opportunity for a dramatic entrance through thick coke-scented smoke? I couldn't look sexy in diesel fumes. I'd end up with stains on my shirt and smears on my glasses. And the InterCity sleeping car was just adding insult to injury. Why not just stick a Pacer in the middle and have done with it?
By the time the Bf emerged from the (pretty unpleasant) toilets, I was already in a dirty mood. I was distinctly disappointed. We made our way over to the platform, and had a look at the train in close up. Yes, it was very pretty; yes, there were little red carpets at the entrance to each carriage; but still, something was missing.
The inside of the train was beautiful though. Inlaid woods gave it a rich feeling of decadence. The dark browns everywhere you looked seemed cocooning. Plush upholstered seats - no faded moquettes here - had cushions embroidered with the VSOE logo. White tablecloths were playing host to china and crystal.
We were shown to our seats by Joe, the head steward for our coach, Chatsworth (each one is named after a different stately home). Both the Bf and I immediately had a small panic attack. It was a table for four.
We're not horrible people, honest. We're just a bit shy. No party is enhanced by our presence, because we tend to hide at the back. We were hoping for one of the tables for two. Now we'd have to spend the whole four hour trip opposite a couple of complete strangers.
We'd barely sat down when our travel companions arrived: Peter and Pam, a couple in their, shall we say?, late sixties. We'd already spotted Pam in the car park. It's hard to miss a woman in a floor length white faux fur coat. The dress code was "smart day wear" but Pam had clearly interpreted this as "smart day wear as worn by Elizabeth Taylor".
Across the aisle from us were two young men in their mid-twenties. My gaydar immediately pinged. Their trim frames, careful attention to outfits (one was wearing a pink shirt with a white linen scarf), their iPhones - metropolitan homos, the pair of them. They never introduced themselves to us, so I don't know their names. For the purposes of this blog, they'll therefore be named Bill and Ben.
The carriage began filling up, and we studied the route for today's trip:
144 miles, doing a circular trip through the Malvern Hills and the Welsh Borders, finally following the Severn back up to Gloucester. I'd never really been to this bit of England, so I was interested to see the landscape outside.
The journey really isn't the point of the Northern Belle, though. It's all about the experience. Joe returned to our table and with much "sir" and "madam", he unfurled our napkins onto our laps and poured out a glass of Laurent-Perrier champagne. Combined with the tiny cakes already waiting for us, it felt decadent already, and I sank into my upholstered seat and allowed the luxury to overtake me.
Pam told us that the Northern Belle was really her idea of a trailer for coming attractions: she was trying to persuade Peter to take her on the proper Orient Express to Venice. He wasn't having any of it - "four thousand pounds for a train ride?"
It turned out that Peter was an engineer, and an incredibly practical man. He had no time for puffery - he was interested in practicality. As we waited to take off, he admired the screws holding the wooden window panel in place - the heads were all perfectly aligned in a row. "Now that's craftsmanship." He started talking about how you didn't get that sort of attention to detail these days. I didn't have the heart to point out that the Northern Belle carriages are younger than I am. They're fakes - built to evoke a bygone era, but are not actually from it. This isn't a criticism - you have to admire the sheer work and skill that's gone into them, no matter when they were put together.
A hum, a grind, and then we were gliding out of the station. There were trainspotters on the platform, watching us, photographing merrily. Bill and Ben were confused. "Why would you do that?" they wondered.
Off we went, en route to Cheltenham Spa, and the afternoon's events began to play out.
Finger sandwiches were delivered, not by Joe, but by Ross, the extremely fit Scottish understeward. I saw Bill and Ben checking out his arse as he bent over, which is of course something I would never do.
Peter was talking about his disappointment at the diesel engines. He was a big fan of steam engines, apparently.
"Yes," said the Bf, "we were hoping for an Orient Express type train."
"Not that kind of engine," said Peter. "Steam engines." It turned out he meant those enormous steam trucks you get at country fairs.
There wasn't really anything more we could say to that.
With the tiny sandwiches gone, we were given a quail's Scotch egg, and a tiny parmesan tart. It was a bit like eating in Barbie's dream house: nothing was allowed to be more than two inches in length. The glass of champagne was refilled again, and again, and then tea was served. I was reminded of Hugo Drax to Bond in Moonraker:
You have arrived at a propitious moment, coincident with your country's one indisputable contribution to Western civilisation. Afternoon tea.
There was something charming about the whole affair. Only the British would smack their lips with excitement at a cup of tea; only the British would find two slices of bread with some ham and mustard inside a treat. We're a very simple nation sometimes.
We'd just left Worcester when our first piece of entertainment arrived. This was a surprise - we hadn't expected there to be any turns, but no, here came two men in suits, working their way down the aisle. Both wore evening dress, and they carried a guitar and a trombone. "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" wafted down towards us, as they performed for each little group of people.
"Ooh, music. I like this one," said Pam.
"It's what?" said Peter.
For the first time, I noticed he had a hearing aid. It explained why he seemed to be on a two minute delay.
"There's music," said Pam. "Chattanooga Choo-Choo."
"They're playing music."
"Oh." Peter looked behind him, down the aisle. "Look. They're playing music."
It was quite fun. The singer affected a Noel Coward accent when he sang, which was great for "Putting on the Ritz", but not so great for "When I'm Sixty Four". He bantered lightly with the passengers, tossing off little Coward-esque bon mots from underneath the smallest, thinnest moustache I have ever seen: he may as well have drawn it on with a pencil. Still, he was wearing spats, so I'll forgive him anything. I think it's time spats made a comeback. I accept I may be the only one wanting this.
By now the train was riding through Herefordshire, past fields of sheep and cows. Tiny lambs wobbled around after their mums. There is some beautiful countryside out there, you know. There really is. As Pam said, "if only we had the weather - you'd never need to go abroad!" She was a very sunny person herself, though you sensed a rod of iron in there. She ran a care home, and you didn't want to be the old lady who didn't finish her sprouts.
More champagne, more tea, served by the ever grovelling Joe. There was something a bit sinister about Joe. It didn't help that he was tall and bald and looked a bit like a Smiler from Doctor Who. Behind all those "pleases" and "thankyous" there seemed to be a slight resentment. I suspect that when the revolution comes, Joe will be machine gunning everyone on board the Northern Belle with glee. He had a strange accent too; it sounded familiar, but I couldn't work it out. South African? New Zealand?
The champagne and tea was having its effect on me, so I nipped to the onboard toilet, which I'm glad to report was as luxurious as you'd expect. A mosaic on the floor!
Don't get me wrong - I like magicians in their place. And that place is ten to six on a Saturday evening. In the Eighties. I was a big fan of Paul Daniels when I was growing up, to the extent that I had his Paul Daniels Magic Kit. And obviously The Lovely Debbie McGee is beyond criticism.
Up close magic though - urgh. I hate it. I hate the obligation to be impressed. He came to us and did a couple of card tricks, put Ben's iPhone inside a balloon, all very interesting stuff. But it's hard to get past the "it's all sleight of hand, you know". Plus I saw the different coloured backs on the cards before he revealed them to us as a grand finale, which isn't fun. Actually, his real grand finale was handing out his business card, which seemed a bit tacky.
Bill and Ben weren't impressed. They didn't seem to be impressed by anything, actually. They were so jaded I'm surprised they carried on existing, as Planet Earth seemed to be such a let down. Every glass of champagne, every sandwich, every tune was met with a curled lip and an implied sneer. I've no idea why they were even there. They'd already laughed hysterically at the trainspotters who followed us en route, looking down on their simple pleasures. Their conversation turned to Hull:
"Hull's awful. It's full of the poor."
"I agree. It smells of death."
Liverpool, similarly was dismissed with "it took us five hours to drive up there and then we'd done it all in forty minutes." I had to be held back from leaning over and ramming a petit four in their smug, arrogant faces.
Strangely, one of the best moments came when there was no scenery at all. We headed into the 1500m Colwall Tunnel, and everything went black. At that point, the carriage came alive. The soft bulbs lit up the polished interior, and everything became rosy, as though we were viewing it through gauze. It felt wonderful.
Joe made his return with warm scones, served with clotted cream and strawberry jam: "Be careful sir, because these are hot inside." And suddenly I recognised his accent: he was a Scouser, albeit one who was desperately trying to hide it beneath a veneer of sophistication. You could hear it in the strained way he pronounced "scones" to rhyme with "tones", not with a short "o" like normal people
Down we went, through Wales, the afternoon seeming to pass incredibly quickly. We'd done nothing but sit and eat, but it was already five o'clock and we were pulling into Newport. Pam didn't approve of Newport. She and Peter were from Cardiff, and so were firmly of the belief that people from Newport were thick and the town was ugly. To be fair, it didn't look too charming from the station, but where does? Lime Street's not exactly pretty.
We had a bit of a wait at Newport, which gave Peter a chance to talk about his observations of the trip: "There have been an awful lot of asbestos roofs about."
"Have there?" said Pam.
"Loads. Look, you can see them over there."
"It's cheaper though, which is why they have them in Newport."
"They'll cost a fortune to get rid of though."
"That's because they're dangerous," said Pam. "Asbestos kills you."
Peter snorted with disdain. "So they say. Never did me any harm."
Unfortunately we moved off before I found out the secret of Peter's immunity to asbestos. Perhaps he's a superhero.
The sun was starting to turn orange behind the Newport transporter bridge, and we turned north to follow the Severn. As we passed through Severn Tunnel Junction ("I wonder why it's called that?" said Peter, as we passed the junction to the Severn Tunnel), we were given a tiny ring box, filled with chocolate truffles.
Both Peter and the Bf disappeared to the on-board souvenir shop. I have a feeling the Bf did it purely so he could get one of the bags, which were admittedly very nice, but he came back with a Northern Belle mug and a nice poster of the Orient Express. Peter bought a fridge magnet for Pam to add to her collection, which came in a tiny suede pouch.
The Severn was massive here - deep and wide, a truly impressive stretch of water. With the orange sun beating down on it, it seemed to calm the carriage, and the conversations dropped away. We all watched out the window.
And then we were pulling back into Gloucester, and the 1930s fantasy was replaced by the 21st century reality. Pam and Peter said their goodbyes (Bill and Ben departed without a backwards glance - no doubt they had some peasants to crush before bed) and we tromped back to the car.
I'm still annoyed that there wasn't a steam train, and even more annoyed that no-one was garrotted while we were caught in a snow drift, but it was certainly an experience. I can't say I'd break my neck to go back on there - much as I like train travel, I do actually like to go places - but it was nice to live the high life for a while. I shall take some champagne and truffles on my next Merseyrail trip, just to spice it up a bit.