English wine goes full steam ahead

A new series of glamorous English wine rail routes have opened up this summer on the Belmond British Pullman. Laura Richards hops on board to see what's in store

Words by Laura Richards

The window view from the Belmond British Pullman's English wine route

If you were in any doubt about the status of English wine, a new travel package launched on board the glamorous British Pullman rail service should confirm the commodity’s rapid ascendence from laughing matter to luxury item. The new series of train journeys by aspirational operator Belmond takes a scenic loop from London Victoria through the Kent countryside and back along its shoreline, with a stop-off at one of the country’s leading wine estates along the way.

Belmond is known for putting on stylish journeys around the world within restored art deco carriages, offering a glimpse into the ‘golden age of travel’. The British Pullman is a prime example of this elegance inspired by another era: the vintage train boasts decor dating back to the 1920s and one of its more ‘modern’ carriages has been recently redesigned by film director Wes Anderson in his colourful signature style. Throughout, three-course dining and silver service is typically offered on board. But with its latest package, the emphasis is on British produce – with English wine, rather than Champagne, poured (liberally) alongside dishes.

Inside the Belmond british pullman's Ibis train carriage
Inside Ibis, the oldest carriage on the British Pullman train

British Pullman’s general manager Craig Moffat explains why it might not be quite the departure it sounds: ‘We have been serving some wonderful British sparkling wines on board the train for over 10 years now and they have always been embraced and enjoyed alongside our exceptional British menus,’ he says. ‘We benefit from a very adventurous and open-minded clientele.’

While Belmond has dabbled in English wine routes before now – including a 2023 trip to Balfour to coincide with English Wine Week – this summer sees the launch of a fully-fledged roster of day trips to wineries in the south of the country. Moffat explains the doubling down on Belmond’s offering: ‘There has been a huge investment across a range of British wineries in recent years in creating unique and beautiful spaces for guests to visit and enjoy. Alongside this we have also benefited from some wonderfully warm summers resulting in ever-improving vintages and blends.’

the belmond british pullman train cutting through the english countryside

While we’ve likely all seen for ourselves the exponential rise of English wine, there are recent statistics to support Moffat’s statement. Just this summer, the Food Standards Agency released figures that demonstrate there are now over 1,000 vineyards across the UK, with a total of 221 wineries. And with these buoyant numbers comes a spike in wine tourism, rising by 55% in the last two years according to Wine GB. ‘Recognising the growing interest in English wine and the rich heritage of local vineyards, we saw an opportunity to create a special connection between the elegance of the British Pullman and these prestigious destinations,’ says Moffat.

Setting out on its maiden English vineyard voyage to see what the new route entails, me and my guest are greeted and seated inside Ibis, a carriage from 1925 adorned with Greek mythological figures on its polished-wood-panelled walls. It’s a prompt 9am departure from London Victoria station, where we would be returning 12 hours and several glasses later.

gusbourne winery and its visitor centre 'the nest'
Gusbourne wine estate's visitor centre, surrounded by vines (Photo: Charlie Mckay)

Service begins with strawberry wine poured from a teapot and a three-course brunch follows, with Prosecco-filled Bellinis served on the side in a nod to the company’s Venetian ties – but perhaps a missed opportunity to set the tone for what is being billed as an English wine odyssey. Pastries, fruit and eggs royale are brought to tables by steady hands as the window views shift from cityscape to countryside scenes.

Disembarking at Ashford International station in Kent, buses are on standby for a short journey through what our tour guide describes as the Garden of England and a thriving seat for English sparkling wine, despite the appearance of the sleepy villages that roll by. We’re arriving at Gusbourne wine estate for an afternoon immersion. As one of the English wine scene’s pioneering brands – its first vintage was released in 2010 and its smart visitor centre, ‘The Nest’, launched back in 2017 after the company floated on the London Stock Exchange – the estate hits the mark it seems Belmond is looking to meet.

Gusbourne bottles on a shelf at the winery
(Photo: Charlie McKay)

Despite this year’s underwhelming start to summer and strong winds whipping up from The Channel – with turbines on Rye’s coastline just visible in the distance – we’re blessed with sunshine and with no need to huddle like guests at a washout wedding under a marquee erected on the lawn. Small groups are taken around the vines one by one for a tour of the grounds. The depth of information here is fairly shallow in order to cater to all knowledge levels, but the winery’s staff are stationed at stands around the grounds ready to pour and share more insights on the cuvées on offer – including blanc de noirs and blanc de blancs expressions. The British Pullman encourages dressing to impress, and a sea of frocks among the vines – along with the train’s white-suited team circulating with silver trays of canapés aloft – is a pleasant sight from Gusbourne’s impressive viewing deck.

table with english rosé wine glass on board the british pullman train

Returning to the station, the rail journey languidly concludes by looping back to London via Margate. So this time, there are sea views to absorb over a four-course dinner that includes a selection of British cheeses and commitment to the theme in the form of a bottle of still Gusbourne rosé, rich with the heady notes of summer pudding. Giddy passengers begin to explore from carriage to carriage, taking in the Pullman’s visual feast – the day’s healthy dose of English wine clearly having lowered inhibitions – before we disembark back at London Victoria and feel the glamour swiftly dissipate.

Further destinations planned for the summer months are peppered throughout Sussex and Kent and include Nyetimber, Simpsons Wine Estate, Nutbourne, Wiston Estate, Balfour, Westwell and Herbert Hall – all places within a short distance of the British Pullman route and that the Belmond team consider to be hitting the luxury mark. We’ve come a long way. ‘Champagne may have a three-hundred-year head start in building their glamorous brand,’ says Moffat. ‘But I challenge anyone to lounge in the sunshine with a chilled glass of Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs and not feel the brilliance of British bubbles.’

The next English wine journey with Belmond British Pullman will depart to Wiston Estate on 24 July, with trips to Westwell (21 August), Gusbourne (21 August) and Herbert Hall (18 September) to follow. Tickets start at £670 per passenger. Find further information at belmond.com.