A day aboard the Dartmouth Express: ‘You half expect Hercule Poirot to hurry along the corridor with Captain Hastings in tow’

Heritage railway trips offer a slice of 1930s glamour in an era, as Toby Keel found out on a trip on the Dartmouth Express.

It’s early on a Saturday morning. The skies are grey, there’s a chill in the air and a threat of rain. The sort of morning when you’d be as well off staying in your pyjamas and making another cup of tea. Yet one of the platforms at Bristol Temple Meads is packed as if it’s Monday morning rush hour.

The reason for this excitement? 60009 Union of South Africa, as handsome a steam locomotive as you’ll ever see, which is just being hitched up to the Dartmouth Express.

It’s over half a century since the last steam-hauled scheduled train service ran in Britain, yet the excitement caused by this handsome beast is what you might expect if a Formula 1 car had turned up in the car park. All across the station passengers pour across to get a close-up glimpse of this classic 1930s locomotive, a handsome LNER Class A4 machine — the same class as the famed Mallard — that’s all flowing lines and Art Deco-esque sensuality.

The F1 comparison isn’t as fanciful as you might think: this is a locomotive that looks like the sort of thing Malcolm Campbell would have set a speed record in, had he gone for trains instead of boats. Indeed, this particular engine holds several records, including the fastest steam-hauled non-stop run from London to Edinburgh. Slightly bizarrely, it also holds the record for the slowest, when it got caught in flooding in 1948.

With Union of South Africa safely connected to the carriages, the guard and stewards usher the passengers back on to continue the Dartmouth Express’s journey. It’s one of several heritage train day trips operated by The Railway Touring Company. Among them are the Cumbrian Mountain Express, the Cotswold Venturer and Dorset Coast Express. Each one pulls vintage carriages done out in irresistibly evocative style, so much so that — particularly in first class — you half expect Hercule Poirot to hurry along the corridor with Captain Hastings in tow.

Dartmouth Express train

The seats are like the sort of plush armchair your grandfather used to sit in; the tables are decked with cloth and laid with cutlery for the breakfast and dinner served on board; and soft lamplight reflects off the wood panelling and glass divides, bathing the carriage in almost sepia tones.

The nostalgia is palpable, even for someone who, like, me, is too young to have seen one of these engines first time round. For my companion today — my father-in-law, who spent hours trainspotting exactly these types of engines in the 1950s— it’s almost overwhelming.

The trip I’m on, the Dartmouth Express, runs from Guildford to Kingswear, includes a ferry trip across the Dart to spend a few hours in one of Britain’s prettiest waterside towns, and then back home again. It’s an early start and a late finish; we pull away from Guildford just before 7am and don’t return until well after 10pm. Yet it never drags. Once past Reading the route takes in the rolling countryside of Wiltshire, Dorset and Devon, including an unforgettable stint along the sea wall at Dawlish where the track is so close to the sea you can smell the salt.

Before the Union of South Africa is attached at Bristol the carriages are hauled by a vintage diesel that’s smart and attractive in its own right, but once the steam engine is hitched up it’s something else – the smiles of onlookers seeing the train whizz by turn into beaming grins.

At every bridge, trainspotters hang over the railings to get a glimpse and a photo; faces turn to watch from every window we pass; level crossings come to a standstill; young boys jump up and down and point, excitedly chattering to their mothers. The train is infectious; everyone is delighted to see us, with the sole exception of one sullen teenager just outside Paignton who, hilariously, delivers a middle-finger salute. Even that feels like an accolade of sorts; it would have been far easier just to ignore us.

Dartmouth Express train view window Devon beach

Taking a heritage railway day trip really feels like stepping into a moving time machine, a taste of pre-war glamour with the modern world flashing by outside the windows. We’d strongly recommend upgrading to 1st class – the carriages feel much more special, and once you’re barrelling along at full speed (the Union of South Africa is still easily capable of hauling us at 70mph) you’ll appreciate the extra comfort for the long journey. For the full Agatha Christie experience, there’s the Premier Dining option, which includes a cooked breakfast that would put many decent hotels to shame, and a fine three-course dinner served at your seat by silver service staff.

Dartmouth Express train breakfast

That dinner is served to us now, accompanied by a bottle of wine ordered from the steward, which we sip as the sun streams through the windows to bathe the carriage in golden light. It feels almost comically bucolic, and the ideal way to ease towards the end of the day — it’s just a shame every train journey can’t be as memorable as this one.

Tickets for The Railway Touring Company’s heritage day trips cost £109 in Standard class, £164 in First and £264 for Premier Dining. See the day trip calendar for 2019, get more information about these and other routes at railwaytouring.net or call 01553 661 500.