A SHINY white sink and gleaming taps, a spotless bowl, and fresh cut flowers, Crabtree and Evelyn soap and walls decorated with the most exquisite marquetry, can this really be a railway carriage toilet?

It may be the smallest room in the carriage but you could quite easily spend all day there. However, that would be a shame because there's so much more to enjoy as a passenger on the Northern Belle, the Orient-Express of the North of England.

A more gentile life slips by as you settle into the luxurious velour seats, at a table set for lunch, with its crisp white cloth, Gainsborough silver, exclusive china and cut glass brimming with Bucks Fizz. Pulling out of York Station, destination Scarborough, you leave the 21st Century behind for a time of romance, a time of railway children, a time of brief encounters.

As the cavalcade curves around the first bend the time warp continues when you glimpse the locomotive getting up steam at the head of the train - it's the most famous steam engine in the world, the Flying Scotsman. It's more than a train journey, it's a phenomenon, and a strange one which stops cattle in their tracks, causes horses to bolt and passers-by to wave, broad grins spreading across their faces. Even the countryside obliges by being as pretty as a picture postcard, a far cry from the urban grime witnessed from the seat of the mainstream commuter trains.

Cotton wool balls of smoke and steam chuff majestically from the locomotive, flying in the face of Euro emission laws and drifting across England's green and pleasant land.

Aboard the inaugural Northern Belle service, and very happy to be there, is the man who saved the Flying Scotsman from the scrapheap in 1963, 81-year-old Alan Francis Pegler. He stepped in after Locomotive 1472 was cast aside by British rail after decades of sterling service. Better than anyone else, he sums up the love of steam. "There is something about steam, it seems to be alive," says Mr Pegler, whose family ran a brass foundry and The Northern Rubber Company in Doncaster. "I was four years old when I first saw the Flying Scotsman. I remember the impression it left of that great green engine and after that I saw it frequently. Then, in the post-war years, they decided to get rid of all the steam engines. They were to go for scrap and I thought that was a great shame."

So he paid £3,000 for the best-loved engine in the world, which was restored to better than its former glory, and currently remains president of the Flying Scotsman Association. "It's absolutely marvellous. It's a bit like restoring a vintage Bentley and you end up with something better than it ever was."

And that is what the Northern Belle is, better than any other service ever was. It is pure luxury, decadence, in a world of quick-fix, fast-food consumerism.

It's an occasion and passengers dress up accordingly in their Sunday best. Stewards, dressed in maroon and gold, offer the friendly, unhurried service of a formal dining room. When the champagne is poured, the left hand is firmly tucked behind the back. And the food is excellent; tasty carrot and coriander soup, delicately-poached salmon, beautifully-sculpted blueberry and chocolate cheesecake. The cheeses are British, the coffee Colombian and the bitter mints Bendicks, of course. And all in superbly-restored coaches carrying the name and the theme of a British stately home. The attention to details is so good, even the heads of the countless brass screws line up in the same direction.

Passengers revel in it. "It's wonderful," says William Hurst, of Stockport, there with his wife as a surprise present from his family for their golden wedding anniversary. "We were looking forward to it, but we didn't think it would be this good. The service, the food, everything has been just perfect. And the Flying Scotsman...the feeling you get when you see the smoke go by, and the smells you get...it's just marvellous." For many, the best feeling of all is the nostalgia the journey provokes, those all-important rose-tinted recollections of yesteryear.

It's a feeling shared by the staff. Engine driver Walter Wilkinson considers himself a lucky man. Not only is he at the controls of the Flying Scotsman, he has managed to find steam trains to drive right through his 40 year career.

"It is brilliant," says Mr Wilkinson, 56, of Pocklington, North Yorkshire, whose great, great grandfather retired as an engine driver in 1922, after 50 years service. "It's a thoroughbred among thoroughbreds. It's like driving a sportscar, with your head out of the window, the wind in your face. I feel so lucky, people would do anything for my job and I get paid for it, which is an added bonus.

"Steam trains have so many moving parts you can see working, they are noisy, smelly, dirty, but the atmosphere is unique. In the cab, there are no lights and at night there is only the glow of the fire and the sparks. It so full of drama."

All too quickly journey's end arrives for those not continuing on to Manchester. As the carriage door slams and the train chugs out of York Station, I couldn't help wondering where to catch it to next.