On the trail of cavaliers and spooks

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The Independent Online
Secret forests, flooded rivers and Civil War ghosts on a train ride across middle England: Matthew Brace continues his series on great short railway journeys.

A delayed train can be a blessing. It offers you views that would normally whizz by at 100mph and lets you ponder the world outside your window. Travelling on Thames Trains this week, I became quite an experienced ponderer.

We had a signal failure, a defective freight train and a mandatory 5mph speed limit imposed without warning before I stopped listening to the announcements. So as we sat outside the well-to-do Oxfordshire village of Charlbury, I watched the cows and remarked to myself how gracefully they walked, not at all in the fat, clumsy way people often describe.

And I watched the village. Charlbury is typical of the Cotswolds: all honey-coloured stone and friendly postmen. Being on the main line to Oxford and London Paddington, it has kept its high house prices and its well- off clientele. Country folk can pop up to town for work or the theatre, then retreat from the pollution to their rural boltholes.

North from the station, the line follows the River Evenlode to Moreton- in-Marsh, just over the border in Gloucestershire. The wet winter had fattened the river, which had burst its banks, spectacularly in places. It is not the widest of rivers - in fact it is more of a brook - so it could be excused for overflowing. Perhaps it got bored with its diminutive size and relished the opportunity to spread out a little.

The track passes close by Wychwood Forest, the "Secret Cotswold Forest" as the local writer Mollie Harris called it. This is all that remains of a vast, ancient, broadleaf woodland that spread across the Midlands. Oaks from Wychwood were said to have been used for Nelson's flagships.

The line loops round beyond the trees and heads west for mile or so. I watched the new estates on the edge of Ascot-under-Wychwood slip by. The first stop was Kingham, near the village of Bledington, which boasts a Victorian maypole. As we approached, two young women opposite were talking animatedly about pensions and investments. What PEP to choose? Which life assurance?

This ride from Charlbury to the handsome, small market town of Moreton- in-Marsh is short (18 minutes) and trains run roughly once an hour. Local teenagers knew Moreton as a comical place for the presence of a building contractor called Spook Erection, whose rude logo was a smiling ghost with a bulge in his white sheet.

The sign hung by the railway bridge on the way into town. Either the firm went out of business or moved, or the Cotswolds political correctness police waded in; Spook Erection is now a Budgens supermarket.

Moreton was originally Moreton Henmarsh and earned brief fame on Tuesday, 2 July, 1644, during the Civil War, when King Charles I stayed here. A chronicler of the time wrote: "From Dedington the army marched Tuesday morning, by Great Tew where the Lord Viscount Falkland hath a faire howse, thence that night to Moreton Henmarsh where his Majestie lay."

His Majestie lay at the White Hart Royal Inn on High Street, or the Fosse Way to give it its grander title, that runs through the middle of the town. The inn staff must have been impressed with their visitor, because they named the bar after him, The Cavalier. Today, they say you can sit in front of the bar's huge fireplace and sip minestrone soup with Royalist ghosts.

In two weeks' time (on Saturday, 7 February) there is a guided walk from Moreton station starting at 10.40am and finishing in Stow-on-the-Wold (six miles). Or, if you are a keen cyclist, the Country Lanes Cycles Centre hires out bikes from Easter. The office is in the station.

Moreton, like many other small Cotswold towns, is an antiques buyer's dream. Some shops sell fine Jacobean chests, others scruffy railway signs and well-used kitchen tables. But, unlike its neighbours, it is an unassuming place that seems to have escaped the snobs. Maybe Spook Erection put them off.

On the footplate

How much: Cheap day return (Charlbury - Moreton-in-Marsh): adults pounds 4.20, children under 15 pounds 2.10 (fares rise on 29 May)

Who to call: Thames Trains 0345 484950, or (to book tickets) 0345 300700, or (for disabled travel) 0118 908 3607 at least 72 hours in advance. Country Lanes Cycle Centre 01608 650065. Guided walks with the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty service on 01452 425674.