Outdoors: Across the marshes with a train that once ran on air

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The Independent Online
Continuing his series on great short railway journeys,

Matthew Brace takes a slow train along the English Riviera.

It is a wonder the stretch of coastal railway between Exeter and Teignmouth has survived. The line squeezes between flaky sandstone cliffs and the English Channel, just a few feet from the water.

"I wonder that myself sometimes," said Bob Houghton, business development manager for Wales and West Trains, one of four privatised companies that share this route. "I was coming along here one evening, and the waves were washing right over the carriages." But he assured me that the run is normally bathed in sunshine. After all, this is the English Riviera, known for its palm trees and balmy afternoons, although you have to use your imagination a bit in late January.

Wales and West share the line with the Intercity trains of Great Western and Virgin, and SouthWest Trains run services to London's Waterloo. Most of the fast trains speed through non-stop between Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance.

The 12.20pm pulled out of Exeter St David's and headed south, with good views across the river Exe to the village of Topsham. It was recently voted the best place to live in Exeter. No big deal, you may think, until you discover that Exeter was voted most desirable place to live in the UK. You can get a glimpse of what everyone is raving about from the train. Beyond the harbour the snug fishermen's cottages climb up a gentle slope from the water's edge.

Between the track and the river are the Exminster marshes, a mecca for bird-spotters. Rare little egrets were spied here a few years ago and have now begun nesting year-round. The area is also known for its avocets.

The birds are hard to see from a speeding train, but if you are staying in Exeter and have time for a day trip to Topsham (via train or bus), find the ferryman on the shore, who will row you across the Exe to the marshes for a handful of change.

The Teignmouth line sprints past a surreal boatyard where the boats look as if they are floating on water higher than the train. On the right lies Powderham Castle, home to Lord Courtenay, the 17th Earl of Devon, and beyond it is the first stop, Starcross. A small ferry leaves here during the summer and chugs across the estuary to Exmouth, allowing you to do a circular route by train going back along the other bank of the estuary to Exeter through Topsham.

Brunel developed this atmospheric railway in Starcross 150 years ago, with carriages pushed by a series of pistons and jets of air from a pipe running below the track. Air-pumping stations along the route at Dawlish, Starcross and Teignmouth added to the Heath Robinson appearance of the system. Things looked promising when on a test run in June 1847 a train reached 70 mph, and the public loved it because it was so quiet, but it turned out to be one of the great engineer's more expensive brainstorms.

Modern trains follow the same track line through Dawlish Warren, Dawlish, and Holcombe, and then pull into Teignmouth.

As soon as I left the station I remembered the other thing the English Riviera is famous for - Basil Fawlty. I stared up at the numerous guesthouses clinging to the cliffs and thought he could be managing any one of them, dealing with batty retired majors and deaf spinsters.

Teignmouth was largely destroyed by the French in 1690 and took a hammering from the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, when 79 residents died. Today it looks pretty spry, even in a pier-rattling gale. The Riviera Cinema still stands in the centre of the town. It began life as the Public Assembly Rooms in 1826 and enjoyed years of jollity as a venue for cards, billiards, concerts and the odd ball before becoming a picture house just before the first World War.

What remains of the pier is a truncated version of the original which went up in 1865 and hosted magic lantern shows and dances. It was shortened 30 years ago when it began to creak alarmingly. From the end you can look back and watch the trains rumbling beneath the cliffs.

On the footplate

When to go: open all year (nine all-stops services a day, Mon to Sat)

How much: cheap day return (Exeter-Teignmouth): adults pounds 4.30, children under 15 pounds 2.15.

Who to call. Wales and West Trains (0345 484950); for tickets and disabled information (0345 125625). Bikes: check first with appropriate stations. Devon Tourist Board (01392 437581 or 01626 863589)