Travel: Making tracks - Headless horsemen on the Welsh border

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The Independent Online
Skirting round the Severn Bore, Matthew Brace continues his series on great short railway journeys by taking the train from Gloucester

to Chepstow.

The ticket-collector on the through train from Birmingham to Milford Haven leapt from his carriage at Gloucester with a smile on his face.

"See them?" he asked a colleague waiting on the platform. "There, them two skinnyhead boys walking off now. Got them both at Cheltenham. No ticket, no money, full fine."

He was clearly delighted with busting the two fare-dodgers, who strode away with a story of bravado to tell their mates. So pleased was he with himself that he didn't bother asking any of us who joined the train at Gloucester for our tickets. Instead he breezed through the carriages whistling and answering queries. Yes, the train did stop at Lydney, but no, he didn't have a timetable to give out.

We pulled out of Gloucester at 13.42, passing through the western suburbs and then across the fertile farmland of the Severn river valley. Stately, brick farmhouses line the route, many built on slight rises in the ground, presumably to give their owners a bit more time to get out the sandbags when the river floods.

Inland, on the edge of the Forest of Dean but sadly out of sight from the train track, is Littledean Hall, reputedly Britain's most haunted house, with far more than its fair share of headless horsemen and white ladies. The house is built on the site of a Roman temple, which may have something to do with the excessive paranormal activity. It is privately owned, but you can visit from April to October.

Ten minutes out of Gloucester, the line meets the north bank of the river as it flows into its estuary at the head of the Bristol Channel. This is where the Severn Bore is visible at certain times of the year. The Bore, or wave, is a geographical phenomenon that occurs at high tides, producing a wall of water up to a metre (3ft) high which moves upstream at between 16km and 19km an hour (about 11mph). Some fear it, others surf it. At low tide old wooden jetties are visible reaching out from the shore, their struts coated in seaweed and slime.

From Lydney, the first stop, you can take the Heritage Railway. There are special events throughout the year including, for kids, Friends of Thomas and Teddy Bear weekends.

After Lydney the train runs on to Chepstow (Cas-Gwent in Welsh), only another nine minutes down the line. The dramatic approach to this Welsh border town is across a high bridge over the river Wye looking across to Chepstow Castle. Built on a rock above the river, this is the earliest stone castle in Britain which can be accurately dated. The Domesday Book in 1086 records that it was begun by William fitz Osbern, who had taken up his post as the Norman Earl of Hereford by 1069. The fact that the castle is made of stone rather than earth and timber illustrates its great strategic importance in controlling one of the main crossings into Wales.

The castle is well preserved, with many original features, and there is a small exhibition there that gives you a sense of how tough life was for most people in those days, what with wars, poverty and ever-present plagues. However, for the rich things were different. Royal and noble visitors to the castle would have dined on fine, exotic game. A typical meal for King Edward I, who dropped in in December 1285, included boar's head, heron, cygnet, peacocks, curlew, and iced eggs for pudding.

And what better place for the king and his entourage to walk it all off, than along the battlements? The view is breathtaking. The castle sits on high cliffs above a gentle horseshoe bend of the Wye, which flows idly by 200ft below. The town's position near the confluence of the Wye and the Severn estuary meant that it was always likely to become a key port. Wine from Bordeaux and fish from Iceland were brought ashore here, and the Chartists were deported to Tasmania from the same dockside in 1840, after their uprising in Newport.

Maybe it is the history of international trade that has always made me see Chepstow as a transitory sort of place. It is on the way to lots of places. I remember it as a fish-and-chip stop, coming home from childhood holidays in South Wales. Today the biggest chippie in town must be Payton's Plaice beside the main crossroads, with seating for 60, though the lunch time I dropped in, the other 59 guests were dining elsewhere - maybe at a newly opened fast food joint serving heron and iced eggs to go.

On the footplate

When to go: open all year (nine trains each weekday, 10 on Saturday, seven on Sunday)

What to see: Littledean Hall, Chepstow Castle, cheap day return (Gloucester to Chepstow) adult pounds 5.30, children under 15, pounds 2.65.

Who to call: Wales and West trains (0345 484950), Talking Timetable for Friends of Thomas and Teddy Bear weekends (01594 843423), Gloucestershire Tourist Board (01452 421188), Chepstow Tourist Board (01222 500200).