Experience a train journey that links history, scenery, busy towns and pretty villages in both England and Wales: Over 40 miles of scenic railway between the River Dee at Chester and the River Severn at Shrewsbury, weave their way in and out of the two countries. And there are some awe-inspiring monuments of engineering along the way, like the railway viaduct at Chirk, towering 30 metres above the idyllic River Ceiriog, and Britain’s longest, highest aqueduct, the Pontcysyllte, carrying the Llangollen canal over the picturesque Dee Valley.
Romans and racehorses
Visitors have arrived in ancient Chester for millennia: in the first century AD, the invading Roman army built one of their most important military bases here. The soaring gothic cathedral originally dates from the 11th century, when William the Conqueror first built Chester’s castle. Half-timbered medieval galleries or “Rows” still welcome Chester’s shoppers and you can now walk nearly two miles around the city along the UK’s most complete town walls. Chester’s popular, racecourse, once a Roman harbour, is pleasantly close to the city’s many bars and restaurants.
Leaving Chester, the railway crosses a viaduct over the River Dee, with fine views of both the racecourse and the castle, and heads into Wales to reach the town of Wrexham, just 15 minutes away. Wrexham is the largest town in North Wales and home to the National Trust’s Erddig Hall, an 18th-century stately home with an unparalleled collection of servants’ portraits, featuring gamekeepers, cooks and scullery maids (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/erddig).
Sky-streams and steam railways
Next stop on the line is the village of Ruabon. A good bus service, from outside the station, links you with the magnificent Pontcysyllte aqueduct and the Llangollen heritage railway. Get off the bus at Trevor to visit Pontcysyllte’s vertiginous “stream in the sky”; the aqueduct is supported by 18 stone arches, high above the River Dee, and UNESCO recently listed this “masterpiece of human creative genius” as a World Heritage site, along with 11 miles of nearby canal.
From Pontcysyllte’s visitor centre at Trevor Basin, you can stroll or take a boat over the aqueduct (www.canaltrip.co.uk); you could also walk three miles south along the canal to Chirk, or even five miles west to Llangollen, an attractive town with visitors arriving year-round for events like the International Eisteddfod each July. Horse-drawn canal boat trips leave from the wharf and the Llangollen Railway runs to the town of Corwen, where Owain Glyndŵr declared himself Prince of Wales in 1400. Take a riverside steam train ride through some of the finest natural beauty North Wales has to offer.
Tunnels, towers and tapestries
From Ruabon station, the railway crosses the wide Dee valley on the Newbridge viaduct, an impressive, elegant example of Victorian railway engineering, and arrives at Chirk station minutes later. For a short stroll, join the canal towpath nearby and walk through the darkness of Chirk tunnel; it’s 366m long and you’ll need a torch! Re-emerging into the light, you are faced with Chirk’s aqueduct and viaduct in all their glory, part of the World Heritage site. Thomas Telford designed the sandstone aqueduct, finished in 1801, which spans the Welsh-English border.
The pretty town of Chirk is a leisurely ten-minute walk away, with a number of places to eat and drink, and medieval Chirk Castle looming on a hill above it. Completed in 1310, this magnificent stronghold is the only one of Edward I’s marcher fortresses still lived in today. Owned by the National Trust, the castle and its oak-wooded gardens are full of variety, with everything from dungeons and murder holes to lavish tapestries. This is beautiful walking country: both ramblers and amblers will enjoy a visit to the Ceiriog Valley, described by Lloyd George as “a little bit of heaven on earth”.
Poets, monks and scientists
From Chirk the train takes you over the Chirk Viaduct, where you look down over the aqueduct as you cross the border back into England. Minutes later you’ll reach Gobowen, four miles from the market town of Oswestry, where you can explore the industrial past at the Cambrian Heritage Railways’ HQ. Take in the town’s other museums and galleries too, celebrating ornamental ironwork, local history or contemporary art. There are seasonal guided tours, or you could follow the Wilfred Owen trail to find out more about the famous war poet’s childhood here.
The railway’s final stop is bustling, historic town of Shrewsbury, where you can enjoy more lovely waterside walks along the looping River Severn. Shrewsbury boasts over 600 listed buildings including the castle, now a regimental museum, and historic Shrewsbury Abbey, home of the fictional Brother Cadfael. Born and schooled in Shrewsbury, Charles Darwin spent his first 27 years here; much of town looks much as it did in Darwin’s day and a trail, with special pavement markers, takes visitors to places where he began the studies that would lead to his world-changing theory of evolution.