After roast beef Sunday lunch in the picture-postcard perfect pub on the picture-postcard perfect village green of the picture-postcard perfect village of East Dean: complete with war memorial and union jack fluttering on the flag pole – and, curiously, a blue plaque on a cottage for Sherlock Holmes, who Holmesian students believe ‘retired’ to this village to keep bees after his adventures –it was on to Brighton.
We pass Beachy Head and I point it out to Passepartout as a popular spot for suicides, as I had done on an earlier walk in London across Archway Bridge, and thought briefly on what a morbid tourist trail I was taking her on.
We had been to Brighton many times. It didn’t hold great appeal on this tour really. We’d been the day trippers “stood all the way from Victoria…extracting grains of pleasure from the long day” as Graham Greene saw almost 80 years ago and still here in front of us today.
Along the front, Passepartout points out the similarities of Brighton to her university town of Thessaloniki and I’m amused to see textbook crusties juggling fire in Queens Park before we cross over into Hove and watch Brighton debauchery give way to textbook middle-class blonde mothers pushing streamlined designer prams.
We push on ourselves, heading towards Bournemouth. Goodbyes and thanks for the lifts and the sofas to sleep on are said to our friends and we board the train, with a change ahead at Southampton.
We disembark at Bournemouth’s grand, cathedral-like station. The seaside solid Victorian buildings here contrasting with the Regency cake-walk of Brighton. We jump on a local bus, open top in the summer. The fellow passengers are either day-trippers – shorts, shirtless – or Bournemothian old ladies – thick winter coats and headscarves.
We head further into Dorset, towards the Isle of Purbeck – which isn’t really an Isle.
We cross on the Sandbanks ferry: sat high up on the bus as we’re pulled by chains over the entrance of Poole harbour on a floating raft. And carry on onto the Studland peninsula.
The sun starts beating and with sandy beaches on either side of us, guarded by thick, spiky shrubland, Passepartout remarks on the similarity to a Greek island. It certainly doesn’t have a traditional English seaside look.
We get off the bus, though, at the perfect English looking 16th century, Purbeck stone, Banks Arms. And, behind it, we join the South West Coastal path at the point of its very beginning. 630 miles of path lie in front of us, down through Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, round the toes of England and up again to end in North Somerset. We set off, planning to follow the path as far as we can.
Cream puffs of sheep on the fields in the distance, we round the headland past the two venerable chalk stacks of Old Harry and Old Harry’s Wife and down into Swanage.
I don’t know Dorset at all well, but I knew Swanage.
I had taught in a summer boarding school here years ago. It hadn’t changed. I don’t think Swanage had changed since 1952 to be honest: the good-looking warm beaches with a tide that never seems to come in or go out and a sea as still as a mill pond; the old fashioned shops; the lack of tack and tat. And to cap it all off, almost improbably, its own steam train line.
As we walked into town along the front, Passepartout had begun peering with growing suspicion into each of the coloured beach huts we passed.
Eventually she turns to me: “People live in there” she says with an assurance.
“No they don’t,” I tell her “They’re just to stay in during the day while people are on holiday.”
“No,” she says, peering in again “People are living in there.”
“They aren’t,” I say with impatience.
“They are! There’re kettles and cups and embroidered pillows and framed photos of families…” she replies, firmly but a little bewilderedly.
“Well… that’s just people making themselves comfortable on holiday,” I say, with a finality, but privately dwell on what ridiculous places these wooden home-from-homes really are. Rented out so holiday makers don’t have to leave their dark, tea making haven into the open air of their holiday. Side by side but mutedly ignoring their neighbours. Men inside reading newspapers, wives reading books, no one looking up, on chairs pointed out towards the sea.
We catch the last steam train of the day to Corfe Castle.
A large shirtless man with a formidable stomach nudges my Passepartout as the black old puffer train pulled up alongside the platform: “What a fucking beauty, eh?”
She’s more amazed that this beautiful private line, run by volunteers, ridden in large number by enthusiasts and wide eyed kids, running every 20 minutes or so, even exists.
“In the whole of Greece we have one line. One line! Athens to Thessaloniki. You should SEE the trains running on that…” she reflects as we stick our heads out and watch the ruined castle appear on its hill round the bend in the dying sunset.
A languishing train whistle into the evening sky, heralding our latest stop.