I feel we really must have a roast beef Sunday lunch today, on this tour of British things. So we sit down to thin strips of meat floating in a greasy gravy, carrots seemingly put on to boil sometime last Tuesday, a great rising mound of Yorkshire “pud” that Giristroula eyes with mistrust, all driven home by pints of flat brown beer, served up in a picture-postcard perfect pub.
We’re on the picture-postcard perfect village green of the ridiculously picture-postcard perfect village of East Dean. The village even has a war memorial with a Union Jack slapping the wind high up a tall white flag pole in the very centre of the green (it seems discreet to best ignore the gull shit streaked down the country’s colours flying proudly up high here). I also spot a curious blue plaque on one of the cottages here, dedicated to Sherlock Holmes as Holmesian students believe he retired to this village to keep bees. I don’t know what I make of this really.
After lunch, we drive on towards Brighton. Past Beachy Head. I point it out to Giristroula as a popular spot for suicides, as I’d also done on an earlier walk in London across Archway Bridge, and briefly mull on the morbid tourist sub-trail of Britain I seemed to be taking her on. We’d 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.
North Street, West Street, East Street, the hotels, the shops, the restaurants, the pubs, the antiques, the second-hand books all climbing up from the sea, as they had on all my hundreds of other previous visits. Brighton had always seemed a bit seedy to me, a bit spivvy. These days though it looks like a spiv who’s got lucky, left its old, chancey, happy-go-lucky ways for an upmarket life. Seems a shame. Giristroula remarks on how the traffic-locked sea road, lined with tall flats, heading along to the pier reminds her of Thessaloniki’s Aegean-facing front back home. I’m happy just to see the reliable ridiculous Brighton dreadlocked crusties still out, juggling fire in Queens Park.
We cross over into snootier Hove – or “Hove, actually” as I’m told the residents round here like to call it, eager to highlight their separation from the supposedly seamy Brighton. We watch Brighton debauchery give way to the blonde mothers pushing streamlined designer prams: all unnecessarily fussy about types of coffee or Scando-chic furniture or their olive oil being infused with something, and all talking loudly to friends about the school little Bruno has got into and the “marvellous little piece I picked up in a market in Crete – oh you have to haggle, or they’re offended you see…”
We push on ourselves, heading towards Bournemouth. It seems as good stopping-off place as any along the south coast to aim for. Goodbyes and thanks for the lifts and the sofas to sleep on are said to our friends at Hove’s station, under its ornamental ironworks and tacked-up plastic rail sign. We board the train, with a change ahead for us at Southampton.
Two and half hours later we disembark at Bournemouth’s grand, cathedral-like station. The seaside, solid, Victorian buildings in this town contrasting with the Regency cake-walk we had left behind in Brighton.
We jump on a local bus – open top now for the summer. The fellow passengers here seem either day-trippers like us – shorts, shirtless – or Bournemothian old ladies – thick winter coats and headscarves. We drive through the suburbs of Bournemouth, having a top-deck view down on the town. And down on the discarded lone shoe or pair of schoolboy trousers that always seem to be lying on the top of bus shelters that always make me wonder how they get there. The result of some unpopular boy’s de-bagging on the back seats of the bus I guess. Never fails to make me feel melancholic.
We head further into Dorset, towards the Isle of Purbeck – which isn’t really an isle but a huge jutting out piece of England, sticking out into its southern waters. We cross on the Sandbanks ferry: sitting high up on the bus as we’re pulled by chains over the entrance of Poole harbour on a floating raft. And then carry on onto the Studland peninsula.
The sun really starts beating and with sandy bare beaches on either side of us, guarded by thick, spiky shrubland, Giristroula 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 incredibly English-looking 16th century, Purbeck strong stone, Banks Arms pub. 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. So we set off walking. Planning to follow the path as far as we can.
Cream puffs of sheep sit in the fields in the distance. We round the headland past the two towering venerable chalk stacks in the sea: Old Harry and Old Harry’s Wife. And we pass down into Swanage town. I don’t know Dorset at all, but I once knew Swanage. I had taught in a summer boarding school here, years ago. It hadn’t changed. I’m not sure Swanage had changed since around about 1952 to be honest: the good-looking warm water 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 too-good-to-be-true – its own steam train line.
As we walked into town, along the front, Giristroula had begun peering with growing suspicion into each of the coloured beach huts we passed. Eventually she turns to me.
“People are living in there,” she says with an assurance, having now closely studied these clapperboard homes.
“No they aren’t,” I say. “They’re just to stay in during the day while people are on their holidays.”
“No,” she says, peering in again “There are people living in there.”
“They are. There are kettles and cups and embroidered pillows and framed photos of families…” she says firmly, but still a little confused at what she can see.
“Well… that’s just people making themselves comfortable on holiday,” I say. But privately I dwell on what ridiculous places these beach home-from-homes really are: rented out so holiday makers don’t have to leave their dark, tea-making haven to go into the open air of their holidays. 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. They could surely only ever exist in Britain. It’s no wonder that the Greek remains perplexed.
We catch the last steam train of the day to Corfe Castle. A large shirtless man with a formidable stomach nudges Giristroula as the black old puffer train pulls up alongside the platform.
“What a fucking beauty, eh?”
She’s more amazed that this private line, run by volunteers, ridden in large number by old train enthusiasts and slightly nerdy, over-obedient kids, running every 20 minutes or so, even exists.
“In the whole of Greece we have one line. One line! Athens to Thessaloniki. And you should see the trains running on that…”
The station is decorated with old rusty metal billboard adverts for Golden Shred James and Ovaltine and forgotten brands of cigarettes. We board the steam train, sticking our heads out the old fashioned drop-down windows, under the old British Rail signs telling people to not lean out of the windows. The old wood panelling creaking. The cushions still hot from the day’s sun. Curtains blowing inwards, flapping into the train carriage in the warm evening breeze as we chuff down the line.
The shadowed skeleton of Corfe’s ruined castle appears on its hill round the bend in the dying sunset. And a languishing train whistle drifts up into the evening sky and heralds the latest stop on our tour of this – this evening, at least – blessed looking plot of land.