I’ve been banging on and on about having a roast beef Sunday lunch on this tour of British things. So here we are at last: 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 and prods at cautiously with her fork. All driven home by pints of flat brown beer.
We are, though, in a dark wooden picture-postcard perfect pub. It’s on the picture-postcard perfect village green of the picture-postcard perfect village of East Dean. It all looks almost too much to be true. The village even has an old stone war memorial with a Union Jack slapping the wind proudly up on high from a tall white flag pole in the very centre of the green. It seems discreet to ignore the gull shit streaked down the country’s colours though.
On one of the little cottage I spot a blue plaque. It’s a plaque dedicated to Sherlock Holmes who, Holmesian students believe, retired to this village to keep bees.
The South Downs roll away on the horizon, with closed cottages and barns and communities all spaced out over miles of fields and roads trailing off into dark woods. There is nothing I really understand here from my London life at all. It feels a bit sinister to me.
“It is my belief, Watson,” said Holmes “Founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside…
The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock.
But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”
The Sunday Lunch slowly sinks as we drive on towards Brighton, along jagged cliff edges that look like clumsily torn paper. Past Beachy Head, which 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. I 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 a great appeal on this tour of new places in Britain 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 our other previous visits. Brighton had always seemed a bit seedy to me, a bit spivvy. I liked it. These days though it looks more like a spiv who’d got lucky and left its old, chancey, happy-go-lucky ways for a more upmarket life. Seemed a shame.
Giristroula remarks on how the traffic-locked sea road, lined with tall flats, heading along towards the pier reminds her of Thessaloniki’s Aegean-facing front back home. I’m just happy to see the reliably ridiculous Brighton dreadlocked crusties still around, juggling fire in Queens Park. Guitars and joints and dogs on a string on the fat pebbled beach.
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 supposedly seamy Brighton.
Brighton debauchery gives way here to 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. All talking loudly to friends about the school little Jasper has got into and the “marvellous little piece I picked up in a market in Crete – oh you have to haggle, you have to. Otherwise they’re offended you see…”
We push on ourselves, heading towards Bournemouth. It seems as good a stopping-off place as any along the south coast to aim for. Farewells and thanks for the lifts and the sofa 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 dirty green Southern train to travel westwards along the coast, a change ahead at Southampton.
Someone has drawn a cock and balls on the aquamarine-coloured striped moquette on one of the seats. I watch as every male passenger gets on at the stops all along the line – Shoreham-by-Sea, Goring-by-Sea, Havant – all make to sit on the seat but, noticing the scrawl, all change their mind at the last moment. Preferring to stand.
The train rattles through Bognor Regis without stopping. Bugger Bognor.
One man stands outside the one toilet in use on the whole service. For 10 minutes he has a row with someone inside.
“You’re fucking USELESS. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousands times. You won’t listen.” He bangs on the door. “I said you just won’t LISTEN.” All of us sat here in the carriage watch this raging at his friend in silence, until the man finally gets off the train at Chichester. No one comes out of the toilet.
Giristroula, desperate for a pee, goes to check. The door swings open at the lightest of touches. There is no one inside.
Two and half hours later we disembark at Bournemouth’s grand, cathedral-like station. The solid Victorian buildings in this seaside 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 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 and which 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, the jutting out piece of England, sticking out like a thumb 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 here 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. But we get off the bus at the incredibly English-looking 16th century, Purbeck stone, Banks Arms pub. Behind the pub 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 walking – planning to follow the path as far as we can.
Cream puffs of sheep sit in the fields in the distance as we round the headland, past two towering venerable chalk stacks in the sea: Old Harry and Old Harry’s Wife. We walk along the path cutting across the coast and then 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 the sea as still as a mill pond; the old fashioned shops; the novelty rock emporiums; 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 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.”
“There are. There are kettles and cups and pillows and photos in frames…” she says, 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 out 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 very 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 bloody 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 here 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 peeling British Rail warning not to 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.