Tap tap tap. “Good morning to you both. I’ll leave the breakfasts outside your door shall I? I’d just like to inform you, we’ll be arriving in St Erth station in half an hour…”
I pull the blind up to see dawn breaking over Cornish heathland and the silhouetted ruins of old tin mine steeples up on the hills.
Feeling like I’ve had the best sleep in years, I have my British Rail bacon sandwich and tea, watching a freshly first-light splashed Cornwall roll past the window as I ease into my trousers and the train eases into St Erth station.
Disembarking from the long, snorting, sleeper we pick up a tiny two coacher that is patiently waiting for us on the adjacent smaller platform and head out on what must be one of the most beautiful train routes in Britain.
Running round the curve of St Ives Bay: first with the boggy mudflats of Lelant and then the clean wide beaches of Carbis Bay to our right. High grassy bluffs are on our left. Bobbing rabbit arses running up the slopes, fleeing from our chuntering train.
St Ives appears round the bend and we look down on the lolling town with its roofs and church chapels and its ‘Island’ – not really an island, but a grassy promontory – splitting the town in two, pushing out into the sea with its Cornish-austere chapel, sat alone on top. And a special light framing it all. It’s a special view.
The town is silent this early, aside from a few dog walkers on the town’s dotted five beaches, as we pace about in brilliant morning sun to find and try to hire a chalet.
We pass a closed newsagent with a pavement sandwich board outside announcing yesterdays’s headline in The Cornish Times: ‘Local man, 96, dies’.
We pass the perfect semi-circle harbour with its stone pier and pretty coloured boats leaning up on the sand with the tide out – the boats looking like those old-fashioned, coquettishly-posed, photographed models, lying on their fronts with legs flicked up and their chin resting on their palms.
Later, having dumped our stuff and walked the St Ives streets as they woke up around us – fishermen in thick rubber boots carrying big red crates of crabs, passing expensive-looking jewellery shops and galleries re-positioning framed expressionist daubs of the harbour front in their windows – we set off out of the town to tackle the long coastal walk from St Ives to the village of Zennor.
The jagged path is pushed fast against the dramatic dropping cliffs, with waves – crashing over dark rocks below – rearing up powerfully high.
The weather has turned climatic and theatrical. I have brought our radio and we sit alone on the cliffs, eat cheese and pickle sandwiches (the Greek winces), and listen to some crackly, appropriate-feeling, broadcast of Elgar coming over the airwaves. And we stare out at the Atlantic.
Cornwall rolls behind us, bare and sad and formidable.
A heavy sky hangs over the fields running from the cliff edges, with the grass such a deep green colour it seems almost black. The walk is long and lonely and rocky. The strong winds make it exhilarating, and it feels a world away from the sun-soaked ups and downs of our previous walk along the Dorset coastal edge.
There’s a never-ending procession of fraying cliffs of sea continually rising and breaking far out beyond.
We keep walking the path and then, quite suddenly, we come across an elderly man. Sat on a bench made from piled rocks and a plank of wood.
He’s wearing yellow slacks. a yellow shirt, yellow tank-top and yellow tie, under a red anorak. His moustache neat and trimmed. His long face desperately sad.
“Hello,” I say.
He looks up. Looks me over. “Now then,” he nods back.
“What are you doing out here?” I ask. “Bit blowy isn’t it?”
“I like looking at the sea,” he says.
We both turn to look at the unhappy, storm-tossed water for a while. I wonder what it is about the sea that old people like looking at. Some reflection on life, some reflection on mortality?
“My wife died a year ago.”
This was unexpected. The man’s statement just lies there on the blustery air. And I can’t think of what to say back to this clipped, rather military-looking man.
“I miss her very much,” he says, and carries on staring out to sea.
“You know I still wake up every morning and make two cups of tea. It’s stupid isn’t it?” He let’s out a small yap of humourless laughter thinking of his sad morning routine.
“It always feels so bloody awful when I have to pour the other one away.”
I say goodbye to the man, he doesn’t reply. Giristroula and I carry on our coast walk. I feel a total melancholia grip me.
This mood, I suppose, at least in good keeping with these dark, end-of-Cornwall, surroundings.
We get to the small, stone-built village of Zennor.
We are nearing the very end of the country – Zennor the final habitat, alphabetically, in Britain too. A last bastion of the Cornish language; peculiar named, Cornish saint, St Senara Norman church; The Tinner Arms. DH Lawrence came down to Zennor to write ‘Women in Love’, so I’ve heard. The locals thought he was a German spy and chased him out of the village.
Having, of course, missed the last rural bus service here, we taxi it back to St Ives. We find the St Ives, incredibly, just as we had left it: bathed in sunlight, in the late afternoon.
The stone cottages of the town tumble over each other down to the sea – like a knot of drunken sailors just about holding themselves upright together.
Amongst the less cut-price, more smug holidaying crowd than the other seaside towns we’ve passed through so far, I explain a Cornish pasty to Giristroula.
I tell her that this was once a full meal for tin miners in Cornwall and once upon a time at one end of the pasty there would have been some sort of pudding with sponge and jam mixed in with all the meat and potatoes – thinking I’ve heard this said somewhere before, but not really knowing for sure if any of it is true or not.
I steer her away from the nouveau pasties – I see one is made with feta cheese – just as I insist we walk around and around to find a classic ’99’ Mr Whippy ice-cream with the stubby chocolate flake sticking out proud, rather than the pots of organic clotted-cream versions being sold in the stripey awninged food boutiques. It seems quite hard to keep it old school in St Ives.
I’m not sure Giristroula wouldn’t prefer these new, cleaner, tastes of Britain actually. But, well, who’s in charge of this tour anyway?
This journey round the country, as well as being a first look at some places for Giristroula is also a final chance for me to taste my past one last time before we leave it forever, of course.
And I can’t even remember the last time I was by the British seaside before this trip. The way things seem to have changed in somewhere like here in St Ives, it seems like two or three lifetimes ago.
An aerial bombardment from the colossal seagulls of St Ives means our food is soon being carried out beyond the harbour towards Seaton’s old stone lighthouse anyway.
The seagulls here are absolute bastards. Mean, searching rodent eyes. The size of small Alsatians dogs. Screeching voiced. Ravenous and angry. It comes as no surprise to learn that Daphne Du Maurier, author of Hitchcock’s The Birds, once lived in St Ives.
As we watch the seaside pterodactyls attack an old woman’s hat and then a small child for his chips, the wings beating on his face, the grinning yellow bill slashing in the air, we admit defeat and take a dark table at the ancient Sloop Inn for the evening.
I fruitlessly attempting to coax my Greek drinking companion into a liking of thick Cornish ales, as we sit between the loud, conspicuous, local artists; the second homers clinking glasses and all saying cheers, although it sounds like “chairs”; the pleased-with-themselves holiday makers. And the faintly sad-looking, lined, old fishing folk, pushed to the edges.
A solid dark night has fallen over the sea outside.