Tap tap tap. “Good morning. I’ll leave the breakfasts outside your door shall I? 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 then pick up a tiny two coacher that is patiently waiting for us on the adjacent smaller platform, and head out on one of the most 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. The train chugs past high grassy bluffs 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 churches 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. 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 now 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 round 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 found somewhere to stay and having dumped our stuff, we 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 then 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 a dramatic dropping plunge. Waves – crashing over dark rocks below – rearing up powerfully high. Seagulls hover and tremble, not moving, out above the sea, as if on the end of strings. 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 as 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 foaming 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 with a plank of wood across. 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. “It’s a bit windy 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 sort of 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. He 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, just nods. Giristroula and I carry on our coast walk. I feel a great pang of melancholia grip me. The 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 geographical end of the country. Zennor is also the very final place, alphabetically, in Britain. It’s a last bastion of this land; a defender of the Cornish language; a residing place for the peculiarly named, Cornish saint, St Senara’s Norman church; and a good-looking pub, the Tinner Arms. D.H 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 and the town, incredibly, just as we had left it: bathed in sunlight, in the late afternoon. The stone cottages of the town tumbling over each other down to the sea – like a knot of drunken sailors just about holding themselves upright together. Among 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 anyway, but, well, who’s in charge of this tour? We have a 99 Flake.
This journey round the country, as well as being a first look at some of these places for Giristroula is of course a final chance for me to taste my past one last time before we leave, perhaps forever. 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 here like in St Ives, it seems as if it was two or three lifetimes ago. An aerial attack from one of 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-like eyes. The size of a small Alsatian dog. Screeching voiced. Ravenous and angry. It comes as no surprise to learn that Daphne Du Maurier, author of Hitchcock’s The Birds, lived in St Ives. As we watch these 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 give up and take a dark table at the ancient Sloop Inn for the evening. I fruitlessly attempt to coax my Greek drinking partner into a liking of thick Cornish ales, as we sit between the loud, conspicuous, local artists and the second homers clinking glasses and all saying cheers, although it sounds as if they’re saying “chairs”. The pleased-with-themselves holiday makers take up all the space on the benches, the expensively-dressed kids in sailor’s jumpers talk precociously to their parents. A sad-looking, lined, old Cornish fisherman sits nearby, pushed to the edge. The local drinkers – the Cornish people that I’ve read that are struggling on welfare benefits or relying on European Union funded projects, while at the same time complaining endlessly about European Union fishing rules – take up a place at the bar and mutter to themselves.
A solid dark night has fallen over the sea outside.