I pull the blind up and 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 a long time, I have the British Rail bacon roll and watery tea that had been left outside the door for us and watch a freshly first-light splashed Cornwall roll past the window and ease into my trousers as the train eases us 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 what must be 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 the town’s ‘island’, the grassy promontory that splits 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 great view. As we slow down into St Ives stations there is the sound of a very long fart from behind us. A long pause. Nobody responds.
“I’m sorry Linda,” a woman finally says. “I’ve just got off the Sleeper train.” Another long pause. “I was in Plymouth you see…”
The town is silent this early, aside from a few dog walkers on the town’s dotted beaches, as we pace about in now brilliant morning sunshine to try and find someone up and around and happy to hire us 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.
Having finally found somewhere to stay and having dumped off our stuff, we then walk out on 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 carry on through the the town, along the tight lanes and past the tiny topsy-turvy fisherman cottages all Alfred Wallis-ing down to the sea. We look to get onto the coastal path that starts just after Porthmeor beach, to take the long walk from St Ives to the village of Zennor.
The jagged path is pushed fast against dramatic dropping plunges. The weather has turned climatic and theatrical. Waves crashing over dark rocks below rear up powerfully high. Seagulls hover and tremble, not moving, out above the sea, as if on the end of strings. The view down the coast is of a series of thin capes, like the snouts of dark stone alligators poking out into the sea. 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. 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 makes it feel exhilarating, and it seems a world away from the sun-soaked ups and downs of our previous walk along the Dorset coastal edge. There’s a unending procession of fraying cliffs of foaming sea continually rising and breaking far out beyond. Waves rising and dropping like walls.
We keep walking along the path and then, quite suddenly, come across an elderly man, sat alone 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. I wonder to myself 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 and carries on staring out to sea. “I still wake up every morning and make two cups of tea. It’s stupid isn’t it?” He looks at me and 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.”
We say goodbye to the man. He doesn’t reply, just nods to himself. Giristroula and I carry on our coast walk and I feel a great wave of melancholia wash over 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 the very final place, alphabetically, in Britain too. It’s a last bastion of this land in many ways: a defender of the Cornish language; a residing place for the peculiarly named Cornish saint St Senara’s Norman church, where a mermaid spirited away one of the local residents with her beautiful singing voice – her 15th Century carved seat still in the church chapel; a good-looking pub, the Tinner Arms; and a grave in the village graveyard I spot for a Phoebe Atkins with the simple epitaph on her headstone: ‘She had fun.’ 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. The barren streak of a road winding us back east.
St Ives is, 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 towards the sea – like a knot of drunken sailors just about holding themselves upright together. Among a more smug holidaying crowd than we’d seen in 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 if any of it’s 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 round and round to find a classic ’99’ Mr Whippy ice-cream with the stubby chocolate flake sticking out proud, rather than the pots of organic clotted-creams or the ‘Orange & Mandarin with Blood Orange Bubbles’ I see 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 somewhere like here 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 small Alsatian dogs. 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 in the ancient Sloop Inn for the evening.
I fruitlessly attempt to coax my Greek drinking partner into liking the thick Cornish ales here as we sit between the loud, conspicuous, local artists and the second homers clinking glasses and all saying cheers, although it sounds like they’re saying “chairs”. The pleased-with-themselves holiday makers take up all the spaces on the old wooden benches. The expensively-dressed blonde kids in little stripy sailor’s jumpers talk precociously to their parents.
“I’ll just go t’bar shall I?” says the father, putting on a strange northern accent, as if the act of buying beer requires some sort of regional proletarian dialect. A sad-looking, lined, old Cornish fisherman sits nearby, pushed to the edge. The local drinkers – people that I read reported in my London newspapers live in the clashing circumstances of struggling on benefits and relying heavily on European Union funding while at the same time fuming in bitter complaint against European Union fishing rules – mutter between themselves at the bar. A solid dark night has fallen over the sea outside.