DAY 6: LAND’S END/TIVERTON/CLOVELLY

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Up early with a heavy head, we’re back at St Erth’s small station in an irritating morning drizzle to board the London train that we had got off yesterday to now travel the one final stop down to the end of the line.

As far west as the rails will take us, we walk through the town of Penzance to pick-up a rental car. I talk vaguely to Giristroula of pirates and light English operettas.

As I am an appalling driver, nervous and myopic, the keys are handed to the Greek.

We had to wait for ages in the small car hire hut first though, as the genial middle-aged West Country lady fiddled and flapped and talked about everything and nothing (“I like it,” Giristroula said to me. “It’s like the slow way of life on the islands in Greece…”)

“Oh where are my glasses?” the woman behind the desk had said, wafting around with her papers, looking under her folders.

“I need glasses to find my glasses!” she said, turning to Giristroula, bunching up her shoulders and opening her mouth wide in laughter, though no laugh came.

“Leave the teabag in, Keith…” came a voice from the backroom office, instantly making my neck crane to see what’s going on.

A ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ poster on the wall. Cute distressed cat hanging off a branch.

“You off Sandra?” said our lady, fiddling with her forms, as her colleague gathered her stuff and headed for the door.

“See you Monday then…”

“Oh no you won’t!” trilled Sandra, in an I-know-something-you-don’t way.

“No? Tuesday then?”

“Oh no you wo-hon’t!” repeated Sandra in her irritating chiming voice.

“No? Wednesday?”

“You won’t…”

For God’s sake just tell her you’re going on holiday, Sandra, I had to stop to myself blurting out as this guessing game went on and on, and the car keys remained, held, tantalisingly, out of reach.

Eventually we’re shown to our small, boxy hatchback. And we’re off.

Giristroula taking her very first roundabout the wrong way.

After several other heart-in-mouth moments as she grapples with the driving on the left concept, and with probably a score of old men in leather driving gloves and checked flat caps left behind us, driven into ditches, we reach Land’s End.

It is a fairly depressing place, and not helped by the angled rain now driving into our faces.

The rain relents long enough to pose for pictures under the end of the country sign.

We eye the tacky kids’ entertainments (“4D!”) and takeaway cafeterias here with a feeling of low disappointment. But here we are and, obviously, there’s only one possible place to go from here. As the sign tells us, John o’Groats is 874 miles away.

We’d better get started.

We follow the route of our old friend, the South West Coast path. This time by road and in the opposite direction, back eastwards, along the south of Cornwall.

Stopping to look at the church of St Michael’s Mount, and race across the causeway before the tide comes in and Day 6 -2-w1000-h1000turns the mount back into a genuine island.

We had previously been on a holiday-makers trek to Mont Saint Michel in Normandy – the almost identical twin across the English Channel. The Brits, this time at least, should feel proud they haven’t cashed in with restaurants and souvenir shops as much as the French have on their ecclesiastical lump of land.

A handbrake turn though, and we’re cutting across Cornwall. Heading right up to the north coast.

Running along the Betjeman-loved golden, unpeopled bays and shadowy cliffs, we spot seals languishing in a calm, sunny sheltered enclave. This is just round the corner from a threshing, gurgling area of sea known as Hell’s Mouth. High cliffs and the booming sounds of waves in the hollows below us.

Cornwall seems very pleased to throw up these quite incredible, multifarious scenes.

Okay, so the people who live here, in the teeth of these battering gales, must always talk a little too loudly when they get inside their houses. They must always lean at a certain angle. But the jutting cliffs and rocks and the sea and the surf breaking in – it really is just like the beginning of the world.

I stand in front of – hiding – some of the heartbreakingly sad handwritten “gone but not forgotten” signs. And I realise that I’ve taken my Giristroula to another popular suicide spot.

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We continue north, hitting the superhighway in this part of the world: the minuscule A30.

Giristroula has, just about, mastered the roundabout (“They don’t have many of these in Greece!” she says, happily sailing over another one).

But we soon fall off route and find ourselves passing through Tavistock (quick, unsure, history lesson as we pass the statue of naval and home town hero Francis Drake: finishing games of bowls, beating Spanish Armadas…)

Further on, we call in at a large, old coaching tavern on the side of the road, the Highwayman Inn. And feel like we’ve entered a very strange world indeed.

Dark, stone and wood, run by two old hippies – seeming acid casualties from the 60s. It could be the oddest pub in Britain.

Every part of the ancient building is surreally decorated. A shipwrecked ship in one bar, a huge coach and horses wedged in another. Gargoyles, statues, carvings and a thousand lamps and trinkets.

The longer we look, the more bizarre objects become apparent, appearing out of the walls and the gloom. It is, of course, utterly haunted, with a seat reserved for the ghost of some old sea captain called Grenville. The regulars having chats with him on their way to the Gents.

We carry on over wild, austere Dartmoor, find the A30, lose it again and end up in the small town of Tiverton.

Passing the pretty market square I spot ‘Mallards’ tea rooms – lace net curtains, white table cloths, horse brasses and handwritten menu cards – and insist Giristroula has a cream tea.

Not that I’ve had many in my life that I can think of – but it seems the correct thing to do on this British tour of British things. And ‘Mallards’ seems the perfect place to have it.

A face is pulled in the confusion as Giristroula believes she will be given a cup of tea with cream in it, but when all the scones and jam and paraphernalia are set down on the table she seems happy enough.

She listens with unnecessary closeness as she’s given a lecture by the beaky-faced lady owner in her white apron and laced headpiece on how, now we’re in Devon, she must put the jam on top of the cream rather than the other way round as in Cornwall.

Giristroula nervously, dutifully, complies with these scone rules, as if she would be asked to leave if she didn’t. We sip tea with cups and saucers. I catch our stretched reflection in the shiny metal tea pot. Everything looks very genteel and English and civilised.

The local radio is on low in the background. The radio presenter with the customary smooth voice oozing through his smile. The same adverts for Carpet Rite Warehouse as anywhere else in the country, just off a different A road, same amount of ample parking. A Janet or a Dave “live on line 2″ talking about the new pedestrianisation of the town centre.

I will miss these aural backdrops that I never really thought of until I started to concentrate on all things around me on this final trip.

But who knows, maybe Greece has exactly the same? Maybe radio listeners there also feel compelled to phone up and talk disappointedly of the new bollards erected on the High Street or the badly tarmacked drives they’ve seen around the country.

I doubt it though.

A big angry-looking man with red freckled arms, a copper bracelet round his wrist, a face like a boiled prawn, stands at the counter taking up all space as we try to leave. I can’t get by.

“Sorry,” I say, making a sort of strangled effort voice. “Could I… Could I just slip by there?”

He shuffles from one foot to the other, looking down counting his change. Doesn’t make any room whatsoever.

“Thanks,” I say as I squeeze by, my balls brushing his backside, the table top slicing into the back of my thighs.

“Why did I say thanks?” I reflect to Giristroula outside, annoyed with myself as we get  into the car, parked by the clock tower on the green. My nervous over-politeness capping this whole, absurdly English, scene. We leave Tiverton.

*

A student that Giristroula teaches Greek to back in London had recommended Clovelly as a place we must see in Devon. So we go off map even further in search of this supposed shangri-la that I have to admit never having heard of.

Once we get there, having passed miles of English hedgerows, heading down tiny lanes, past the running dry stone walls and fences and stiles and crossing cows, I admit it was worth the detour.

A steep drop of a road into a horseshoe harbour at the bottom, cottages lining the sides. No cars allowed on the cobbled road. Instead we see goods – and people – travelling up and down on sledges, watched by impassive donkeys. A beautifully odd place.

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It is late and I get the feeling we’ve got lucky as this place must be crawling with tourists in the day – a place this good doesn’t go by unnoticed, even if I hadn’t heard of it. I can imagine the day-tripppers now, like a mob of black ants, lost souls, crowding the lanes.

But for us now there are just a couple of people travelling up and down on their roped sledges. A dark curl of smoke from one of the cottage chimneys sitting on the polished-silver twilight sky. A  small tatty dog’s head pokes out of an upstairs window, staring intently out to sea, waiting for its owner to return from some fishing trip.

We leave and try – and fail – to find the A30 once more.

Plans to get out of Devon have to be cancelled as night leaks down, covering us quickly, and instead we find by chance a good-looking old hotel to stay in. Right in the middle of nowhere.

We park up. I point out the old thatched roof of the hotel.

Not having seen or heard of thatched roofs before but knowing very well the name Thatcher – her infamy stretching down the continent to Greece – Giristroula pulls a repulsed face as we pass through the wonky old wooden door frame and head in for our night’s stay. Under the clearest night imaginable.

A sky marbled with stars.