Up early with a heavy head, we make tracks back towards St Erth’s small station in an irritating morning drizzle to board the London train – the train we had got off yesterday – to travel the one final stop down to the very end of the line – Penzance. As far south and west as Britain’s rails will take us. We walk through Penzance town to pick-up a rental car and I talk vaguely to Giristroula of pirates and light English operettas. At the rental company, as I am an appalling driver – nervous and myopic – the keys are handed to the Greek. But first we first had to wait for an age, sat on a lumpy sofa in the small car hire hut, as the genial middle-aged West Country lady fiddled and flapped and gossiped and chuntered away to herself.
“I like it,” Giristroula whispered to me as we sat and watched the woman stop a phone call to re-position her padded insole in her shoe. “It’s like the slow way of life on the islands in Greece…”
“Oh where are my glasses now?” said the woman behind the desk as she hunted around, wafting 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 another voice from the backroom office, making me crane my neck round to see what was going on.
Keith was stood by a kettle, small and seamy, dunking his tea bag in an oversized Sports Direct mug. A ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ poster on one wall, a distressed kitten hanging off a branch on another, a ‘You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here’ gorilla framed on the desk. The full triumvirate. A woman sat behind her desk arranging the Ginger Nuts, Garibaldis and Gypsy Creams on a plate. Another woman gathered up her stuff and headed for the door.
“You off Sandra?” said our lady, not looking up, still fiddling with her forms. “See you Monday then…”
“Oh no you won’t!” trilled Sandra as she passed. Singing the words in a I-know-something-you-don’t kind of way.
“No? Tuesday then?”
“Oh no you wo-hon’t!” repeated Sandra in her irritating chiming voice.
For God’s sake Sandra, just tell her you’re going on holiday, I wanted to blurt out as this guessing game went on and on, and the car keys remained, held, tantalisingly, out of reach. Eventually though we’re shown to our small, boxy hatchback and, at last, 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’s a fairly depressing place really, and not helped by the angled rain now driving into our faces. The rain relents long enough for us to pose for pictures under the end of the country sign. We eye the tacky kids’ indoor 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, but this time by road and in the opposite direction, back eastwards, tracking along the south of Cornwall. Stopping to look at the church of St Michael’s Mount, we race across the causeway before the tide comes in and turns the mount back into a cut-off island. We had previously been on a holiday-makers’ trek to Mont Saint Michel in Normandy – the almost identical twin across the English Channel – and I guess the British, this time at least, should feel proud they haven’t cashed in with the restaurants and souvenir shops as much as the French had on their ecclesiastical lump of land. We’re soon cutting across Cornwall though and leaving the southern coast behind, heading up onto northern Cornish shores. We run along the Betjeman-loved golden, unpeopled bays and shadowy cliffs. Seals languishing in a calm, sunny sheltered enclave below us. Then the landscape changes to a threshing, gurgling indentation of anguished sea known as Hell’s Mouth. High cliffs and the booming sounds of waves down in the hollows below.
Cornwall seems very pleased with itself to throw up these incredibly varied scenes every few hundred yards or so and, for the first time on this tour really, Giristroula is shocked at how majestic Britain can sometimes look. She hadn’t expected this. Ok, so the people who live here, in the teeth of the Cornish battering gales that hit us head-on as we stand on the cliff edge, must always talk a little too loudly when they get back inside their own houses. I guess they must probably all lean at a certain angle too. 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, and hide, some of the sad handwritten “gone but not forgotten” signs that have been left here as Giristroula scans the wide view. I realise we’ve come to another popular suicide spot.
We continue east along a deserted northern coast – empty coves with the sea running over the pebbles, retreating a few feet, running in again, all for nobody’s benefit – and we finally hit 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 by me as we pass the statue of naval hometown hero Francis Drake of finishing games of bowls and beating Spanish Armadas. We keep on in the direction we think is eastwards and call in to ask directions at a large, old coaching tavern on the side of the road, the Highwayman Inn. It feel like we’ve entered a very strange world indeed. Dark, stone and wood, run by two old hippies who appear to be acid casualties from the 60s. It could easily 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 old 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 stumbling regulars, all drunk as penguins before even hitting lunchtime, have chats with him on their way to the Gents.
Giristroula and I carry on over wild, austere Dartmoor, which seems frighteningly large and empty and bereft of trees and looking sheep-grazed to ruin. We 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. I say to Giristroula we really must have a cream tea – not that I’ve had many in my life that I can think of, but it seems the correct thing to have on this British tour of British things, and ‘Mallards’ seems the perfect sort of place to have it. Giristroula pulls a face as she thinks she’ll be getting a cup of tea with cream in it, but when all the scones and jam and paraphernalia are laid out on the table she seems happy enough. She listens with unnecessary closeness as she’s given a lecture by the beaky-faced cafe 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 and I catch our stretched reflection in the shiny metal tea pots and everything looks very civilised and just that little bit ridiculous. The local radio is on low in the background. The radio presenter with the customary sanded 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 driveways they’ve seen around the country. I doubt it though. A big angry-looking ginger man with red freckled arms, copper bracelet round his wrist, a face like a boiled prawn stands at the pay counter taking up all space as we try to leave.
“Gonna get rid of some of this shrapnel…Pick it out of that, love” he says to the pay-girl on the till, shoving her a handful of those worryingly warm coins that always come straight out of the trouser pocket of a man like this.
“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.
Outside Giristroula fiddles with the car keys. “Why did you thank that man?” she asks.”He didn’t do a thing…”
Annoyed with myself, I sit back heavily in the car parked by the clock tower on the green and glower at the windows of ‘Mallards’. My over-politeness capping this whole, absurdly English scene.
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 and headed down tiny lanes, past running dry stone walls and fences and stiles, finding ourselves stuck behind coughing old cumbersome, rumbustious country buses, rattling tractors, crossing cows, 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 all along by impassive-faced donkeys.
It is late and I get the feeling we’ve got lucky as this place must be crawling with tourists during the day – a place this good doesn’t go by unnoticed, even if I hadn’t heard of it before. I can imagine the day-trippers now – like a mob of black ants, lost souls, crowding the lanes and filling the newsagents and nick-nack shops. But for us there are just a couple of people travelling up and down on the roped sledges, a dark curl of smoke from one of the cottage chimneys sitting on the polished-silver sky. A small tatty dog’s head poking out of an upstairs window, staring intently out to sea, waiting for its owner to return from a fishing trip.
We leave and try – and fail – to find the A30 once more. Plans to get out of Devon have to be shelved as night falls down, covering us quickly, and instead we find by chance a good-looking old hotel by the side of the small road we’re lost on. Right in the middle of fields and nothing else. We park up and unpack, and 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 all the way down the years, all the way 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. A night under the clearest nightsky imaginable. The sky marble veined with stars.