Up early with a heavy head, we head back towards St Erth’s small station in an irritating morning drizzle to board the London train, the same train we had got off yesterday, to now travel the one final stop down to the very end of the line – Penzance – as far west as Britain’s rails will take us. We walk through the town 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. But we first had to wait for an age in the small car hire hut, as the genial middle-aged West Country lady fiddled and flapped and talked about everything and nothing (“I like it,” Giristroula said. “It’s like the slow way of life on the islands in Greece…”)
“Oh where are my glasses?” the woman behind her messy desk hunted around, wafting 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 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 behind him, a distressed kitten hanging off a branch on another. A woman, hair like a loaf of bread, 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 Sanda, 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 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. But 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 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. I guess the British, this time at least, should feel proud they haven’t cashed in with restaurants and souvenir shops as much as the French had on their ecclesiastical lump of land. A handbrake turn, and we’re cutting across Cornwall, heading up to the north coast. We run along the northern shore and the Betjeman-loved golden, unpeopled bays and shadowy cliffs. We spot seals languishing in a calm, sunny sheltered enclave, which is just round the corner from a threshing, gurgling indentation of anguished sea known as Hell’s Mouth. High cliffs and the booming sounds of waves in the hollows below us. Cornwall seems very pleased with itself to throw up these quite incredibly varied scenes every few hundred yards or so and for the first time really, Giristroula is shocked by just how majestic Britain can look. Ok, so the people who live here, in the teeth of the Cornish battering gales, must always talk a little too loudly when they get inside their own houses and I guess 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 here.
I stand in front of – hiding – some of the sad handwritten “gone but not forgotten” signs. And I realise that we’ve come to another popular suicide spot.
We continue along the north coast, 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 home town hero Francis Drake of finishing games of bowls and beating Spanish Armadas… We then keep on eastwards, calling 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 stumbling regulars, all drunk as penguins before even hitting lunchtime, have 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 I say to Giristroula we should 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 do on this British tour of British things, and ‘Mallards’ seems the best 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 very happy. 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 pot. Everything looks very civilised and just a little bit ridiculous. The local radio is on low in the background. The radio presenter with the customary smooth voice oozing through. 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 man with red freckled arms, a 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. 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 you say thanks to him?” asks Giristroula outside. “He didn’t do a thing…”
Annoyed with myself I sit back heavily in the car, parked by the clock tower on the green. 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, and found ourselves stuck behind doddering country buses, tractors, 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-faced donkeys.
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 before. I can imagine the day-trippers 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 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 cancelled as night falls down, covering us quickly, and instead we find by chance a good-looking old hotel by the side of the road to stay in. Right here in the middle of nowhere, 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 and 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.