Up early with a heavy head, we board the huge train that had come from London again, in an irritating drizzle, to travel the one final stop down to the end of the country at Penzance to pick-up a rental car.
As I am an appalling driver, nervous and myopic, the keys are handed to Passepartout. After a frustratingly long time being talked to about everything and, particularly, nothing by the genial West Country lady behind the desk (“I liked it. It’s like the slow way of life on the islands in Greece”) we set off. Passepartout 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 with suspicion. 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 in the opposite direction, east, along the south of Cornwall, stopping to look at the church of St Michael’s Mount and race across the causeway before the tide turns the mount back into an island.
We had previously been to Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, the almost identical twin across the English Channel and 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 and we head up to the north coast. Running along the Betjeman-loved golden, unpeopled bays and shadowy cliffs, we spot many seals languishing in a calm, sunny sheltered enclave – just round the corner from a threshing, gurgling area known as Hell’s Mouth, with high cliffs and the booming sounds of waves in the hollows below us.
Cornwall throws up incredible, multifarious scenes and the Greek seems to have fallen very much in love with it.
I stand in front of, hiding, some of the heartbreaking sad handwritten “gone but not forgotten” signs as I realise that I’ve taken her to another popular suicide spot, and we continue north, hitting the superhighway in this part of the world: the minuscular A30.
Passepartout 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 (a quick, unsure, history lesson as we pass the statue of another naval, and home town, hero Francis Drake, and I talk unsurely of finishing games of bowls and Spanish Armadas).
We call in at a large, old coaching tavern on side of the road, the Highwayman Inn, and feel like we’ve entered a very strange world indeed.
Dark, stone and wood, and run by two old hippies – seeming acid casualties from the 70s. It must be the most unusual pub in Britain. Every part of the ancient building is fantastically surreally decorated. A shipwrecked ship in one bar, a huge coach and horses in another. Gargoyles, statues, carvings and thousands of lamps and trinkets.
The longer you 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 an old sea captain called Grenville, the regulars having a chat with him on the 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 the Greek has a cream tea. A face is pulled in the confusion as she believes she will just be given tea with cream in it, but, when served, the scones and jam prove a hit.
Having been given a lecture by the owner on how, now we’re in Devon, you must put the jam on top of the cream rather than the other way round as in Cornwall – the Greek nervously, dutifully, complies – and everything is very genteel and English and civilised.
Before leaving I take a visit to the lavatories, and find a wizened, spindly, moustached man trying with great effort to pull his stuck, quite enormous wife, up off the toilet.
She cheerfully smiles and waves at me as he puffs and lurches her unsuccessfully off the seat “Won’t be a minute!” she trills and I tell Passepartout to keep a look out for a tree I can go behind as we set off once more.
A student that Passepartout teaches Greek to back in London has recommended Clovelly as a place we must see in Devon. So we go off map even further in search of this supposed shangri-la I have to admit never having heard of, but once we get there, having passed miles of perfect English hedgerows and down tiny lanes with running hedges and fences and stiles and crossing cows, I have to admit it was worth it.
A steep drop of a road into a horseshoe harbour at the bottom, picturesque cottages lining the sides. No cars are allowed on the cobbled road, instead we see goods – and people – travelling up and down on sledges, watched by impassive donkeys.
It is late and I get the feeling we have got lucky as this place must be crawling with tourists in the day – a place this good doesn’t go by unnoticed – but for us there are just a few souls around and the dark curl of smoke from one of the cottage chimneys sitting on the polished-silver twilight sky. We take away a view unchanged for centuries as we leave to find our parked car and fail to find the A30 once more.
Plans to get out of Devon have to be cancelled as night covers us quickly and instead we find a great-looking old hotel to stay in the middle of nowhere. Characterful and English, I point out the thatched roof and, not having seen or heard of thatched roofs before but knowing very well the name Thatcher, the Greek pulls a repulsed face as we head in for the night’s hospitality, under the clearest night imaginable, a sky marbled with stars.