DAY 6: LAND’S END/TIVERTON/CLOVELLY

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

We walk through 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 wait for ages in the small car hire hut as the genial middle aged West Country lady talks about everything and nothing (“I like it,” says Giristroula  “It’s like the slow way of life on the islands in Greece.”)

“Oh where are my glasses?” says the woman behind the desk, flapping around with her folders and papers. “I need glasses to find my glasses!” she says turning to Giristroula, bunching up her shoulders and opening her mouth wide in laughter, though no laugh comes.

“You off Sandra?” she says to her colleague gathering her stuff in the office behind. “See you on Monday then…”

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

“No? Tuesday then?”

“Oh no you won’t!” repeats Sandra.

“No?” says our lady “Wednesday?”

For good sake just tell her you’re going on holiday, Sandra, I think to myself as this guessing game goes on and the car keys remain 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 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 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 Day 6 -2-w1000-h1000turns the mount back into an island.

We had previously been on some 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 and we head across Cornwall, 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 – just round the corner from a threshing, gurgling area known as Hell’s Mouth. High cliffs and the booming sounds of waves in the hollows below us.

Cornwall throws up these quite incredible, multifarious scenes, and Giristroula seems to have fallen very much in love with it all.

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 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.

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

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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 (a quick, unsure, history lesson as we pass the statue of naval and home town hero Francis Drake: finishing games of bowls, beating Spanish Armadas…)

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, and run by two old hippies – seeming acid casualties from the 70s. It could be the most unusual pub in Britain.

Every part of the ancient building is surreally decorated. A shipwrecked ship in one bar, a huge coach and horses in another. Gargoyles, statues, carvings and a thousand 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 chats 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 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 tea with cream in it, but when served the scones and jam she loves it and listens with unnecessary closeness as she’s 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.

Giristroula nervously, dutifully, complies with these scone rules, and we sip tea with cups and saucers and everything feels 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. A Janet or a Dave always “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 till I started to concentrate on them during this trip. But who know, 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 badly tarmacked drives they’ve seen around the country. I doubt it though.

A big angry-looking man with red freckled arms and 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, but doesn’t really make any room whatsoever.

“Thanks,” I say as I squeeze by, my balls brushing his backside, a 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 ludicrous 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 the miles of English hedgerows and heading down tiny lanes, with running hedges 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 are allowed on the cobbled road. Instead we see goods – and people – travelling up and down on sledges, watched by impassive donkeys. An odd place.

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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, even if I hadn’t heard of it – but for us now there are just a few souls travelling up and down on their roped sledges, and a 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 try – 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, by chance, a great-looking old hotel to stay in the middle of nowhere.

We park up and I point out the old thatched roof. Not having seen or heard of thatched roofs before but knowing very well the name Thatcher – her infamy stretching to Greece – Giristroula pulls a repulsed face as we pass through the wonky old wooden door frame and head in for the night’s stay, under the clearest night imaginable.

A sky marbled with stars.