Our eighth day on the road is a day imperatively wasted for us as, for the first time in what feels like a very long time, we have domestic luxuries at our disposal. So smalls are washed, emails are caught up on, gallons of tea – opium of the Brit – are drunk, and only later do I take a walk round the Bristol area of Bedminster we’re staying in. It seems an odd neighbourhood. From its craft beer pubs, sculpted beards, men in denim dungaree shorts and an insufferable-looking prick who cycles by on a penny farthing, I guess it’s some sort of hipster-ish haven – despite the rows of dull, slightly unloved, suburban family terraces and semis. Giristroula and I later take a walk further into Bristol, past the candy-coloured houses perched high above us on the sheer faced hills. We go via a route taking in the Clifton Suspension Bridge: another shaky history lesson of mine, this time of Brunel’s towering Victorian engineering achievements and all the bridges and tunnels and viaducts and railway gauges and station roofs decorating and defining Britain.
We pass the prepossessing Georgian buildings and dainty cafes in the student area of Clifton, an area that looks so nice and well-mannered it starts to make my teeth ache. Giristroula had wanted to see the edgy side of the city, imagined and mapped out in her mind when listening to Massive Attack records two thousand miles away while a student at university in the bars of Thessaloniki. I’d personally rather just have a night in the Kebab and Calculator.
To both our disappointments, however, my Bristol-living friend has instead arranged for us to meet up this evening in a dull, colourless, chain Caribbean restaurant in the new Bristol Harbourside development.
We look to catch a bus into Bristol centre. I scan the timetable board strapped to the bus stop pole.
“I don’t think there’s another one for 20 minutes,” I tell the old man behind me.
“Oh. I think I’ll walk to the next one then,” he says and totters off with his shopping in both hands.
I feel a massive pang of guilt as the mauve and purple double-decker swings round the corner about two minutes later. We pass the old man and I hold up my hand in a little wave as he looks furiously though the window at me. All the local residents on the bus appearing remarkably chipper. Everyone thanking the bus driver with a “Cheers Drive!” as they get off at their stops.
The Harbourside development – probably approved by some score of spectacled grins in the Bristol council office – has galleries, new flats, large glass frontages, gyms, angular bridges and lots of banners up telling us what a truly vibrant area it is. But feels utterly new, soulless and depressing to me. But then, as with all feelings on our trail around Britain, it could be just me, on this night, at this time, in my bad mood. On the new wide waterside walkway I step over someone’s spit on the pavement. It’s so thick and viscous it looks like someone has dropped a Cadbury’s creme egg. We are eventually taken, later in the evening after badgering from Giristroula, to the self-consciously cooler area of Bristol – Stokes Croft. Genuine West Indian food here. Graffiti artists, hip art cafes, charcoal lattes, hoppy beer drunk out of measuring jugs, minimalist loft conversions, granite worktops, Edison bulbs, tight bright trousers. We try to enter a bar.
“You ain’t coming in wearing a hat.”
The man in the black bomber jacket on the door is barrel-built, bull-necked. A curly white wire coming out of his ear. I try to explain to him that the hat is to cover up my fast receded hairline. I’m not hiding anything more than that.
“I fucking told you once. I’m not telling you again…”
He says this though with the high, yokel-ish Bristol West Country accent. I can’t really take him seriously and start to smile. Instantly he makes a low growl from somewhere deep inside, sets his neck down low, his shoulders go back and he take a step forward. I realise we should probably move on.
Banksy street art is up on the walls. ‘The Mild Mild West’ – a white teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at riot police. Banksy’s eminence and fame flows all the way down to Greece too. Giristroula seems to like his stuff. I stare at the wall, feeling fairly underwhelmed and wonder if future generations will look back on Banksy the way we look back at the twee schmaltzy art the Victorians were into. On an island of grass two street drinkers are sitting, passing a bottle of Strongbow cider between the two of them. Dirty anoraks, trainers with the sole hanging off.
“Of course I’ve always known where you went wrong you know…” I hear one of them say to the other.
We trek back to Bedminster.
Next day, having given the car back to the rental branch in Bristol, we look to make our getaway from the city from the city’s great Victorian Temple Meads station – Brunel again. A beautiful building. The platforms, however, are all settled with red, sun-burnt faced thick-necked fathers in vests. Celtic cross tattoos – or the Chinese symbol for a Celtic cross – on their arms. Their pudgy 12 year-old kids – “My little smashers” – in England football shirts with their own names on the back, prodding with fat fingers at mobile phones, addicted to frankfurters, wobbling about menacingly. It’s a depressing sight. It’s good to be on trains again though. If we had all the time and money in the world I would have suggested doing the whole tour of Britain by train – taking in all the branch lines that dodged Dr Beeching’s axe in the 60s and chuntering along on trains called things like the Scarborough Flyer, the Torbay Express or the Brighton Belle… if only they still existed. As it is we’re only on this Inter City 125, all navy blues and purple flashes, for a little over an hour. But we do cross into a new country. We cross the River Severn with a clear view from the window of the Severn Bridge, long and shining bright white in front of a fishscale-grey sky, and into Wales, and then into Cardiff.
Cardiff station, though re-built in the 30s with an art deco look, still has that classical feel of the golden age of railway travel. An imposing ‘Great Western Railway’ carved into the stonework, and we’re disgorged uncommonly close, for a City Central station, to the centre of the city. A modern Brief Encounter seems to be taking place as we get off our train. A timid-looking woman stands on one platform shouting through the thick glass window of a waiting train.
“You’re on the wrong train, Malc. I said MALCOLM….YOU’RE ON THE WRONG TRAIN!”
Malcolm, big and pink and curly haired, looking a thumping great bore and a bully, shouts back.
“I’m on the RIGHT train, Tina…”
Malcolm seems exactly the sort of man that, even when his heart sinks at the next station sign, he’ll stay on the train to its very end, wherever it’s going, rather than ever admit that his wife was right.
Strangely right in the centre of Cardiff too is the monumental Millennium Stadium. I start to explain to Giristroula all about the working class passion for rugby in Wales as opposed to the Barbour jacket, red-trousered crowd she’d seen pouring down the streets in Twickenham with their big, rubbery, horsey faces. She has little time for my anemic treaties on sport and social commentary however, and instead we take a walk in the sun around the sprawling Bute Park, watched over by the handsome university buildings and the castle. Walking by the River Taff, Giristroula seems completely taken by Cardiff. As we saunter by the curiously eccentric sculptured ‘animal wall’ ringing the park: Victorian apes, ant-eaters, seals, lynx and others all on top, all seemingly in the process of trying to climb out of the grounds, she swings round and tells me “I could live here!” I look at her surprised. I mean, I like the place – it’s better, much more attractive, than I had thought – but she’s seems to have really fallen for it. We turn to leave through the gates and I watch Giristroula walking happily on ahead out into the Cardiff bustle, blinking her eyes, punch drunk on the Classical heavy beauty of the city. I look back over the park. Couples walk hand in hand by the tendered edges, a blackbird lets go loudly with its cocky song from the branch of a tree. Somebody’s discarded bra lies in a bush in one of the flower beds.
We are due to meet friends of Giristroula this time. Friends from her old country who are studying here and living right in Cardiff centre. They live in one of the giant towers placed in 2005 on top of the old 1830s Cardiff Gas Light and Coke building: making it look as if some UFO has landed on the back of this rusticated old building, now only surviving as a tiny scrap of history at the bottom of a 23-storey behemoth. 230 feet up we go, and we’re as high as you can be in Wales without the aid of one of its mountains. Staring out across Cardiff – sealed in, the trains soundlessly arriving and departing the city far below us, the bay in the distance and the endless huge churches of retail planted all around us – the friends bewilder me with their eulogizing of this very un-Greek-like place. This land of Male Voice Choirs and Doctor Who. I wonder what is it that appeals so much to the Hellenic senses here.
“But the best place, the best place..” they tell me in an awed whisper, as I crane forward to hear where this Greek Elysium could possibly be “…is Tenby!”
They tell me they go all the time and invite other Greeks to come over and look and wonder at the small Presbyterian town of healthy seaside air, tiny fisherman’s cottages and weathered old ladies selling tin tea trays and Welsh cakes.
“Oh it’s wonderful!” one of the Greek girls says to me, rooting through photos on her phone of old wooden lifeboat stations. I tell them we’ll try and put it on our itinerary as we all head off into town for a curry.
In the curry house, like some seasoned know-all, I tell the Greeks that it’s a fact that curries in the provinces are weaker than in London and I busy about ordering the hottest I can find on the menu. Half an hour later, tears sprinkling my eyes, a heavy sweat streaking down my face, my eyebrows looking like two wet rugs, I whimperingly allow I may have got it wrong. The Greeks of course having not felt the British need to prove themselves with heat and spice are having a far better time of things. Giristroula and I clink glasses and celebrate our brief stay in Wales’ capital in the best way we could possibly think of: in the dark, serenaded with a CD of sitars, surrounded by thick mottled wallpaper, served with commodious politeness, grazing on Britain’s national dish. The curry has fallen from the metal tureens leaking great circular ripples of grease on on the heavy white tablecloth. Sharp fragments of poppadoms and thick splats of mango chutney litter the table. A large mirror hangs above us with engraved mystic sacred elephant-headed Gods and adverts for Cobra beer. We ask the Bangladeshi waiter how to say cheers in Welsh.
“Lechid da,” he tells us.
“Lechid da,” we all say.