The Absolute End: tourists

(First published in The Lady, February 1988)

I ALWAYS wanted to go to Land’s End. Even as a small child I had been fascinated by the name; it had a ring of finality and desolation about it, of the ultimate secret to be disclosed, of ancient magic. Fanciful? Yes of course, but I’m not alone in such fancies. People have been making pilgrimages to Land’s End ever since the seventeenth century, when the round trip of ‘neere six hundred miles’ from London would surely have been as great an adventure as a present-day trek across the Sahara. The Methodist preacher John Wesley went there twice and Turner made a painting of it. With the opening of the London to Penzance railway in 1859 Land’s End became a tourist attraction on a much grander scale. The souvenir guide shows photos of Victorians posing outside the First and Last House, smiling sombrely in black and white, clinging to their parasols – rather hoping, one suspects, that the Ultimate Secret wouldn’t choose to leap out at them.

I must admit it didn’t leap out at us either. Our first encounter was with queues of cars, their occupants sizzling gently in the dry summer heat, with men in dusty blazers demanding money for the car park and coaches decanting wave after wave of Japanese tourists. Still, we were at The End of England, practically.

We bought all the brochures and launched a determined assault upon the various shops and exhibitions. We attempted to be fascinated by fuzzy blown-up pictures of a lifeboat rescue in 1917 but couldn’t help being more taken by those of a nude marathon bicycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 1965. We watched a man making glass ornaments, an ex-flower person carving lions and tigers and alphabet letters out of wood, and another making belts, bookmarks and key-rings out of leather.

We browsed around the seashell jewellery, the cane furniture, the wicker birdcages and the dangly stained-glass butterfly sun-catchers, and then decided it was high time for an ice cream.

The couple running the café were arguing in ferocious whispers, between customers, as to whose fault it was that the freezer had ceased to work and whose task it was to be to clear up the mess. Sneaking a look over the counter I saw that the linoleum was awash with ice cream which stuck to the soles of their sandals each time they moved. My heart went out to them.

It was time to go and look for the End – the real end. Perhaps it would be less crowded down there. Perhaps we would be able to recapture what the very first men and women felt as they stood on these same cliffs gazing out at the vast, and at that time nameless, ocean. There were plenty of little rocky prominences, just right for perching on and viewing the Atlantic. Sadly, there were also lots and lots of people perching, and taking photographs of one another pretending to view. Which of the prominences was the End? Perhaps none of them were. Suddenly we were dispirited, and finding that the End did not seem nearly as important as finding some lunch, we went away.

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