Okay, so it’s not exactly the country. And it’s not a weekend, more of a week. Well, 5½ days. But there hasn’t been nearly enough Uncle Monty here at wtak; and besides, I was definitely starting to drift into the arena of the unwell—too much work, too many difficult things going on. So it was time to stop. Or go, then stop. So off I went.
For me, holidaying alone—I love the slightly quaint feel of “holiday” as a verb—can be a tricky undertaking, both in the conceiving and in the doing thereof. I can well see that a few days away, alone, might sound like bliss to those who experience the challenges as well as the pleasures of cohabitation. When it’s not a choice, though, it can feel different. Even now, when my self-acceptance is better than it once was, I can stray into ‘if I was a proper person/had done my life well/was just, somehow, better, I’d have someone to do this with’ territory; and that’s no fun. Somewhere in the self-denigration there’s a real sorrow about not having anyone to journey with. Solo holidays do bring you up against that.
And then there’s where to go, and when. When sorted itself out relatively easily because I had to work round some rehearsals and gigs, plus I had to avoid peak season; and where was determined by the existence of a cluster of Things I wanted to do in the North East. But even with those things established there remained a staggering amount of choice. The holiday cottage industry seems to have mushroomed since I last tried to rent somewhere, and I was reminded of the Shoe Event Horizon in Hitchhikers’, in which eventually a whole civilisation and planet collapse because the increase in the number of shoe shops is such that, in the end, no-one can make anything except shoes. If there’s a Holiday Cottage Event Horizon soon, you heard it here first.
Thus there were a lot of sites to visit and companies to compare and links to click and search parameters to establish and going back and forth between Googlemaps and OS maps and a variety of different sites… Both literally and metaphorically I kept ending up with so many tabs open that processing capacity was exhausted. I do recognise this is a First World Problem—the tyranny of choice is surely one of the defining experiences of capitalism—but there was something I did find genuinely stressful about deciding how best I might spend my hard-earned and not-plentiful cash. Though this felt like something I should maximise and not satisfice about, eventually I had to put myself out of my misery and just choose somewhere. I invited a few friends to join me, then forgot about the whole thing for a few months as life closed over my head.
So it was with a slight sense of surprise that I realised I was leaving tomorrow: due in Beadnell in 24 hours’, and not a child washed. I sped around in a rather ineffectual and distrait state, doing some food shopping, checking out the route on Google and shoving a quantity of things in the car. With a queasy anxiety in my stomach and a weight of uncertainty and sorrows sitting heavy in my chest, I set off from Kendal and, three hours or so later, was on the other side of the country, driving through a strange landscape where the lambs were grazing in flat fields (weird) and the roads were long and straight under a wide open sky.
I turned right into the village. To the left of Harbour Road was a small, curving cove, where the stacked, slanted strata of black rock made me think of a mille feuille which had been squashed against the side of its box. A lively sea was coming in, sending white plumes of spray up over the wall, and through the window came that first whiff of sea air. I breathed it in, and smiled.
Having bumped the car down a lane and over the grassy area to the back of my cottage—not a cottage at all, really, but an unprepossessing pebble-dashed end-of-terrace affair—I parked, got the key out of the lockbox and went inside. It was clean (a lot cleaner than my house), spacious and flooded with light from two long windows on opposite sides of the living room, in which large sofas and chairs formed a C shape around the open fire. No Crow Crag, this: the heating worked, and there wasn’t that sense you get in some rental cottages that it’d been furnished with all the things the owner didn’t want in her own house. Apart from the odd outbreak of twee over-seaside-iness—fake driftwood embellished with legends about chilling on the beach; a metal lobster on the wall; rope fashioned into the word “Relax” in groovy italics—it was fresh and new and tastefully neutral. Absent-mindedly eating my way through the complimentary box of After Eights (real ones: no Aldi fakes here) I unpacked the car and settled in, discovering (among other things) that I’d packed 3 pairs of “technical” shoes, almost the entire contents of my spice rack, but only one pair of trousers. Oh well.
Before the light faded I had a walk on the beach, a crescent of sand which seemed remarkably smooth and litter-free to one used to the shingly landfill vibe of some beaches in the northwest. Away to the south was a distant Dunstanburgh. There were a few dogwalkers, a lot of happy dogs, and some enviably relaxed-looking runners who looked as though they could rack up the miles without breaking into any kind of a sweat. I went home and got my own sweat on, getting the fire lit; I’m very unpractised and almost certainly overdid it with the kindling. But my number one criterion in cottage selection had been an open fire and, despite my fatigue, I stayed up late, reacquainting myself with its delicious vocabulary: the crackling roar of kindling, the hiss and spit of logs, the settled, flickering pops and plops of well-caught coal. My brain felt wonderfully, entirely empty and my anxiety was gone. Harmony, fresh air, stuff like that…
My friend Suan was due around lunchtime the next day so I had the morning to explore my new, temporary home. I had a run on the beach (Technical Shoes 1: check) and, what with the sea breeze, the sunlight glinting on gently-rolling waves and the pleasing rhythmic pad of feet on sand at once firm and soft underfoot, felt more like someone in an advert than I had for a very long time (though admittedly Advert Me wouldn’t have had the ripe-shade-of-plum-with-white-circles-round-the-eyes look that I get when I’ve spent time in peak zone). Showered and breakfasted, I then set off up the coast in the other direction (TS: 2), reckoning I could get to Seahouses for some coffee and Blue Petering—I’d made a portable art journalling kit—and be back in time for Suan’s arrival. I’d reckoned without the minor vagaries of the coast path at that section, though, and at one point found myself flat on my tummy wriggling through mud under a section of fence erected by someone who obviously needed to demonstrate that this particular section of dune was theirs, thank you very much.
Once at Seahouses I found Rosemary’s café, and realised immediately that Rosemary must be related to Rita at Morecambe. I’ve served several years’ hard time at cafés in the Lake District but even with that experience behind me can’t imagine how the staff created the cappuccino with which they served me. It was a unique shade of palest fawn, topped with the merest spittling of bubbly, weirdly iridescent foam. Like the tea which Eddie the On-board computer makes for Arthur Dent, this tasted almost entirely, but not absolutely, unlike coffee. It was also, unfortunately, huge. I mean, like, a pint. I can’t fault them on their service: the staff were utterly and naturally charming, and you could tell that regulars came here for the crack as well as the cake. But not, I submit, for the coffee.
As I wandered back along the shore—part sand, part rocks, and with a good peppering of pools to look into and pebbles to collect—I noticed how the clouds, blue patches and sun were reflected in the wet sand, as if I was walking in the sky. I felt as if I’d been away for ages—that I was a lot more than 140 miles away from my normal life. The previous evening at the fireside and the morning’s gentle explorations had reconnected me with my excitement about solo travelling. Minor as this adventure was, it allowed me feel like the bold traveller, taking myself somewhere new, not being stopped by singleness. I was anonymous, answerable to no-one, free.
It felt a bit odd, having found this again just when my solitude was about to be interrupted; but to realise that I didn’t need something—though I might still want or enjoy it—was its own kind of liberation. As I cut back up to the road at Beadnell a familiar deep teal, somewhat banged-up campervan pulled in to the roadside just ahead of me. Scurrying towards it, I opened the passenger door and swung myself up into the passenger seat. Solitude over. Holiday: Phase Two was beginning.
Remind yourself of the wondrousness of Withnail and I by having a look at the official trailer. And if by any chance you’re unfortunate enough not to have seen it… well. Have a look at the trailer.
For more about loneliness, solitude, and being somewhere different, have a look here on wtak at ‘The Importance of Elsewhere‘.