The Ups (and Downs) of my Solo Trip to England
The Ups (and Downs) of my Solo Trip to England
“Eng-a-land swings like a pendulum do, Bobbies on bicycles, two by two…”
You’ve got that song in your head now, haven’t you. Sorry ’bout that. 🎵 England was my first trip completely alone since my husband Norbert died, so I thought I’d put together some of my loveliest memories, and also share what I learned from the occasions when I turned into a panic-stricken idiot!
I had begun working my way through the travel-bucket list my husband Norbert and I had devised for our retirement, and high on the list was ‘Walking tour in England’. One of Norbert’s favourite TV shows was Tony Robinson’s ‘Walking through History’, and he used to say “We’ll do that one day.”
Well, I thought I’d do it for him, so I booked a walking tour of the Cotswolds plus a small-group tour that travelled the backroads of England and Wales. Nothing too adventurous as I’m only learning how to travel alone. Unfortunately [sigh] it didn’t start well….
Friends had dropped me off at the airport and just as they drove off, I remembered that I had left my hiking shoes behind. After covering them with waterproof spray, I had left them outside to dry, where they stayed.
Did I mention this was a walking trip? The thought came to mind…perhaps I’m not meant to do this? I was a quivering, teary mess.
It was not an auspicious beginning to the solo trip I’d been planning for months, but in the middle of my meltdown at the airport, I wrote a panic-stricken post to a Facebook Group I belong to called Over 60 Solo Women Travelers and they got me ‘down off the cliff’ and gave me the pep talk I needed to get on the plane.
I did actually make it to England and so began the roller-coaster of experiences that will stay with me always.
It was in Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds that I came upon a tiny church. Tentatively I stepped through the door and was met with the hushed, subdued ambiance one finds in a place of worship. Bands of colour streamed from the stained glass windows and onto the dark patina of the rows of pews.
I was thinking about Norbert, and how much he would have loved to be here with me. It was then that I noticed a candle at the front of the church with the invitation to ‘light a candle’ for a donation of one pound. Slowly I put down my backpack, took out a coin and lit a red candle for Norbert in this beautiful, far-away place.
When I stepped outside I was grateful for the sunglasses that I quickly put on, as I couldn’t stop the tears. I soon shook the sadness though as the sun was streaming down through the tall trees and all around me was ‘colourful prettiness’. The Cotswold stone that the houses are built from turns a golden yellow in the sunlight and it was all so…ummm…. quintessentially English! I felt so lucky to actually be experiencing it.
“What on earth are you scared about!!!” This is what I was (internally) shouting to myself the day before I was leaving the Cotswolds. The following day I needed to catch a bus and train to get back to London, and I was really scared!
So….while I was nursing a coffee in a quaint little tea house, I gave myself a good talking to. I asked myself “Exactly WHAT is making you so nervous?” Not easy to define but here’s the list I jotted onto a bit of notepaper:
I looked at my list then had an idea. What if I practiced at least the first part of the journey? Without the suitcase, and without the time frames?
With that decision made, I took the bus to Moreton-on-the-Marsh where I needed to catch the train, and then actually walked myself onto the platform, noting which side I needed to be on, and where I needed to be. It worked! My journey back to London was relatively stress-free.
In case there is anyone reading this who is thinking “I couldn’t travel solo like Marlene“, then please let me tell you something……
If an anxiety-ridden, control freaky, scaredy-cat like me can do it, trust me, you can too! 😁 Also, you don’t need to start with a lengthy overseas trip. You begin locally and closer to your comfort zone…my first ‘trip’ was only 2 hours from my front doorstep.
I had booked nothing for the few days I was spending in London but an hour on the internet the night I arrived gave me an itinerary which turned out to be a-maz-ing! [pats herself on the back]
The highlight was a ticket to see Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. I can’t adequately describe this experience, but as the heavy velvet curtains lifted and I became enthralled with a live show that included flying chandeliers and boats ‘sailing’ on the stage…well….it was such a PINCH ME moment. Gives me thrills every time I remember it.
Booking that ticket to see Phantom of the Opera put a huge hole in my holiday budget though, and others may have balked. I admit I did for about 2 minutes but then I remembered something.
When Norbert and I were in St Petersburg in Russia, we had the opportunity to attend the ballet…Swan Lake. I said “No way, look at the price” but he argued “Of course we are going. How many times do you get to go to the ballet in St Petersburg!”
So we went, and it was the most unbelievably beautiful night that I will remember forever, even more so because Norbert was killed only 18 days later. 😪
So my message is – if there is something you really want to do that will be a wonderful memory, then just do it. You’ll forget about the money but you’ll have the memory forever. 💖
We began by visiting Oxford and were taken around by one of the Uni students. I learned about weird traditions like ‘bumping’ and the great plumbing systems in the student quarters. I stood outside where many of the Hogwarts scenes were filmed (yep…Harry Potter is alive and well in Oxford) as well as the pub where the then Australian Prime Minister downed a yard of ale in 11 seconds. Ahhh…history. 🤣
As our tour meandered northward, I was noticing how the houses were changing. We had started off with the honey-coloured stone of the Cotswolds but it had morphed into the red brick of the Midlands, all apparently influenced by the geological materials that were available in the local area. Travel is the best teacher.
A highlight was Iron Bridge. Now, doesn’t that sound like a boring, grey industrial town?! But no…it was gorgeous!! I would never have found this little gem if I’d been tootling along by myself, which I guess is an advantage of being on a tour.
Over the border into Wales and we stopped in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. It’s such a tiny town and has little going for it except it’s name but everyone has heard of it so it’s sort of a ‘must do’.
Heading towards the Lake Country we visited Castle Howard. Ever heard of Brideshead Revisited? Yep….that place. It was massive!!!! The house is truly enormous and the gardens almost reach to the horizon. I hope you realise that picking just one photo of this amazing place was ridiculously difficult as the place is simply stunning. I ended up deciding to choose the photo with me in it. 😁
Finally we reached the Lakes District, and I just loved it, although something about the serenity brought on some deep thoughts about my travel style.
On the night we arrived in the Lakes District, I was sitting in the downstairs lounge of the hotel. Outside the window, the sun was setting over the lake and small boats were bobbing around in the silvery grey water, their tall white masts swaying gently in the chilly evening breeze.
Inside the lounge a number of people were enjoying the warmth and ambiance and chatting at tables, including members of my tour group. Nevertheless, I sat alone and was so absolutely fine with that. If I had gone over and asked them if I could join the group I would have been made very welcome.
But I preferred being alone. I was starting to figure out my travel style. I can manage a small group (and even enjoy it at times) but I need my space.
We drove through Kirkstone Pass in the Lakes district, which is the landscape that inspired the beautiful poems of William Wordsworth…like this one……
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils…”
I’m grappling with a way to describe this special place, but it’s a struggle as I don’t have Wordsworth’s abilities with the English language. I stood in Wordsworth’s environment though, of soaring mountains, huge skies and a rawness that takes your breath away and makes you feel small in such a vast landscape.
I wanted to stand quietly in this awe-inspiring vista and allow the feeling of being overwhelmed emotionally settle around me. I could see far into the distance and I thought “Yes, life is definitely worth living even if only to experience moments like this.” (There was a time when I thought it wasn’t)
On our final night together as a group, we stayed in a castle not far from Dumfries but in the middle of nowhere. If that wasn’t special enough….
Picture this…it’s a cool Scottish evening and you are standing outside this magnificent place in a beautiful setting surrounded by huge trees and sweeping lawns falling down into the River Nith at the end of the garden. You hear the wailing sound of bagpipes, and then a solitary piper in full Scottish dress slowly makes his way up to the front of the country house, playing just for you.
I did try the haggis and it was delicious! Unfortunately I could only have a taste as it is not gluten-free and I have Coeliac.
After this tour finished, I flew over to Germany for a few days to spend the anniversary of Norbert’s death with family. I call it my ‘Memory Day’, but this is merely the name that I have given to the life event which left me in deep shock and wondering how I was going to keep on living.
At a family gathering on that day I related a saying:
“People die twice. Once when their heart stops beating, and again when the last person says their name for the very last time.”
This is why I will continue to use Norbert’s name in everyday conversation…and on this blog. Not in a sad way to remember a death, but in a joyful and thankful way because he lived.
After 5 weeks away I came home a different person. Somebody more self-confident and “sitting easily in my world”. It wasn’t the 5 weeks of time that changed me though – it was the 5 weeks of experience. This is my message to anyone who is considering travelling solo, but is waiting ‘until they are ready’. You never will be if you just keep waiting.
In that 5 weeks I learned to trust myself as without a husband to lean on anymore, I had to depend on myself. Here’s what helped me:
Well that’s the end of this particular story, but it’s not really the end as life itself is a journey. As for solo travel…yes, I’m already planning the next trip…to Canada!
Please drop a comment in the box below and let me know about your first solo travel experiences. Did you manage to do it without a meltdown? LOL
Marlene is an Australian widow who has written about all the good, bad and ugly stuff that happened after her husband Norbert died tragically. Marlene responds to all comments.