'You know not whence you came, nor why' - Omar Khayyam
‘London? Oh, you poor thing.’ With an empathetic smile and a reassuring self-confidence that put me directly at ease, my Devonian taxi driver set the tone for what would become an exciting, and potentially prophetic, early September weekend away from the metropolis. Like many London residents, I have an ambivalent relationship with the capital. As cliché as it sounds, I love to hate the city, and there was a degree of Gaelic affinity, harkening back to my childhood in Northern Ireland, that offered me some glee in our mutual distaste.
Even this small interaction on my way to the seaside town of Paignton (originally a Celtic settlement) made me feel slightly more visible when compared with the hustle and bustle of the crowded Paddington station I departed from. Yet something in me felt a little duplicitous; the attractions involved with life in London had, at one stage, lured me in. I could lay no authentic claim to consistent disavowal of the city, nor did I seek to spurn the complicated part of myself that London seemed to operate as a stand-in metaphor for.
Having booked the weekend off work to travel to the English Riviera (an exotic synonym for a handful of beautiful coastal towns in South Devon), a couple of my colleagues appeared rather surprised to hear I planned to travel alone. Following a summer that included working and a couple of intermittent trips with friends and family, I was excited, if slightly nervous, to spend some time by myself before my final year as an undergraduate at King’s commenced.
My itinerary for night one was fairly simple. A walk along the coastline from my residence at the Torbay Hotel to the neighbouring harbour of Torquay (pronounced Tor-key), followed by dinner at a local restaurant I had booked well in advance during a stint of boredom at my Soho hosting job.
The walk involved breath-taking views and the opportunity to inhale deeply what felt like fresh, explicitly unpolluted air. I was struck by the uninterrupted view of the majestic sea and the vastness of the blue sky above, and a lingering sense of separation from the beautiful scene that I sought to dissolve. In retrospect, I am grateful to find that my melancholic disposition was short-lived. In our thirst for understanding as students, intellectualising everything can become one of the hazards of academic life. As we extract things to examine them, we may imagine ourselves separate from that which we observe. This includes the natural world, other people, and at its extremes, even ourselves.
Loneliness and confusion are perhaps endemic to the student condition, and both have struck me throughout my degree to various extents. However, I had come to the albeit late conclusion that my loneliness may have had less to do with my relationship with others and was perhaps more indicative of the degree of closeness I had been prepared to offer myself. Groundbreaking- I know! But more profound sentiments on the dialectical self-concept can be saved for my English Literature tutors. My weekend away thus provided an opportunity to really listen to myself, on my own schedule.
That a parallel should be made between themes of self-realization and solo travel will not be novel to fans of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and other archetypal dramas following the journey from confusion to connection, yet I believe these stories are important. Particularly for the disenfranchised youth we may locate ourselves as being. Indeed, confusion may be a good, if at times incredibly painful, place to start when looking to define ourselves and transition out of the liminal state we may be operating in.
Day two of my trip saw a revival of my curiosity. My morning began with an entertaining tour of Kent’s Cavern, a prehistoric cave system most notable for its geological heritage. The Caves tour seemed to heighten my singularity, filled with older couples, I stood out as being both alone, and twenty-one. Student life can involve homogenous interactions with other young adults, thus, engaging with different age groups can offer a refreshing perspective and even a sense of direction. Indeed, I was right not to worry about my perceived difference; there is nothing like a charismatic tour guide and the mention of Homo-sapiens to bring a disparate group together in recognition of our common ancestry and strange evolutionary origins! In fact, the tour renewed my interest in anthropology and served as one of the inspirations for my decision to pursue a Master’s in Social Anthropology, hence the prophetic aspect of my trip.
I followed my educational experience with what I had hoped would be an idyllic three-hour hike along the Southwest Coast Path, passing along cliffs, secluded beaches and sandy coves. Whilst a blustery wind had not deterred me from starting out on my hike, the winds began to pick up in a sublime display of natural force. My original plan was to walk from Brixham to Kingswear, where I would take a ferry into Dartmouth, but this became increasingly unlikely as the rain turned torrential and the wind threatened to pick me up and carry me over the clifftops. Distrusting my navigational abilities and sufficiently drenched, I decided to call a taxi. After my defeatist taxi ride, I took the £2 ferry from Kingswear into Dartmouth, reminded of the joys of affordable travel and excited by the prospect of a warm meal in an unexplored town.
Satisfied with my venture in Dartmouth and a delicious dinner, I headed back to Paignton on the top floor of an empty bus. The driver informed me that it was the last bus home, and I felt lucky to have made it in time, perhaps the disruption of my plans had a greater significance than I’d foreshadowed!
For any readers considering a quick solo trip of their own, I would encourage visiting South Devon, both for its proximity to London, and of course its beauty, making it a great destination for first-time student travellers. Paignton offered me a lovely base from which to explore neighbouring towns in the spirit of adventure and exploration! In my experience, solo travel has the power to incite our curiosity and remind us of the joys of independence and taking things at our own pace.
Throughout my trip, I continued a pre-established bedtime routine of meditating to a Thich Nhat Hanh guided audio, one line of relevance being ‘Breathing in, I establish myself in the present moment. Breathing out, I realise this is a wonderful moment’. Thich Nhat Hanh has been described as one of the most influential spiritual leaders of our time, and his philosophy of interbeing and advocacy for compassionate understanding have touched me deeply. It seemed that establishing myself in Paignton (or anywhere new really) was a means of combatting a sense of separation from home and by extension loneliness. I was right where I needed to be because I was fully there, calmly established in the present. Falling asleep to the sound of the wind picking up across the English Channel, I was enthusiastic about my return to King’s Cross and hopeful about my upcoming year in London.
Indeed, looking around my room (which is located not far from King’s Cross station) as I write this, I am warmed by the sight of my Torbay Hotel guest card, currently attached to my blue hall’s noticeboard. It is emblematic of my prodigal journey and perhaps even a symbol of affection for my past self. To round off with another Thich Nhat Hanh dictum, ‘the present is made of the past'. Breathing in, I smile at the adventurous girl travelling alone in Paignton. Breathing Out, I have a suspicion she is smiling back at me!
Edited by Faye Elder, London and Beyond Editor