The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Solo travelling, loneliness, and singleness.

Sunday 6 Sep

Time to head for home.

I make a mid-morning stop in Stonehaven. Sit on a sunny café balcony overlooking the harbour, with a substandard coffee and an A+ traybake, and read about lighthouses.

Read about the prolific Stevenson family – how four generations of them built most of the lighthouses in and around Scotland and the Isle of Man.

About how one of these Stevensons – Thomas – was greatly disappointed when his son Robert Louis announced that he would be pursuing a career in writing instead of lighthouse engineering. Perhaps he forgave him after he wrote this:

“There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, but one of my blood designed it.

The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather; the Skerryvhor for my uncle Alan;

and when the lights come out along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.”

And, y’know, when he forged something of a successful career in writing.

This has been a great trip. I have not, generally, enjoyed solo holidays. When attempted in the past I have found myself longing to share the experiences with someone. But this time I was surprised by how rarely feelings of loneliness overtook me.

And in this I need to acknowledge the positive effect of social media. It helps with this. It really does. Sharing photos of places visited and sights seen via Instagram, and Facebook, and written experiences via this blog, and seeing people respond, help provide that sense of connection that otherwise is missing.

Strikes me now, fourteen years on, that this was probably the main driver for me starting this blog in the first place – keeping a record of my trip to Australia in 2006-7, a diary of my travels for posterity – of course – but also a means of staying connected with friends and, in a relatively non-immediate way, sharing those experiences with them.

Big shout out to Nicola and Disco, my virtual travelling companions on this trip. 

But on the occasions when feelings of loneliness did catch up with me, I found the best way was to embrace them. Briefly. It’s perfectly normal to experience feelings of loneliness at times. No sense in pretending they’re not there. So I embraced them, and even dwelt in them, for as long as I needed to. 

And no longer than I needed to. Any longer, and I get lost in a miasma of self-pity and spiralling thoughts that take me nowhere good.

I sometimes view families in a curiously detached way. It doesn’t escape my attention that the parents are my age or younger. I sometimes idly wonder what it’s like. I know, cognitively, what it’s like. I have enough friends who have told me. Told me of the sleepless nights. The constant demands for your attention. The tears and the tantrums. Balanced with the joy and the pride. 

And I have experienced these things in a detached way, as an uncle and a friend of the parents. But I don’t really know.

Nor do I want to. Not at all. And yet there’s a fascination, which is similar to the detached fascination I experience when I see couples on the bus. Or in the street.

I wonder what it’s like. I know what it’s like. But I also don’t.

And so I walk the road less travelled. Viewing couples and families with detachment. Wondering how one decision can make life, ten years down the road, say, so different. So very different. 

Sometimes I feel like Peter Pan. Like I’ve never grown up. Proper grown ups enter into committed, lifelong relationships. Get married. Have children. I haven’t. I go to the cinema a lot. Sometimes at antisocial hours on a school night. Frequently on my own. It’s ok, going on your own. It’s actually pretty good.

I invited my friend (married, with young children) to the cinema the other day (pre-COVID). He didn’t come. “Our lives are very different,” he said. It was a 9:30pm showing on a Sunday night.

The first times I ate out in restaurants alone, I was on training courses with work, far from home. It felt weird. I was in a strange town, far from everyone I knew, and it was just weird. Now, eating out alone is as normal as breathing. 

I have great friends. I love hanging out with them, going to films, eating pizza, ice cream, meeting over coffee. I love these encounters. But at the end of the evening, we wave goodbye, and go our separate ways. 

Sometimes I think it’d be nice to have someone who would still be there tomorrow.

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Sunrises and Smugglers.

Saturday 5 Sep

After yesterday’s full and busy itinerary, with its 6:17am start, I resolved to take things a little easier today. I gave myself an additional two full minutes in bed and got up for the sunrise at 6:19.

I can’t quite remember the last time (before yesterday) I witnessed a sunrise. And the thought of having seen two on consecutive mornings is frankly mind-boggling.

Singing along to Justin Townes Earle in the car later

Ain’t seen a sunrise
Since I don’t know when

I (with, I admit, a dash of smugness) change the words to

…since THIS MORNING!

Which doesn’t, I confess, fit the song rhythmically or thematically, but I’m on holiday.

Faced with a plethora of beach choices, I settle on Balmedie Beach, on the basis that it’s the closest, and thus will maximise the good weather beach time, given that the forecast is for it to cloud over by the afternoon.

Walking from the car park, I crest the final sand dune to discover a massive sandy beach stretching away to the north and south, but my heart sinks just a little at the eleven wind turbines rising up out of the sea just offshore.

I am not entirely proud of this reaction, since I know that wind-generated energy is clean and green, and therefore A Good Thing, and also subsequently discover to my dismay that my views are momentarily aligned with Donald Trump on something, finding out that he complained to the Scottish Parliament in 2012 that the turbines would spoil the view from his golf resort.

And, what’s more, just yesterday I was eulogising over the beauty of a lighthouse in the middle of the sea.

I kick off my flip-flops and carry them, walking northwards through the fringes of the surf, away from the turbines. It’s breezy, and clouds frequently obscure the sun, but it doesn’t rain.

I come across a bunch of sandpipers scuttling backwards and forwards with the incoming tide – it looks like they’re playing chicken with the water.

After a few miles, with the beach still stretching endlessly off into the distance, I park myself on a sand dune once again, make coffee, and eat my lunch, pondering the difference between wind turbines and lighthouses.

It’s a curious one. Both the lighthouse and the wind turbine are entirely man-made. Both are there for laudable reasons. Both are brilliantly conceived and (especially when built in the middle of the sea) genuine feats of engineering.

But the lighthouse is somehow more beautiful to me. The achievement of the lighthouse engineers is also considerably more impressive when one considers that they were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, without the assistance of modern shipping and helicopters. But, purely from an aesthetic perspective, the turbine is too sharp, too angular, has too many edges for me. But like them or not, I guess they’re here to stay.

I walk back the way I came, with the wind getting up and the tide coming in. The beach is deserted. I take the opportunity to run, and fling my arms wide, and sing at the top of my voice. And maybe even skip and dance a little. Then I notice there are two people sat back on the dunes, watching the antics of a crazy person, no doubt preparing to call the police if I turned in their direction. Ah well, I’m on holiday.

I drive a little further north, to Collieston, purely on the basis that it has an ice cream shop called Smugglers Cone, and in doing so stumble across perhaps the most glorious find of the trip – another gorgeous little seaside fishing village, built in a natural cove, flanked by cliffs on one side and dunes on the other, with a great little harbour and a rich gin-smuggling heritage.

In the late 1700s an estimated eight thousand gallons of foreign spirits were being landed here, and the surrounding area, in a given month.

I eat ice-cream and read a book, sitting on a bench overlooking the harbour, where wet-suitted youngsters are jumping off the harbour wall, and a young family paddle-board their way around the cove.

In the evening I attempt to eat local (at Brewdog!) but they’re fully booked, and so I walk along Union Street to the familiar surrounds of Pizza Express, a chain in some trouble even pre-COVID.

With sparsely-arranged tables and furniture stacked in the corner, it looks like they’ve just moved in. With so few diners, it was a fairly soulless experience, if I’m honest. Made me wonder: how much of our enjoyment of a meal out is conditional on the atmosphere?

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Castles and Hipsters.

Thursday 3 Sep

Heading north, I make my first spontaneous unscheduled “saw the sign and made a snap decision” stop at Glamis Castle. I do love a good castle, and the Shakespearean connections are a bonus.

It’s closed. Covid. I console myself with a completely scheduled stop at another place referenced (I imagine) in classic literature – McDonalds (Forfar).

Arrive at Dunnottar Castle mid-afternoon. It’s only open these days if you book ahead on the website, but (without ever having actually been in) I reckon Dunnottar Castle is best experienced, and certainly photographed, from a little bit away – like Edinburgh Castle. So I take photos from a little bit away. From every conceivable angle, except “from the sea” which would be tricky.

Drive on down into Stonehaven, meeting a combine harvester on the road in, which takes up the ENTIRE road. It’s a nervy moment. I nearly end up in a sheugh, but the combine driver gives me a cheery wave, so I felt better.

I’m aiming for a couple of coffee shops, both of which turn out to be closed (flooding, not Covid). Seems like either Ellen or Francis did for them. I find another one, and take a coffee and a traybake down to the harbour.

Discover the compact little harbour to be unexpectedly picturesque. Translucent blue water, a sandy beach, and – beyond the walls of the harbour itself – grassy cliffs which provide a gently spectacular backdrop. And the sun is shining.

There’s even a hipster, complete with flat cap and man-bag, on the sand.

I bite into a traybake large enough to sink one of the boats on the water, and feel like I’m in the Med. With the exception of the traybake and the hipster.

Later that evening, I phone mum from the car, while parked at Torry Battery, where I’m eating fish and chips and watching the ships leave the harbour. She tries to impress me with her knowledge of Doric. It seems to be confined to “Quines” and”Loons”. I remain unimpressed. Am also unimpressed with the fish and chips, which I imagine would generally be of high quality around here. I must have picked a dodgy place.

Apparently Torry Battery is a great spot to watch dolphins from. I discover this afterwards. I didn’t see any dolphins.