It was only after I banged on the door for the 17th time that I accepted there was going to be no answer. I was completely alone, standing in the pouring November rain on a stranger’s doorstep in a tiny, remote village in north-west Scotland. The one train a day was the one I had just arrived on; there was no way of leaving for another 23 hours. And now the woman I had arranged to stay with was nowhere to be seen.
Amid my general panic about possibly having to sleep rough in the Highlands in winter, there was a specific fear that was niggling me: should I have anticipated this? Was this just the comeuppance I deserved for being arrogant enough to think that I, a woman, could travel by myself without getting into trouble? I crossly tamped that thought back down and soggily trudged back along the road to the next house, where I found a friendly man at home who had no idea where his neighbour, Jean, might be, instead of here to welcome her guest. Still, he let me dry off by the fire, and politely watched me demolish nearly an entire packet of digestive biscuits while I steamed up his living room.
Once the rain eased up, we went back together to what was supposed to be my holiday home and found that both the front and back doors were unlocked, that there was washing-up in the sink and plenty of other signs suggesting that the resident had just popped out for a second. Now my fears became less selfish. I knew my host was in her eighties and lived alone, except for occasional guests like me. What if she had wandered off into the hills and nobody had noticed until now?
There’s a well-documented tradition of men going on solo adventures. Women, though – women don’t get to be self-sufficient or curious without being treated as if they are doing something alien or wrong
Suddenly, my problem became the entire village’s problem. I was taken in by the landlord of the pub and assured that I was welcome to stay in one of the rooms upstairs he kept for summer hikers. I nearly wept my thanks to him, had a hot shower and then collapsed into bed. Meanwhile, the kindly neighbour started a phone tree, to try and find out what had happened to my host. The next morning, just as I was tucking into an enormous fry-up in the pub kitchen, the landlord came charging in to tell me that Jean had eventually been located at her daughter-in-law’s in Inverness and was on the phone now to apologise for mixing up the week I was coming. We arranged to have dinner when she got back in a few days, before I rung off to find another woman in the kitchen who had heard what happened and had turned up to offer me somewhere else to stay.
In all the years I have been going on holiday by myself, this episode represents both the worst and best things that have ever happened to me. After the initial fear, dampness and panic, I spent a brilliant week in that village, being greeted cheerfully by everyone I met in the street and stood free drinks, fish and cake all over the place, so anxious were the village’s residents that the initial mix-up shouldn’t ruin my trip. I did everything I had planned for that week – took long walks up the mountains overlooking the Scottish islands of Rum, Muck and Eigg, spent hours reading detective novels in the bath, hiked from the sea to a beautiful inland loch and back again – with the extra pleasure that the friendly interest everyone had in me brought. In the end, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
When I tell people that I prefer to travel alone than with other people, they usually have one of two reactions: either they tilt their heads and pity me, assuming that I only take holidays by myself because I don’t have a partner or friends I can ask to go with me, or they say, “Good for you! Well done!” in a patronising tone that I utterly detest.
There’s a confluence of unpleasant sentiments in the latter response that it’s worth unpacking. It implies that I’m doing something surprising or against the grain, something exceptional that is worthy of recognition or praise. There’s often a touch of victim-blaming mixed in there as well. Isn’t that a bit risky? Aren’t you asking for trouble? Wouldn’t it be safer to go with your boyfriend? I really don’t think it’s any stretch at all to suggest that a man in his late twenties mentioning he prefers to travel alone would not habitually get this reaction – after all, there’s a well-documented tradition, going back centuries, of men going on solo adventures to find themselves and see the world. Women, though – women don’t get to be self-sufficient or curious without being treated as if they are doing something alien or wrong.
This is for strong societal and historical reasons: women are the glue that holds everything together, so of course they can’t just disappear whenever they fancy, the way men can. Women’s invisible labour is everywhere, even now – caring, cleaning, organising, deciding. Even if you don’t have parents, children or other dependents to consider, there’s a strong chance that you do an unfair share of the domestic labour in your flatshare or office (ask yourself who buys colleagues’ birthday cakes, runs the holiday rota and arranges the Christmas lunch – it is always a busy woman).
In A Room Of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf famously pointed out that solitude and a steady income are essential for women to be able to write fiction. She also made some choice observations about why women’s imaginative lives have been stifled for so long: men need us at their beck and call, to witness their deeds. She wrote: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle.”
A vast proportion of a woman’s time is out of her control, defined in relation to others and their needs. It doesn’t necessarily follow that all of that time is spent unpleasantly – far from it. Still, occasionally it is important to be completely in control, consulting only your own desires about what you will and won’t do, if only to remind yourself that you can. Travelling alone is the perfect way to express this
After the “well dones”, the most common thing people ask me about my solitary holiday habit is, “Don’t you get lonely?” The answer, of course, is absolutely not. Not once, not even for a second, not even in the rain on that doorstep when I thought I would have to sleep in a bus shelter. There is an immeasurable difference between being alone and being lonely, and I am only ever the former, never the later. The state of loneliness only exists if you want company but don’t have it, and I have never caught myself thinking, “I wish someone else was here with me.” This doesn’t mean that you can’t be sociable – travelling alone, you are actually more likely to strike up conversations with strangers that lead to drinks or excursions together. But the key thing is the total lack of obligation or expectation. If you don’t want to talk to anyone, you don’t have to.
Andrew O’Hagan once wrote something in the New York Times that I think about all the time in relation to this. “The first rule of travel,” he says, “is that you should always go with someone you love, which is why I travel alone.” “Self-care” and “self-love” are phrases that get bandied around a lot these days, often in the same sentence as “mindfulness”. However you feel about such buzz words, it’s undeniable that there is something powerfully refreshing about being able to focus all of your attention on yourself. When I travel alone, I eat and sleep when I want, walk for miles some days and then stay in bed with a book or a box set on others. Any holiday should be a distraction from the routine of everyday life, but how often is it possible to be so utterly selfish without it harming others?
Being able to be satisfied with your own company as you are, unimproved by teachable moments and dizzying revelations, is a powerful thing
After a really good holiday on your own, you will always be surprised how happy you are to be home. As much as I enjoy my own company, I always forget how thrilling it can be to come through the door and shout “I’m home!” and hear a familiar voice reply. You might not have felt homesick at all while you were away but, if your trip was sufficiently solitary, you will realise the worth of what you left behind. Breaking out of your routine completely and removing all pressure to use your time for anything in particular makes you better at being at home when you return. The things that infuriated you before you went away will suddenly seem amusing or unimportant when you get back.
Another common mistake people make about solo holidays is that they are some kind of spiritual retreat or journey – they can be, if that’s your sort of thing, but you don’t have to be in need of some serious self-examination or an epiphany to be able to justify going away by yourself. The pressure you can put on yourself, waiting for some kind of astonishing revelation about your life, can suck the joy from a trip as efficiently as the most tedious of companions. Being able to be satisfied with your own company as you are, unimproved by teachable moments and dizzying revelations, is a powerful thing.
One of my favourite episodes of Sex And The City is “They Shoot Single People, Don’t They?”, from season two. In it, all four characters find themselves, unusually, without partners at the same time, and this coincidence prompts some classic voiceover musings on the subject of being by yourself. “When did being alone become the modern-day equivalent of being a leper?” wonders Carrie, feeling judged for not constantly being one half of a pair.
In an attempt to reconcile herself with singledom, Carrie deliberately and defiantly practises being visibly alone. We see her sitting at an outside table at a fancy restaurant, ordering her food and then sipping her wine and enjoying the sunshine, without the “armour” of a book, newspaper or mobile phone to make her solo presence acceptable. She looks calmly out at the street, and what she’s saying is, “Yes, I am here by myself, enjoying a meal – is there something wrong with that?” It’s a statement and a challenge. Women are allowed to take up space, to enjoy their own company without their aloneness inviting unwanted attention. Start small: next time your friend goes to the bathroom, don’t reach for your phone and pointlessly scroll. Sit and enjoy the ambience of where you are and invent stories for the strangers all around you. Believe me, it’s addictive.
Some of my most cherished memories from holidays alone are not the times I climbed mountains or saw breathtaking views, but the little moments that could not have happened if I’d travelled any other way. The half an hour I spent sitting on a rocky outcrop below Castle Tioram on the west coast of Scotland, staring out at the silvery horizon where two lochs merge. The pistachio ice cream I ate perched on the top of the ancient walls of a Tuscan village in the warm spring darkness, the tops of a tree rustling just beneath my feet. Waking in the middle of the night and being able to see stars through the skylight above the bed, and then climbing out on to the roof to watch the dawn creep across the sky. Sometimes, the best times are the ones you don’t share.