Part I: Why and How
By Carol Bechtel, Becketwood Member
Ever since 2010, when I participated in a Quaker Heritage tour that spent a week in northern England, I had wanted to return to experience the area more fully. In addition, I had not been to Scotland and wished to go there. I looked online for tours, but nothing came close to my desires for a trip; plus, they were expensive.
The precipitating factor, to be honest, was an email from a close friend with whom I had long talked about going to England together. In effect, she told me she didn’t want to be friends with me any longer.
After I recovered from the shock, one day I was assaulted by a strange and liberating thought: I could go by myself! And if I go by myself, I can go exactly where I want to go and do exactly what I want to do—and nothing else. I was excited by the very idea.
In January I had pneumonia, and in March I had my 80th birthday, two events that gave my unformed plans for a solo trip a do-it-now urgency. As soon as I returned from Florida at the end of March, I started my online research and real planning. My first decision was that I would not drive. With my penchant for getting lost, driving made no sense, and I didn’t want to spend hours in a car by myself. I knew about rail passes, and am fond of trains, so the obvious solution was a Britrail Pass.
While my initial thought had been, “Ahhh, 6 weeks in England,” that soon got modified to: “I’ll need time in Scotland, too.” Then when I researched cost of accommodations and thought about how I would handle all that time alone, I decided that two weeks in Scotland plus three weeks in England were more doable. Where in England to go? For 12 years I had known about the Settle to Carlisle Railroad and had had a map of the train routes in northern England. Settle was the first place that came into my mind. The second thing that came to mind was, ”I wonder where the Quaker meetings are.” Well, what do you know, here’s a lovely website for a Meeting in Settle. I wrote to the email address listed and asked if any of them knew of a house-sitting opportunity or an inexpensive rental. An immediate Friendly reply told me that they were a small meeting, mostly retired folks, and no, they couldn’t help me in that way.
I looked into other locations in the area, but nothing seemed as viable as Settle, so I decided a first choice for a self-catering cottage (“smallest place in Settle”). By this time I had mapped out on the calendar my days in Scotland, and had checked train schedules to ascertain that my itinerary was feasible, so I knew when I wanted to be in England. When I emailed the owner of my chosen cottage, again I got an immediate reply, and after she factored in that I was a single and would be staying partly in October as well as September, the total price was less than I expected. Perfect! I went ahead and made my airline reservations (Delta Sky Miles to Heathrow, British Air from Heathrow to Glasgow, and Iceland Air for the return) and one by one, each of my destination B-and-Bs or hotels. This process was extremely time-consuming but extraordinarily fun.
So it was mid-May and I was all set. I wasn’t to leave until September 9, so I could enjoy beautiful Minnesota summer. A month before departure I began letting my accommodations know that I was really coming. Then it was the last week and all I had to do was pack—and worry. Yes, I was concerned about what might happen, and yes, I was concerned about spending all that time by myself. A natural introvert, was I really going to talk to people? Would I get lonely, or worse, depressed?
Part II: What Happened
Two of the places I had chosen to visit in Scotland are known as the “thin places”—places where the dividing line between the material and the spiritual is reputed to be somehow thinner. Perhaps I was hoping to have a spiritual experience. It happened sooner. Sleepless in Glasgow and powerless to do anything about it, I asked for help from the Universe. And somehow I knew I wasn’t really going to do this alone, that somehow I would be carried every step of the way.
One of the big advantages to being on my own—as opposed to being in a group that is constantly chattering—is that I could remember to say to myself, “Wow! I’m here! I’m doing it! This is great! I am SO lucky to be able to do this.” And I truly treasured my interactions with others, which always seemed to have something amazing about them. I am naturally a trusting person. This outlook on life was never violated in any way; in fact, the opposite was true. I found myself constantly marveling at how nice, helpful, and basically good people were. It didn’t hurt that I was obviously age-enhanced, and often didn’t know what I was doing. “That poor old lady needs help,” may have been what more than a few people were thinking. Well, whatever the reason, in absolutely every case, I got what I needed.
I did a lot of walking, and except for 1 ½ days in Glasgow, it was not in cities, but in small places or the countryside. I am used to walking by myself, which is one of the pleasures of my life. In Scotland and England, I LOVED all the walking. Something new at every turn! I went to see the fells (hills) and the dales (valleys), the sheep and the stone walls, the old stone buildings (I saw many, many dates from the 1600s), the becks (creeks) and the waterfalls, and I drank in these views with a deep satisfaction that is hard to describe.
I can’t praise the user-friendly public transportation system in the UK highly enough. The trains were on time, or nearly so, clean and comfortable. I saw a lot of beautiful scenery from trains. I was able to follow the detailed itinerary I had printed out for myself to the letter. I had one problem, which was that often I could not understand the public address system announcements, and on one excursion that got me in trouble, interfering with my plans. Buses, which I used only when I couldn’t get where I wanted to go by train, were surprisingly efficient and comfortable, and they, too, were on time. I think the best part of this whole thing for me was to see how heavily used the trains and buses are.
The accommodations I had carefully chosen--for location, breakfast, charm, and price--were always what I expected, thanks to accurate websites, and I would go back to all of them. In Settle, I felt like Goldilocks, because I had gotten exactly the right community for me, not too big and not too small. I had everything I needed in my tiny stone cottage (probably 1700s) and in the town, whose charming old stone buildings exceeded expectations. As did my welcome at the Quaker meeting. I walked away from my first Sunday worship with two invitations to tea and one to dinner, and it went on from there.
Lastly, I travel on my stomach. An auxiliary, but important, reason for going was to hang out in pubs and eat pub food, which I do not eat at home. And I can’t forget the on-tap cider (Strongbow Original is my favorite). I searched out the oldest, most atmospheric pubs, and found the ambiance as yummy as the food, yummier in some cases. Who knew one can get vegetarian versions of bangers and mash and haggis pie? Traveling like this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it suited me to a tea, preferably a cream tea (scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam, accompanied by mint tea).
So how did it all turn out? I say it was a fantastic success, and there is no one to say differently!