You’ll be aware that during the past 18 months travel hasn’t really been a thing.
For some people, last summer might have meant a caravanning holiday with their families, but for me, the furthest I went was to pick up an order from Ikea’s car park, some four miles away.
My life has seemingly shrunk to the size of a pinhead and while I have been happy creating teeny, tiny adventures in my locality, the nagging voice in my head has been telling me that I have been allowing my world to get smaller and smaller and that, when the time comes to start travelling again, I’m going to really struggle to rediscover what little confidence I had.
I started a fantastic new job a few weeks ago which is mostly home-based but will require occasional trips to London. One of these occasions will be coming up in the next few weeks.
Given that I haven’t been on any public transport at all in the past 18 months, and that said-fantastic job gave me a day off yesterday for being a great colleague (which is pretty impressive considering that I’ve only been there five weeks!), I decided that I should make the most of it and use the day to do something new and slightly scary.
So, quite bizarrely, I booked myself a trip to Blackpool.
Blackpool, from memory, was not exactly my favourite place on earth.
But there was method in my madness:
- I could go there on a direct train
- I could go there and back within a day
- I could have a long walk somewhere flat
- I could sit on some sand
- I could breathe in some sea air
- It didn’t matter if, when I got there, I looked like a fat old duffer because there were always going to be some worse sights than me.
Sorry if that sounds a bit mean.
Now, I’m not going to lie, the train journey from my locality to Blackpool was VERY stressful. I’d chosen a late morning train, thinking I’d avoid the rush. WRONG! It was packed with people who either weren’t wearing masks, or else had them only over their mouths or somewhere under their chins. There were people singing, shouting, cheering, kids screaming and suitcases everywhere. In the end I pulled the old ‘put your bag and coat on the seat next to you and pretend you’re asleep’ trick so that no one sat next to me and breathed all over me. It was not a good experience and there were a couple of times when I had to dig really deep and resist my incredibly strong urge to get off the train at the next station and limp back home.
But I stuck it out and I am honestly glad I did.
For it was the best trip to Blackpool I’ve ever had.
I think that I last ventured to the Hell Hole of the North West in 2004 but I can’t hand-on-heart confirm that. It was certainly prior to 2012 as that was, apparently, when the trams were modernised and I certainly don’t recall seeing a mode of transport that wouldn’t be out of place in a European city.
My bygone memories of Blackpool are of “fun-enough times” but “not really for the likes of me”. I’m not a rowdy-pub-crawl type, I don’t like rollercoasters, I’m not a fan of fortune tellers and I don’t believe in buying plastic tat for the sake of it.
But what I had forgotten is that seaside towns exist because of their beaches. And, oh my, WHAT A BEACH!
The minute I arrived, I dashed out of the station and headed straight to the seafront, down the steps to the beach, sandals off and got as much sand between my toes as I possibly could.
Then I walked all the way out to the sea and rolled up trousers and paddled and paddled and paddled.
At that point I came over all emotional.
I genuinely couldn’t remember the last time my feet had been in the sea.
I spent an awfully long time revelling in something so simple and yet so incredibly glorious.
Eventually I headed back to dry land, stuck my sandals back on my feet and then hopped on the tram, all the way to the south terminus, Starr Gate.
I had read that there was an arts trail to follow from the south of the promenade. I’ll be honest, I’m no cultural guru but it didn’t seem that inspiring to me – just some rusty-looking metal and concrete blocks. But what was amazing was how much space there was down there – and so few people.
I walked all the way back to the hubbub, passing the Pleasure Beach and laughing along with the people screaming on The Big One rollercoaster.
Then I stopped to treat myself to an ice cream.
For many years I was unable to eat ice cream but the Long Heifer Whale can now devour pretty much everything in sight so when the lovely girl behind the counter asked me if I’d like raspberry sauce on top of it, I was game! She also gave me a large piece of blue napkin paper. Clearly she knew better than I what was about to happen.
Even with the blue paper, by the time I reached the South Pier I had pink goo all the way down my lovely cream blouse.
But do you know what? I didn’t care. I stood on the pier overlooking the sea and I laughed. And it was a big-fat-belly carefree laugh which is something I haven’t done in a very, very long time.
I had a tootle around the pier, dodging the guys telling me I needed to go on a ‘virtual rollercoast’ and did I want to bounce ping pong balls into jamjars to win a nasty knock-off cuddly toy, admiring the social-distanced drinking areas with plastic grass and over-excited DJ, and just generally soaking up the fantastically vibrant, alive atmosphere. It was the kind of life I haven’t seen in absolutely forever. I had genuinely forgotten that the world is like this. It felt incredible.
Back on the ground, the view was petty cool too.
Then I continued north, spying these guys jumping out of a crane.
Because the Pleasure Beach wasn’t thrill enough, obviously.
More and more walking – up and and down the Central Pier, along to the North Pier and up and down that too, reading the signs which told of its history. It’s a little tired looking but so would you be if you were almost 150 years old!
I spent some more time on the beach, simply marvelling in how wonderful it felt to be in such a wide open space which felt so wild and so free, before heading off in search of an early dins.
I describe myself as vegetarian but the truth is that sometimes I’m vegan and sometimes I like to have some fish. It goes without saying that fish and chips at the seaside is one of those times.
My favourite thing is to have them out of the paper (or modern-day equivalent) on the beach, and that had been my plan, but there was a large amount of incredibly fierce-looking seagulls casing every corner for chips and I really wasn’t in a fighting mood. So when I spied a modest-looking restaurant named Yorkshire Fisheries not far from the railway station, I decided to give it a try.
I haven’t eaten in a restaurant since February 2020 and solo dining is something which I enjoy but can be fraught with difficulties. I wasn’t sure that, being on my own, I would be welcome as I would be taking up a whole table and only ordering food for one when space was already at a premium.
But, peering through the window, the place seemed relatively quiet and, I decided, the worst that could happen was that I would be turned away.
I cautiously stood in the entrance, to be met by a waitress whizzing past me with two plates of ‘pudding’ (presumably steak and kidney? – not sure), chips and peas. She was wearing a mask but I could tell she was smiling behind it when she said, “I’ll be with you in a minute”.
And she was.
She was so warm and welcoming, she didn’t bat an eyelid when I said I’d like a table for one and she even uttered “ooooh!” when I told her my apparently-exotic name for the records which they inevitably have to keep right now.
She took me to a table at the back of the restaurant; I had a booth for four people to myself and I felt really safe and comfortable.
It was a great menu with so many options – good solid food, no airs and graces – but in the end I opted for battered cod (there was the option for lightly-battered or steamed), a half-portion of chips, mushy peas, a cup of tea and a glass of water.
Between ordering and the food arriving, I was asked if I wanted salt and vinegar (“yes please!”) and some kind of sauce (“oh, ketchup, thank you!”) and these arrived, along with my tea and water.
And there I was, sitting in a restaurant all by myself, looking around at other people eating and for a moment or two, it was like the P-word had never happened. In fact, it felt so incredibly normal that when I stood up to go to the bathroom (fantastic organisation à la Blackpool Illumination stylie: red light = occupied, green = good to go!), I was half-way across the restaurant before I realised that I had neglected to put on my mask. Whoops!
My dins was absolutely delicious and I was glad that I had opted for half chips though, to be honest, that was still a few too many. Greedy girl!
Unfortunately I didn’t take a photo of my plate (I must be out of practice) but I can hand on heart say that if fish and chips is your bag then you wouldn’t have been disappointed.
But for me what really set this restaurant apart was the way in which I was welcomed. Solo dining isn’t always easy but on this occasion I wasn’t treated like I had two heads, or ignored, or put next to the bins or the bathrooms. I was a customer in my own right. And, looking around, there were three other people eating on their own too. They all looked completely relaxed and happy, just like me.
I’ve travelled all over the world and had meals out on my own a great deal, including in some very ‘fancy’ restaurants. I’ve had some really shocking experiences and some just-okay ones. But I can honestly say that this was some of the best customer service I have ever experienced. I left a 20% tip and I would have happily left more, had I had any more change to hand.
Last night, when I arrived home, I emailed the restaurant to thank them for taking such good care of me and I received a lovely reply which, among other things, said, “…I have always wanted any customer who walks into our restaurant to feel as welcome as if they were friends coming to our home for dinner”.
And so I was. It was a good job they didn’t serve alcohol and I wasn’t there for the weekend, otherwise they’d have never got rid of me – hahaha!
If fish and chips is your thing and you’re nervous about eating alone then I couldn’t recommend this place enough: www.yorkshirefisheries.co.uk. They also do takeaway, including online click and collect, if you’re brave enough to battle the seagulls!
After dins, I drained the rest of my lovely cup of tea and then I waddled to the station and jumped on a thankfully near-empty train back to Leeds.
I really wasn’t sure about deciding to take an afternoon out on my own but I can hand on heart say that I am so happy (and proud of myself!) that I did it.
Taking the plunge has made me remember that an adventure is an adventure, no matter how big or small – and although an afternoon in Blackpool is not a exactly a week in South Korea, it tells me that my travelling spirit and my sense of self are still very much alive and kicking.
There is no denying that I am currently overweight, out of shape and understandably anxious but yesterday proved that I am still the same person I was.
It’s such a good feeling.