Leaving my suburban train, I arrive into London Waterloo to continue my journey into work. More often than not, my train pulls alongside the 08:32 service to Portsmouth Harbour.
Portsmouth Harbour has only been one place for me. It has only ever held one significance: the gateway to the Isle of Wight. But to me this means more than a ferry across the Solent. One July morning in 2016, I believe it was a Monday, I stepped onto that exact train. I travelled alone to begin what would be a soul-finding adventure.
Despite being July, my bag was packed with numerous pairs of thick socks and warm layers. I had come over-prepared with a month’s supply of hayfever tablets, Compeed plasters and a survival whistle. The whistle was suggested by my walking guide, a 50 page book, written by a man called Barry. Whatever Barry said, I did. I was on my own and I knew that if this trip did turn out to be a disaster, I had no one to blame but myself.
I was embarking on a solo-walk around the famous Isle of Wight coastal path. With the sea as my guide, it would be hard for me to get lost. But on Barry’s advice, an unused compass and crisp ordnance survey map lay at the bottom of my bag. I had not done anything like it before. A good friend of mine had walked around the island in 36 hours without any sleep, with her boyfriend, and it turned out, a badly injured ankle. She assured me it was perfect for beginners, and so one winter evening I booked the hotel (one with a bath, which I would later use to soothe my aching muscles) and set in motion my training.
The Isle of Wight’s coastal path is one of the best-maintained coastal paths in the UK, and I would argue one of the most beautiful. I rambled through tranquil harbours and shaded woodland. I skipped through meadows and I ran across frighteningly soft rock cliffs, which threatened to fall into the sea with every step. Potential falling debris or quickly rising tides were scary but the beauty of the island made up for it. Standing at the top of the hill looking down to the path I had spent the last few hours walking along was all the motivation I needed to keep going.
What I had learned from my practice walks was that I loved being on my own. I enjoyed that I had just my thoughts for company, whether I was up in the Chilterns or striding along the Thames Path. I settled into the rhythm of the Isle of Wight walk quickly. I talked cows and to butterflies, I talked to myself. I said hello to passers by, but I could often go for hours without seeing another human being. I took endless pictures. I wanted to share my experience with my colleagues and my friends. I felt if I didn’t have evidence, no one would believe that I had done it, or worse that no one would care. Taking pictures almost validated the experience. It made it real.
The route took me five full days, walking 15-18 miles a day. I went around the island clockwise, as Barry had suggested. This meant the two half days of walking around the very north point of the island, where there was no coast on the coastal path, fell towards the end of my trip. Morally depleted by Thursday, I struggled to find the will to carry on. My motivation of seeing the sea, and the gorgeous cliff edges of the island was lost. I walked for hours on A-roads, with cars travelling past dangerously fast, without seeing a single person. I realised I missed the hello’s and good mornings I received whilst I walked around the more populated part of the island. I missed the friendly faces – they must have encouraged me in some way. Without any scenery I had no pictures to take and therefore had no reason to connect with my digital friends. I was empty without my Instagram likes.
It was strange on the Friday evening when I had eventually finished the route. It is a full circle, so I took a picture of me at the point I had started just a few days before. The 70 miles around the island that I had walked over the last few days were evident only in my tired eyes and my sore feet. I regretted that no one was there to celebrate with me. There were no hi-fives or well-done hugs. The people that passed me on Ryde sea front as I collected souvenirs had no idea where I had been or what I had achieved.
I had undertaken this walk to be alone. I spend my life in an overcrowded city, loathing people on buses and trains for daring to take the same public transport as me. I was surprised, however, that by the time Friday had come, I missed people. This trip was missing the security in someone else doing the same thing as me. It lacked the warmth of the shared experience and the joy of endless, pointless chatter with friends. The memories of that week I hold, alone. The anecdotes I rarely tell, because no one else was there, and are being slowly forgotten. The evidence I have that it happened at all is a few Instagram likes and the knowledge I gained about my self. Whilst I know I can really enjoy being alone, this isn’t for me the most fulfilling experience. I need people more than I had previously thought.