When I travel solo, I like to observe, live and absorb the local flavor. Because I travel solo, I get to do this my way. Unfortunately, when it comes to the evenings, my way is the hard way.
My objective is always to take in the best that a city or town has to offer – from a local’s perspective. If it’s a big city, that will be some hot venue. If it’s a small town as is Ambleside in the Lake District, it will be a local pub. Not the pub that serves all the tourists coming through, but the one that serves locals.
In Ambleside the Unicorn Inn was my pub of choice.
I was told that the Unicorn was the pub for locals. I walked through the doors of Ambleside’s oldest coaching inn to a room of maybe 600 square feet (excluding the pool room) with low ceilings and great wooden beams. I looked around for a table. There was only one left and it was in the corner. Hmmm. I went to the bar and asked about their menu. I wanted to linger more, observe and determine how to enter into this pub scene. I didn’t see a way.
But patience. It always takes time. There are awkward moments at the beginning. In a small, local place like the Unicorn, these are moments when I am being watched. “What’s she doing here alone?”is going through people’s minds. It takes time to be accepted but it’s usually time well spent. It certainly was in this case.
While this was a local pub, it was not the locals I met first.
I ordered a Yorkie with beef and beer, (Yorkshire pudding, I found out, made into a bowl to hold a light beef stew. Very good!) and went to sit in that uncomfortable table in the back corner. I felt awkward. I looked around and saw couples here and there. A bunch of men near the bar. I knew that this table wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Then I saw a person in a prime spot, on the short side of an L-shaped bench with tables, leave. I moved in quickly.
I received my meal there and promptly took a picture. I know, this is weird, but it gave me the chance to smile sheepishly at the couple sitting on my left and start chatting. They were from the midlands and had been coming to the Lake District for years. As our conversation was in full swing, three guys arrived for a couple of pints. Paul, Allan and Keith were on a week break. They were great entertainment. The six of us talked about politics and fell walks and everything in between. I left not having met locals but having had a great time.
The following evening it was more of the same. The third evening, the couple was there only for a short time and the guys were late (I met them on my way home). But, I finally met a local – Mik. We chatted about travel and the like. He’s a mountain climber. At least, he was. He now seeks ice to climb. I left only a bit closer to the inner local circle than day one. At least, that’s what I thought.
The local connection is made.
The next day, November 5th, was Guy Fawkes Day. There are fireworks and bonfires. I headed out as soon as I heard the fireworks but they were over in no time. I found everyone in the pub. This time I walked into a group of friends.
It was the publican’s birthday as well as Guy Fawkes Day. The place was packed and there had been champagne flowing and, well, I was greeted like a local. Before I even reached the bar we were talking about how I missed the fireworks. It’s hard to describe just how much at home I felt. I squeezed into a spot at the bar and ordered a half of Bateman’s XXXB – it was my last order of the evening. They kept appearing in front of me magically thanks to these wonderful, generous people.
In addition to Guy Fawkes day and the pub owner’s birthday, it was also a night when Mik Mead played. Yes, Mik, the fellow I had chatted to the night before. He is one great entertainer. Funny, talented, and held the room completely. He was backed by another guitar player and Howling John Fell, an 82 year old, jamming with them on the harmonica.
The evening was fantastic. Mik played two Canadian tunes in my honor. I spent the evening with many wonderful people. That night at the Unicorn was a highlight of two weeks in the UK and it wouldn’t have happened without those awkward first moments.
This post about solo travel in Britain first appeared in Solo Traveler, the blog for those who love and those who long to travel alone. In addition to writing the blog, Janice Waugh is also author of a book about solo travel: The Solo Traveler’s Handbook: for those who love and those who long to go solo. Photos via Solo Traveler