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It’s the lack of noise that gets you. After only a matter of days, you can’t hear a thing apart from your own thoughts. And your own thoughts soon get pretty boring: “What shall I have for lunch?”, “What shall I have for supper?”, “Is it time for a drink yet?” and so on.
Human beings are social creatures, not designed to be segregated for long stretches of time. But last autumn I rented a cottage in North Yorkshire for two months to finish writing my new novel.
The deadline was looming, London was full of distractions, I needed to go somewhere to concentrate, alone. After I posted a Facebook plea, an old friend popped up and offered his parents’ place on the edge of the North York Moors. “Not much phone reception,” he warned. “Splendid,” I replied, and put a black line through two months in my calendar, blocking out everything else.
I took myself off Twitter and Instagram to minimise distractions and arrived at the cottage late one evening in October, excited and optimistic.
It was perfect: a small attic bedroom, a sitting room with a fireplace and a kitchen with a table that faced the hills outside. I slept soundly that night and woke early the next day.
A morning writer, I cracked on from behind my laptop, bashing out words as I drank my coffee. “This is easy,” I thought. “Look out, Barbara Cartland, this book’s going to be nailed in record time.”
The initial enthusiasm of finding oneself alone is, I suspect now, a reaction to the lives that many of us live, surrounded by people. People you know, as in family, or people you don’t know but have to spend more time than you’d like to every day pressed up against on your commute.
The editor of Empire magazine, Terri White, tweeted earlier this month about going on holiday by herself. “I’ve solo holidayed for years but it’s never thrown people quite so much as now I’m not single. CHOICE, NOT CIRCUMSTANCES,” she wrote.
Dozens of people, mostly women, replied to say that they loved going away by themselves too, for some “quality time”.
I agree: particularly with the idea that people can think you odd if you choose to separate yourself from your loved ones for a spell.
But that first day in Yorkshire, I hit my allotted word count within a couple of hours and set off happily for a long walk across the moors. I remember gurgling aloud with laughter as I started on the footpath, not another soul in sight. I was high on the solitude.
It didn’t take long for this mood to slightly shift. My routine remained the same (get up early, write, go for walk, return to cottage, have bath and early night, repeat), but after a week or so, when I’d finished writing and was preparing for my walk, solemnly wrapping a cheese sandwich in cling film for the journey, I’d feel a pang of sorrow for this solitary character I’d become.
I started listening to podcasts and David Sedaris audiobooks on my walks, purely to hear other human voices. I’d speak to my mum or boyfriend on the phone most evenings, too.
But the lack of interaction during the days started to get me down. A sense of loneliness would kick in at around 2pm, when I’d already spent half of the day by myself and there was still the rest of the day to get through.
My brain became gloomy and demanding. Why didn’t I get up even earlier? Why didn’t I write more/better words? That sentence is pathetic! Why didn’t I go to law school and get a proper qualification?
The critical voice that many of us have between our ears can become quite deafening if there’s nothing to drown it out.
There’s science behind these depressions. Scientists have proved that loneliness can raise levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Our blood pressure rises accordingly, which affects sleep patterns and one’s ability to reason.
Supposedly, isolation triggers an extreme immune response, which some say is a hangover from the days when we crawled about in caves, and being separated from the group would have been risky.
Clearly, my time in a Yorkshire cottage wasn’t that perilous, nor does the experience make me George Orwell, who ensconced himself on a Hebridean island to write Nineteen Eighty-Four for months at a time between 1946 and 1948. That must have been bleak indeed.
I saw people when I went to buy milk and eggs in the nearest town; I walked up to the local pub a couple of times, surprising a farmer who told me I was the first person he’d ever seen in a Yorkshire pub with a laptop. (I’m not sure it was a compliment.)
But it still felt pretty remote to me. It wasn’t just the lack of noise that shook me; I realised after the first couple of weeks, it was also the absence of human touch.
If you’re single and live on your own, you still might see a friend from time to time; give someone a hug in greeting, or even just a handshake. But I didn’t touch another human being for weeks. That was strange.
And yet… I wouldn’t take it back, not for a second. My weeks up north meant I finished my novel. They allowed me to experience a wildly different, rural life where often the first thing I’d say each day was a cheery “Hello girls!” to the sheep as they scattered in the heather.
I went to bed when I wanted. I got up when I wanted. I ate what I wanted, whenever I wanted.
I thought longer and deeper about life, relationships and work than I ever could have done during snatched moments on the bus in London. When I returned home I broke up with my boyfriend, which was grim, and made me properly sad. But the time apart had given me space to work out that this was the right decision, however hard it felt.
Most of us live such regimented lives – get up, take the kids to school, go to work, have dinner with friends on Saturday night, take the kids to play dates, try to find five minutes to read a book or watch that TV show everyone’s talking about – that an empty timetable may freak you out at first.
Imagine a stretch of weeks with literally nothing it in. It can be daunting. I thought it was heaven to begin with, had several days when it felt like hell, but finished my time in Yorkshire grateful that I’d had the opportunity. The lows were pretty low, but the highs? They made it all worthwhile.
Which is why I’m doing it again – to write my next book, albeit slightly closer to home, so that I can jump in the car and drive back to London if I need to. I’ve found a place by the sea in Norfolk and am off there for three months from the start of September.
I’m taking stacks of books – you also need plenty of diversions like Netflix series in the evenings.
If you’re planning a solo expedition or holiday, I’d also recommend loading up on podcasts and taking a haul of comfort food with you. If you’re going to be on your own, the least you can do is indulge.
I tend not to drink on self-imposed retreats since it makes me morose, so most evenings I go mad and have a non-alcoholic Seedlip and tonic instead.
There’ll be lots of exercise – a walk, a run, a yoga video on YouTube, to stop the brain getting too bogged down in thought. There’ll be plenty of sleep and endless cups of tea.
Already, just thinking about it, I can’t wait to get back to solitude. I’m sure there’ll be the odd time when I feel mad, sad and cut off from real life. But it’s Norfolk, not the moon. They’re pretty normal there, right?
What Happens Now? by Sophia Money-Coutts is published by HQ, £12.99 and is available from books.telegraph.co.uk