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20 pledges for 2020: How going flight-free has introduced me to the spontaneous daytrip

20 pledges for 2020: How going flight-free has introduced me to the spontaneous daytrip

“I went home, and I said, ‘The thing is, Joe, we never do fly off to Rome on a moment’s notice.’”

“And the kitchen floor?”

“Not once. It’s this very cold, hard Mexican ceramic tile.”

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I often think of this out-of-context quote from When Harry met Sally when considering my life in London. 

In the film, Meg Ryan is bemoaning that the reasons she and her ex had for not getting married or having children – so they’d keep the freedom to “have sex on the kitchen floor and not worry about the kids walking in” and “fly off to Rome on a moment’s notice” – didn’t stack up. In reality, they never used their much-vaunted liberty to indulge in such spontaneous activities.

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I think about it because, although I live in one of the most dynamic and well-connected cities on the planet, 90 per cent of my free time is spent within 10 minutes of my flat. I find it a wrench to leave my post code, let alone the capital.

And although being a travel journalist has taken me all over the world, these trips have all been planned to within an inch of their lives long before they’re undertaken. Somewhere along the line, spontaneity dropped by the wayside. But going flight-free is pushing me to rediscover the joys of last-minute travel, if only to have something to write about – after all, giving up flying isn’t much of a challenge if you don’t actually go anywhere. 

So, suitably panicked that I hadn’t strayed from N1 since the start of the year, I decided I was going to take a daytrip. Nothing fancy, no need for an overnight stay – just eight hours somewhere new, just for me. Destination-wise, I had but three stipulations: it had to be within two hours of London by train; it had to be somewhere I’d never been before; and, most importantly, it had to be gentle on the wallet (pay day was still a distant dream). 

Stratford-Upon-Avon, Derby, Winchester: picking places at random and typing them into the National Rail website shouldn’t constitute a wildly exciting evening, but heck, it was. I could go anywhere. ANYWHERE. The freedom was mildly intoxicating.

Cut to Saturday morning and I found myself striding headlong into a gale along a stretch of pale mustard sand, nodding stoically at other brave souls who had made the same incomprehensible decision to take a trip to the British seaside in midwinter. The sky was overcast, the churning sea a dull, milky teal and the wind – if I was being kind, I’d describe it as “bracing”. Oh, but it was glorious.  

I’d settled on Margate in the end, beguiled by the Kent coastal town’s stratospheric rise to trendiness in recent years and “Shoreditch-on-Sea” nickname. A return ticket had clocked in at a reasonable £26 when bought a couple of days in advance (admittedly, if I’d been truly spontaneous and booked for same-day travel it would have cost more than double – such is the crappy nature of British rail pricing). In a terrific stroke of luck, I’d also managed to coincide my trip with the closing weekend of the Turner Prize at the Turner Contemporary gallery.

Simply delicious seafood at Dory’s (Helen Coffey)

Well, I don’t wish to gush, but Margate turned out to surpass all my expectations. The compact Old Town was full of prettily painted independent shops and galleries just begging to be browsed. There were cute cafes, historic pubs and striking old buildings at every turn. Ducking into the Margate Museum to see its temporary exhibition on what the town would have been like in J. M. W. Turner’s day (the artist spent large stints of his life here), I got the kind of added bonus you only ever find in small museums run by local volunteers: an entire wall display proudly dedicated to Margate’s only murderer of note, who committed matricide in the 1920s. I see you Sydney Harry Fox.

The whole town is probably hellish in summer, heaving with sun-seekers from the city, but in winter it all strikes the perfect balance between lively and laid-back.

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Oscar Murillo’s Turner Prize-winning piece (Helen Coffey)

I lingered over an exquisite lunch of smoked prawns with charred broccoli at elegant beachfront seafood bar Dory’s; listened to Turner Prize-winning artist Helen Cammock do a live spoken-word performance, her achingly haunting voice undulating between song and poetry; and explored all four winning pieces displayed at the gallery, roaming from Oscar Murillo’s church of human effigies to Tai Shani’s hedonistic pink and jade feminist utopia, from Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s stirring soundscape to Cammock’s film documenting the unsung but vital role of women in Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement. You could spend hours there, and I did.

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Not quite ready to take my leave, I took myself instead to stripped-back microbrewery Xylo, where I devoured Ian McKellan’s 20-year-old blog posts, written back when he was filming Lord of the Rings, over a pint of local cider. The place was packed and cheerful; though I was alone, I didn’t feel lonely. 

None of this was dramatic. None of it was newsworthy. All of it was wonderful.

It may not have been “Rome at a moment’s notice” – or sex on the kitchen floor, for that matter – but it was just as joyfully, decadently spontaneous.

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