People are looking at me a little strangely as I run along the seafront. They take a glance at my face and avert their gaze, distinctly uncomfortable. After a few more paces, I take stock and wonder if it’s because – without quite being conscious of the fact – I have been staring at each person I pass full in the face while beaming from ear to ear. I suppose, on reflection, it is a little alarming to see a thirty-something stranger, red as a beetroot, gurning sweatily while looking deep into your eyes.
The thing is… I can’t help myself. I am experiencing such paroxysms of delight that they physically cannot be contained. Every time I try to rein it in, within a few paces the creepy grin is back – somehow even wider than before. I’m jogging along Hastings boardwalk as the sun sets, flying on a potent cocktail of endorphins and the kind of awe that can only be conjured by a sky turned flamingo, reflected in mirror-like splendour by the sea. Do I sound like I’m gushing? Well, I am. It is nigh-on impossible to believe that 48 hours ago I was trapped in a grey ball of misery in a London basement flat – trying not to inhale the damp-imbued air too deeply lest my lungs start growing black mould.
The post-Christmas come-down, coupled with (for this office worker) an indefinite shift back to working from home, had plunged me headfirst into a case of January blues so strong I couldn’t figure out how to snap out of it. It wasn’t just that I felt flat – it extended into my work, making it hard to muster the energy or interest to do even the best bits of the job: editing a beautifully written feature by one of my favourite writers, say, or cracking out a strident opinion piece of my own on the latest travel testing rules. It felt on the cusp of anhedonia – the inability to take pleasure in anything – an experience so at odds with my usual gluttonous appetite for life that I was utterly flummoxed by it.
But it suddenly occurred to me that the very thing that had sparked struggles – the return to WFH – could also be the fix. We were back to a spot we’d been in at various points during the seemingly endless pandemic cycle. Working remotely could either be seen as a prison cell or a get-out-of-jail-free card, releasing us from the shackles of the office. I used my last vestige of spontaneous energy to put a plea out on social media – suggestions for a seaside location to escape to, no more than two hours by train from the capital – and watched the beautiful crowd-sourced answers flood in. Thirty minutes later I had booked five days on the East Sussex coast in a cheap but cute Airbnb apartment, 10 minutes’ stroll from town and beach, along with train tickets. These steps alone gave the rest of the day an added buoyancy – I positively floated through the afternoon’s tasks.
At 4.34pm sharp on Monday I was on the train to the seaside; at 6.07pm I was stepping onto the platform at Hastings; by 6.30pm I was turning the key in my holiday home/office for the week – having stopped off at Sainsbury’s Local for essentials (milk, coffee and, of course, a spendy bottle of wine). Having shared digs with a charming but slightly chaotically artistic gay couple for 10 months, I can’t tell you the joy that filled my heart as I looked around to find no washing up filled sink, no half-finished embroidery project, no assortment of clay works fresh from the kiln, no experimental vegan pizza dough in mid-formation… it was clean, clutter-free and comfortable, and that alone was worth shelling out for.
I slept long and deep before waking at 7am, ready to head down for a sunrise swim. Yes, in January. As I stumbled down the pebble beach, the only swimmer – in fact, only person – in sight, I wondered if I was, perhaps, slightly unhinged. But five minutes later, merrily paddling around like an excitable puppy, body alive and tingling as the emerging sun clipped churning waves, I felt the near-limitless capacity for joy that I normally take for granted rush back into my system, all at once, like the tide.
Fizzing with energy for the day’s work ahead, I set myself up at the dining table, positioned just so to ensure I could see the sea at any given moment, and ticked tasks off my to-do list with a sense of giddy accomplishment.
Having harvested recommendations from a colleague who lives in town, I leant into the “cation” half of the “workation” concept – which, in my case, meant spending a lot of time planning where to eat. I took myself for several decadent dinners: first to Boatyard in trendy food hall collective Heist – white anchovies swimming in lemon and smoked paprika and cockle shrimp “popcorn” amply soaked up a glass of non-house wine, the biggest luxury I know.
I was so impressed with it that I immediately booked a table at its sister restaurant, Farmyard, over in St Leonard’s for the following night. This was the real show-stopper: soft lighting, Nina Simone crooning over the sound system, and a dish of salt-baked celeriac, just-melting blue cheese and hazelnuts that I lingered over for a good 40 minutes just to prolong the experience. It was the kind of place where being a solo traveller feels like an asset rather than an inconvenience – I sat at the window, cosseted in the warm glow of good food and ambience, while shamelessly eavesdropping and people-watching.
There were several more lunchtime swims, where I squinted into a glorious January sun that turned the waves into a photo in negative, all piercing white tipped with blue, and stayed in until my fingers were numb; there was an impromptu pint (OK, several) at the Jolly Fisherman, an unassumingly adorable inn stacked with a staggering selection of local brews.
And then there was that euphoric sunset jog, after downing tools at 4pm on the dot to grab the last of the light. The sky put on its primetime show – peach became tangerine, became amber, became flamingo, dragging the navy of night behind it and reminding me that this world isn’t always so terrible after all.
January blues? What January blues?