Some people prefer a spontaneous backpacking holiday, booking accommodation as they go. But after a frightening misadventure in Edinburgh, Scotland, I always book ahead.

I had decided to backpack solo around Great Britain. One dream was to eat haggis and attend the famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which I did, and I have wonderful memories of haggis and chips in an old pub, then hiking up the Golden Mile towards Edinburgh Castle, with an emotional conclusion when the audience linked arms and sang “Auld Lang Syne”.

Returning late to my hostel, I found all the girls in a panic as every hostel in town and the surrounding area was booked out the next night because of the Edinburgh Festival.

After making some fruitless calls to hotels, I decided to get some sleep, do my coach tour next day (in search of Nessie) and then try again the following evening.

I had a glorious day travelling through the rolling green hills and seeing the lochs, although I was disappointed not to glimpse Nessie. I even bought some kilts at the Oban Woollen Mills.

Eventually, the moment of truth came: upon returning to Edinburgh, I could still find no accommodation.

The Edinburgh Festival was in full swing. Around 11pm, I located the police station and asked if they would oblige me with a bench or cell for the night. After an exchange of bemused looks, they drew a complex mud map and said I’d surely find a bed at the spot marked X. I wanderedthe dark streets, feeling rather frightened, until finding X.

I was promptly led into a multi-storey building by an unquestioning woman who took me up flights and flights of stairs. Doors opened and dishevelled old hags peered out. It was then that I realised I was in a home for fallen women. I was taken to the empty dormitory on the top floor and as the door closed, I hurriedly jammed the fire extinguisher under the handle. Even so, I woke up trembling a number of times during the night, as the door handle rattled very violently.

At the crack of dawn, I shouldered my backpack and crept downstairs in search of food. I found a mess hall in the basement (with the emphasis on “mess”). Old hags were sleeping atthe tables amongst the food scraps and flies.

I retreated and searched for the exit door, only to find it locked. So I quickly returned to themess hall and blurted out: “So how do you get out of this place?” 
“Oh, you’re allowed out, are you?” came the wide-eyed response.

I choked. The women noted my distress. They led me to the toilets and gave me a leg up to a window higher up in the wall. I forced the window ajar, stuffed my backpack through and then launched myself out.

Picking myself up, I grabbed my bag and ran for dear life, not daring to look back. The thought occurs to me that I could still be there now and no-one would ever find me.

Since that experience I plan my travel in detail and I always book rooms well in advance.

November 16th, 2008