My exhausting, anxious and liberating quest to make new friends

Helen Coffey (far left) with her new friends in Folkestone (Helen Coffey)
Helen Coffey (far left) with her new friends in Folkestone (Helen Coffey)

Um, I know this is a bit forward but… Can I have your number?” The question shimmers awkwardly in the air for a moment. It feels like an eternity. If it had a colour, it would be the hot pink of the embarrassed blush creeping up my cheeks. If it had a sound, it would be the slow, toe-curling “parrrrrrrpppp” of a fart reverberating around a silent room.

When was the last time I asked for a stranger’s number? Ten years ago? More? Having read at a formative age the toxic dating manual The Rules and religiously accepted its mantra that women must forever be the pursued and never the pursuers, I don’t think I’ve ever asked a man for his digits. But this isn’t a man I’m asking, nor any kind of prospective romantic partner. It is, instead, a nice woman called Rachel who I’ve earmarked as potential friend material after a 15-minute – slightly tipsy – conversation in a dim-lit bar.

Knackered after a full-on work week and wanting nothing more than to slope under a blanket to watch Real Housewives while moving a spoon methodically between a tub of ice cream and my own face, I nevertheless dragged myself out. For there is a Nineties-inspired feminist punk night being hosted in a bar in my new home town, and this can only mean one thing: there will be women there. Potentially cool women. Potentially cool women I could trick into being my pals…

This is how one must operate as a grown adult on the hunt for friends in a new place. The old adage of “you never meet anyone sitting at home” – beloved of mothers the world over – may be more often applied to dating, but is equally true when it comes to friendship. A group of new mates is not going to magically appear in my living room chorusing, “We’d love to watch trash TV with you, Helen! And we brought our own spoons!”. However hard I might try to manifest it.

And so it is that every night I hear of something happening locally – a music-themed pub quiz, a group 5km run or, yes, a Nineties-inspired feminist punk night – I concealer over my eye bags, put on my happiest of happy faces, and force myself out of the front door.

I moved to Folkestone in east Kent six months ago, having spent four years yearning to live by the sea, something further compounded by pandemic lockdowns in a one-bedroom London flat with no outside space. It was such a long-held dream, and one that was so difficult to realise when trying to buy in a super-charged housing market, that I never really believed it would happen.

Unlike any London party I’ve ever thrown, nearly every person not only said they would come to my first Folkestone birthday, but actually did

But then it did – and last September I finally moved into a Victorian terrace that was more of a fixer-upper than I had envisaged but was nevertheless mine. I hadn’t really put much thought into the next challenge: how do you make a life for yourself in a new town where you know no one?

Many people asked me why I had decided on Folkestone. Did I have family connections? Friends there? Was it a magical source of nostalgic memories from childhood holidays? On all counts the answer was no. Like many adults, I suspect, I came to a point where I had to choose where I wanted to build my life. I knew it wouldn’t be London; aside from soaring accommodation prices, I’d never considered myself a city person, despite enduring the capital for 13 years. My home town of Hemel Hempstead on the Hertfordshire commuter belt had never appealed.

I knew I loved the sea, though, so I started looking for coastal towns that were easily accessible from London, offered some kind of creative life and opportunity to build community, and where you could get a decent meal out when occasion demanded. I’d visited Folkestone for one day in 2018 and immediately knew: this was The One. This was where I was going to consciously choose to root myself.

Previous connections had nothing to do with it – an issue that only raised its head once the moving van had departed and I realised I was now, officially, on my own. In fact, I did know one person. By pure coincidence, when I was spending every weekend at house viewings, I discovered a colleague was doing the same. In this regard I was incredibly lucky – she was far better connected than me, and was generous enough to add me to a WhatsApp group made up of lots of local women. This was step one: my first concrete “lead” to pursue.

Helen and friends at a Folkestone party (Helen Coffey)
Helen and friends at a Folkestone party (Helen Coffey)

What followed was an approximation of Danny Wallace’s memoir turned movie Yes Man, in which he decides to say “yes” to whatever comes his way to see if it can shake him from his apathetic malaise. I said yes to every single social offering I could – and it worked. Saying yes to that music quiz led me to meet Esmee and Steph – both wonderful – who in turn introduced me to Josie and Rich, Liz and JV, Karl and Alex. Going to the feminist punk night introduced me to not just the aforementioned Rachel – who, not being a sociopath, of course generously gave me her number – but also Rosie, through whom I met Katie (and, just as importantly, her adorable dog Kenny).

I joined more WhatsApp groups. I started some of my own. After a writer I knew said he had a couple of Folkestone contacts, I emailed them, persistently, until a drink was finally arranged. In the first week of January, I messaged my shiny new acquaintances telling them my New Year’s Resolution: to proactively spend more time with the people I liked. “So are you free in the next few weeks for dinner/drinks/coffee?”. I’ve never worked so hard to cultivate relationships in my life.

Here’s what I discovered – yes, it can be exhausting. Yes, it requires a relentless doggedness in the initial stages that you’re often not in the mood for. Yes, it demands that you make yourself vulnerable, opening yourself up to potential rejection in a way I have previously only ever associated with dating. And yet it has been one of the most rewarding, joyful, liberating periods of my life. Very quickly, I found the effort I was putting in was paid back tenfold.

Having just had a devastating break-up and feeling listless and planless, I was surprised and delighted to be invited to join some Folkestone friends for New Year’s Eve. Looking down the barrel of Valentine’s Day alone, I was filled with gratitude when some new and equally single mates organised a gorgeous dinner, all comfort food, prosecco and candles. The hostess had even bought us roses.

Helen (far right) with friends at a beach sauna on a rainy day in Folkestone (Helen Coffey)
Helen (far right) with friends at a beach sauna on a rainy day in Folkestone (Helen Coffey)

Then came the pinnacle – my birthday, falling almost exactly six months after I’d first moved to town. At this stage in the game, it’s easy to let birthdays pass you by – easy to talk yourself out of celebrating thanks to the small, wheedling voice in your head that says: “No one will come, anyway.” This time though, I didn’t listen. I decided I would do a proper Thing, dinner and drinks, and invite all of the glorious new people in my life.

Unlike any London party I’ve ever thrown, nearly every person not only said they would come, but actually did. I looked around that night, in my new beloved local The Beer Shop, to see 13 faces looking back. Thirteen people who’d been total strangers not six months before, who’d brought cards and flowers and told me they were glad to have met me and meant it.

My best advice for moving somewhere new and starting again? Swallow your pride. Make an effort. Turn off the telly, put down the ice cream and say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. And platonically chat up cool women at Nineties-inspired feminist punk nights – trust me, you won’t regret it.