Back in March the country entered an uncertain period, as the global scourge that is Coronavirus made its silent presence known across our island. We had been following the news from Wuhan Province for quite a while and I distinctly remember an expert confidently announce on the radio that the only risk was to those who had visited that particular region of China. In the same week there were stories of The Diamond Princess cruise ship being held off shore like one of the prison hulks so memorably described in the opening chapters of Great Expectations. The passengers and crew on board were gradually infecting each other until the reports of the first deaths made the news broadcasts. For a while The Diamond Princess held the unfortunate honour of having the second largest infection rate in the world. This was in February, a whole month before the British Prime Minister announced that severe restrictions would be placed on society.
Now, some four months later, the UK is gradually peeking out from behind its curtains as lockdown eases and some sense of normality returns to the country. Celebrations are rife as hairdressers’ floors disappear under layers of clipped locks, and restaurants are once again able to deferentially ask their customers if ‘everything is alright?’ albeit from a sensible and apparently safe distance. There are great debates as to the wisdom of letting the country loose when the virus is still at large, but that is not what this post is about: I want to record some of my perceptions of life as it has been, good and bad, and preserve my memories of lockdown before they get lost in ‘the new normal’, which I fear will closely resemble the old one.
This is the story of a small household in Oxfordshire: me, Liz and our two primary school-aged daughters.
My first memory of lockdown is the state of our hands. We are a pretty hygienic household anyway and we always wash our hands before and after meals, but government advice was to wash vigorously (whilst singing Happy Birthday twice through) at every opportunity so we all resolutely obeyed the edict and after just a week or so our hands were dried, cracked and ancient-looking. Strangely as the weeks and months have passed our skin has returned to its natural state even thought the strident washing regime continues.
In the shops the shelves quickly emptied of certain goods (toilet roll and dried pasta being the most sought after commodities). Panic buying became an art form and for a while the huge expanses of the supermarkets were almost empty of goods, as people stockpiled. In our modest way we cleared out a little cupboard in our hallway, purchased some metal shelving and created a new larder to expand the amount of storage available to us.
The shops responded quickly to the panic and introduced strict limits on how much of any particular product could be purchased and little by little the shelves began to fill again.
Each day we followed the news briefings and listened in horror as the first deaths were announced. Ever more restrictive guidelines were issued by the government and the realisation dawned that for the next few months both Liz’s and my work would cease leading to a complete cessation of our incomes (both being self employed). In this respect we were no different to millions of others throughout the country, and apart from the reality of the health tragedy that was quickly unfolding, the full horror of the economic disaster that was approaching became apparent as businesses shut their doors and events at local and national levels were cancelled. However elsewhere many thousands of horse racing fans congregated at the Cheltenham race course for the annual festival. Even as the country began to shut down so the little spa town on the edge of the Cotswolds became a breeding ground, Coronavirus spread silently through through the packed grandstands, around the parade ring, in the stables, through the car parks, and individuals carried it away ready to gradually unleash Covid 19 throughout a nervous nation.
In those early days of lockdown being outside was a strange experience for there was a sense that the very air we breathed was toxic, and yet the sky was blue, the clouds bright white and nature burgeoned all around.
The first perceptions of how life would be came upon us all gradually, the days took on a different rhythm and we all had to learn to be more tolerant and understanding with each other (not always successfully, it must be said).
We had been told to stay in our houses unless we had to shop, whilst periods of exercise were limited to one a day, and it was the wording of the latter precaution that gave so many people an essential escape clause, our family included.
Liz and I soon realised that being restricted to our small house for an indeterminate amount of time with two very active, confused and frustrated daughters was too horrific to even imagine, so we played the exercise card as often as we were able. The need to get out into the open was increased as Liz was working from home, teaching piano via her laptop, meaning that the house needed to have an element of quiet and professionalism about it.
At first I would drive out into the countryside to find a walk and there were two reasons for this: firstly, the drive out and back added extra time to the journey, meaning that Liz could teach without interruption for longer, and secondly it gave me the opportunity to discover some new areas of our region to walk in. Many of our itineraries featured different lengths of The Ridgeway path, an ancient trail traversing Oxfordshire atop a ridge of chalk hills. The path runs for almost 90 miles and is recognised as one of the oldest, if not the oldest, roads in Britain. The fact that The Ridgeway was cut high above the surrounding country meant that ancient travellers could always be on the look out for those of nefarious intent below them and that gives us our modern name for a road: the highway.
April and May saw a heatwave and day upon day of hot sunshine and warm weather made the countryside even more beautiful to be in, but there was more, for Mother Nature seemed to be revelling in the fact that the human race was being put on hold, that cars were not polluting the towns or planes the skies. Foliage was abundant and bright, whilst the blossom bubbled and frothed vividly against the blue of the skies which were unmarked by the vapour trails of aircraft. Birdsong seemed to be louder and wildlife seemed braver (on the television there were pictures of deer meandering through deserted town centres). Satellite images backed up our own observations, showing much less pollution over China allowing nature to reclaim her planet for a while.
Our days of exploring the wider countryside would soon end though, for the lockdown restrictions became ever tighter and it was decreed that exercise could only be taken from your own home and that driving to beauty spots would no longer be allowed.
So, we explored Abingdon and discovered some amazing walks on our very doorstep, the other great bonus of the restrictions being that we could cycle without fear of cars, vans or huge trucks threatening to crush us as they thundered past. The roads were almost deserted and when in the past we might have to wait for a while to cross, now we could just stroll as if we were walking in a park.
One walk to the pretty village of Sunningwell took us over a footbridge which crossed the usually busy A34 trunk road and we loved standing waiting for a lonely truck or car to flash by beneath us as we waved to the drivers, who usually waved back or flashed their lights and hooted their horns.
These days were the happiest of lockdown, with nature thriving and everyone being forced into a slower, more relaxed pace of life. We all had to learn a new way of living.
Neighbourhood Strolls and Art
Many of our local walks took us through residential streets that we had never really noticed before interconnected by hidden footpaths, or ‘twittens’ as we used to call them back in Kent when I was growing up. As we walked we loved admiring carefully tended gardens and the ever-increasing amount of children’s window art. I don’t quite know how it started or who first suggested it, but children across the country began to create rainbows to display in their windows as a symbol of hope. Some rainbows were simply printed and then coloured with pen or pencil, others were painted, yet more were a spectacular result of mixed-media projects. Some were large, others small, and a few had positive and uplifting message carefully written alongside. All of this meant that a neighbourhood stroll became a a trip to a gallery in which we could discuss and compare the artwork. In our own living room window the girls’ efforts were proudly displayed and the sheer pride and joy we felt when a young mother pushing a buggy stopped one day to tell us how much the pictures cheered her up and how she always admired our front garden can hardly be described.
The warmth of the feeling was so great that we started to do the same to others, praising gardens and art as we passed by and we relished the beams that resulted.
At Easter we decorated foam egg-shaped cut outs and hung them from the large and gnarled Rosemary bush that overhangs our front wall, and when the country celebrated the anniversary of Victory in Europe Day in May we made our own red, white and blue bunting which we hung proudly over the front of the house.
Other families did the same so that previously drab, anonymous estates became bright, fun and vibrant places to be. Through this shared artwork communities grew closer – another great positive consequence of the Coronavirus.
At home our artistic endeavours went further than creating displays for passers-by, as our craft box allowed us to create a series of pictures and models inspired by our good friends Martin and Nikki with whom we shared a weekly Zoom call in an attempt to broaden our attempts at the girls’ home schooling . Each week either Nikki or Martin would suggest a theme for the following session and we would all be required to come up with some work to show them – our eldest, who is eight years old, loved to do lots of reading and research and then present her findings, whilst all of us took to felt-tipped pens, coloured pencils and paints to create large murals on long rolls of paper. One week we did an under-sea vista and on another we went into outer space (I was particularly proud of my Saturn V rocket made out of loo rolls, with sheets of red and orange tissue paper issuing from the ‘engine’ as the mighty beast ‘cleared the tower’). We explored the world of Kings and Queens, fairy tales as well as Walt Disney (again, ridiculous amounts of pride for my painted representation of Scrooge McDuck). On the day appointed for our presentations we would gather in front of my laptop in great excitement and Nikki and Martin would watch, comment on our efforts and present their own offerings. For a little while each week what was happening in the big bad world was forgotten and became irrelevant.
A New Etiquette
Being forced to stay within the limits of our own towns to take our exercise meant that naturally there were more people walking on the pavements which created its own issues. By now we were being told that to prevent the spread of the virus we should all keep 2 meters apart from anyone outside our own household group, and so the phrase ‘social distancing’ entered our language and dominated it (as had ‘self isolation’ and ‘underlying health issues’ a few weeks earlier). As we walked we would keep a careful watch for others coming towards us and made sure that we were able to position ourselves so that we could pass with the requisite gap between us. It was interesting to observe how society coped with this and how different people reacted. We as a family tried to be positive and friendly, greeting everyone we met with a smile and a ‘good morning!’ If someone had paused to let us pass or gone out of their way to give us a clear way we thanked them, and being British we often exchanged pleasantries about the weather. But not all responded the same way, for some people walked with their eyes down and viewed all around them with suspicion, barely willing or able to converse, on the whole this was not born or rudeness, but of fear. Whilst our daily walks were an essential part of our mental and physical wellbeing, to others being in the open obviously felt an unnatural risk to be endured and ended as soon as possible. Very soon we learned to identify the sort of person who was approaching and could modify our own behaviour accordingly.
There was a third category too, next to the friendly and fearful, and that was those who insisted that regulation and order be maintained at all costs. I recall riding my bike along a pathway which was clearly marked with two lanes, one for cycles and one for pedestrians. It was a sunny day and quite a few people were out enjoying their exercise. Being a responsible and good citizen I was riding on the cycle side of the path but noticed ahead of me a lady stopping to smell some beautiful blossom on a tree which overhung my way, so I steered to pass by on the other side so as not to prevent her enjoying a moment which obviously meant a great deal to her. Now I was in the pedestrian lane and striding towards me were two more ladies, with water bottles in hand obviously out on a fitness walk, rather than an amble. What to do? I pulled as far into the side of the path as I could and stopped, leaving plenty of room so that they could pass by. Rather than thanking me, one of the ladies scowled ‘actually this lane is for pedestrians, THAT lane is for bicycles!’ and on they strode muttering to one another. Yes, technically they were correct, I was not in the proper lane, but the level of anger seemed disproportionate, especially as I’d only been trying to let a lady smell some blossom without being disturbed!
Keeping Fit and Healthy
As I touched on earlier, the need to be in the great outdoors was born not only of physical wellbeing but of the importance of good mental health too. Being cooped up inside a house for hours, days, weeks on end could and most like would result in depression and anger. Certainly during the long school days when Liz was teaching she noticed that her mental health was suffering as a result of being confined for long periods.
As restrictions were gradually eased and exercise away from your own neighbourhood was permitted once more so our countryside walks once more became a major part of our weekly routine and the girls (only 8 and 5, remember), amazed me by happily striding out on 6 mile hikes through the Oxfordshire countryside. I would pack a picnic full of treats into a rucksack and we would find a cool woodland glade somewhere to spread out our rug and relax before pushing on to the end. The huge expanses of scenery seemed to cosset and care for us as it welcomed us in. I know that we are extremely lucky to live in a part of the country where such expeditions are possible and I cannot imagine being stuck for four months in a tower block or estate with little or no access to outdoor space.
However it was not just those beautiful walks that kept me fit, for during lockdown I actually took up running. Running and I haven’t been happy bedfellows over the years, I have tried to take on an effective fitness regime a few times but always without success. As long ago as thirty five years ago my good school friend Chris tried to encourage me to join him in his then new hobby of running, but after a couple of aborted attempts I left him to it. Chris went on to run a number of London Marathons and still runs most days in his adopted homeland of New Zealand.
The fact is that I do not find running a pleasurable experience, I get no inherent joy from the action of pounding on a road, getting breathless and hot knowing that there is no relief from the sheer torture and monotony.
In March I started running again purely as a way of giving our 8 – year old some sort of routine in the mornings, at a time when she would usually be getting ready for a school day. We had noticed she became easily distracted and frustrated and as one of her best friends liked to run we thought that we would suggest it. She liked the idea and so we were committed. On my last half-hearted attempt at running a few years ago I had downloaded the ‘Couch to 5K’ app onto my phone so we thought that we would start from the very beginning and strictly follow that programme for as long as we could. The Couch to 5K system starts with very short simple runs – 1 minute running with 1.5 minutes of walking between: we could just about manage that! After a week we moved to level two which increased the length of the run to 2 minutes, but also allowed us an extra 30 seconds of ‘rest’. Again, we achieved that. Week three saw us remaining at 2 minutes but the walk was shortened. Week four was when we began to struggle: 2 and a half minutes of running within only thirty seconds to recover saw me panting and wheezing and my daughter starting to complain of stiches, sore ankles and blisters.
After a few mornings it became apparent that she had reached the end of her running journey and I was on my own once more. This time, however, I was determined not to give up and set myself the challenge of continuing for as long as I could, even if I didn’t reach my 5k goal, which seemed unlikely considering that would mean running for around 40 minutes without a break and I was currently struggling with 2 and a half!
But on I went. I have always been an early riser so I decided to run as soon as I woke, at around 5.15 and this is when I started to actually, dare I say it, enjoy myself. The air at that hour is cool and the streets and pathways deserted. I still struggled at times, but over a period of weeks I began to move onto more advanced levels until something extraordinary happened: I decided to run through my rest periods.
I assume there are learned articles and studies about fitness and the body which cover this phenomenon but my uneducated and uninformed mind came to a conclusion: it seemed to me as if there were a moment when the excess body fat and weight burned off and the newfound muscle tone and stamina took over, like a tipping set of scales.
And from finding it difficult to run for three minutes I was suddenly running for twenty, then twenty five, then twenty eight minutes at a time. I have definitely lost weight, I have definitely become fitter as a result and I feel a great deal of pride for pushing on and continuing with something that isn’t completely natural to me.
On the morning of 18th July, 2020, I ran for 34 minutes and for the very first time achieved my 5K goal!
Confined to our house we, like most of the country, searched for new virtual friends to help us pass the time and they presented themselves to us via different forums. Firstly we joined in with the national TV phenomenon that was Joe Wicks’ ‘PE With Joe’. For those of you who don’t know, Joe had built an incredibly strong fitness brand based on workout programmes released on his YouTube channel, but as lockdown confined entire families to their front rooms so he began to run a 20 minute workout each morning for everyone to join in with. The exercises were simple and Wicks’ energetic and engaging repartee engaged the whole family as we looked for which ornaments had changed place in his rather stylish and expensive living room. We all togged up in our ‘fitness gear’ after breakfast and followed Joe for a few weeks, which was a really fun and valuable bonding time, but our youngest struggled with focus and attention after a while and we quietly bade farewell to Joe.
The girls’ school were superb at sending all sorts of resources to parents so that all of the children had plenty to occupy them – this wasn’t necessarily a pre-planned curriculum of lessons to be strictly adhered to, but a series of suggested activities. Our 5 year old is in the Reception class and one of the links that her teacher sent was to a singer called Nick Cope who was broadcasting regular mini concerts from his front room. Cope used to be the lead singer of a band called The Candyskins who had success at the beginning of the Britpop era of the early 1990s. These days Nick has made a brilliant career of writing and singing a series of gentle and witty songs for children and had actually visited the school to perform for the younger year groups. Soon we were all becoming familiar with his repertoire and downloaded his albums to play in the car on longer journeys (each time a new song came on our daughter would shout out ‘he did this one at school, its my FAVOURITE!’ In which case it must have been a VERY long concert!)
One particular favourite number was ‘A Round of Applause for the Dinosaurs’ part of the refrain of which goes: ‘Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus and T-Rex, not forgetting Diplodocus with his long neck!’ and on one of our neighbourhood walks we would pass a house where models of those particular species were displayed on an upstairs windowsill: fellow fans we guessed, and we would walk down the street singing the song out loud!
Jimmy Carr and Richard Osman
On a more adult level for Liz and me the passing of the early days of lockdown were marked by a daily quiz hosted by comedian Jimmy Carr, which he called ‘The Little Tiny Quiz of the Lockdown’ The format was simple, ten trivia questions, answers broadcast a short while later. No prizes, no competition, just a little mental stimulation after the children were in bed which became an almost essential marking of the passing of another day. The quizes ran for about 5 or 6 weeks until presumably Jimmy Carr ran out of trivia, but during those early days they a real feature of our days.
The quiz theme was then taken up by TV producer and host of the ‘Pointless’ TV series Richard Osman, who as a way of promoting his first novel ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ wrote a weekly newsletter (published appropriately on a Thursday) to his very many fans which included a quiz. Each week all of the answers began with the same letter of the alphabet and at the time of writing we have reached the letter R. As with Carr’s daily quiz the arrival of ‘Osman night’ marked the passing of another week and gave a sense of routine and stability to a fluid and uncertain reality.
Moving Out Of Lockdown
Although Coronavirus is still present in our society and a vaccine has yet to be officially distributed, the more stringent lockdown regulations have now been lifted and a sense of normality is returning to our towns and cities. Shops are opening, although the wearing of facemasks (which we have done since the start anyway) is now mandatory. Hair salons are doing a roaring trade, as are pubs and restaurants with careful policies in place.
As far as we are concerned there is really no change in that ‘normality’ coincided with the start of the school holidays meaning that we would all have been at home anyway. Our days will still be filled with walks, cycle rides and art projects, but hopefully we can actually meet up with friends for picnics etc, as well as visiting playparks.
The roads are busier now and we have to wait for much longer periods to cross. Cycling is more stressful too, but we still get out on our bikes when we can. Standing on the footbridge over the A34 the traffic thunders along and drivers are in too much of a rush to notice a family waving to them.
Slowly ‘normal’ life is returning and some of those precious moments are being lost.
In writing these words I do not set out to pretend that our life through the last four months has been perfect and wonderful: it definitely has not been and there have been plenty of days when we have all become increasingly impatient and angry with each other leading to tantrums on all sides which probably have made our neighbours wince.
In writing this blog post I simply wanted to preserve some of those little memories that may otherwise get swept away in the course of time.