It’s now two months since I last wrote a Lockdown Diary post, or any blog post at all for that matter. I think I needed a break from it and I’ve barely been touching social media at all. The months since lockdown was announced in March have been intense and it’s been good to take a breather from a few things. However, I think it’s time to return and I thought I would start with a reflection on my experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, so far. I’m sure there’s nothing particularly revelatory in the paragraphs below, but its a longhand full stop to a specific set of posts I needed to write at the time.
Like many people I expect, when news came over the winter of a new virus in China, I paid little attention to it. Previous viruses originating in the Far East over the last few decades have come and gone with little impact on the UK and I assumed this one would be the same. This wasn’t to be and as it increasingly spread and started to build in strength in some of our neighbouring European counties, alarm grew here. I felt reassured, however, by the sounds coming out from the Government that as a country we were prepared and we might not suffer as Italy, France and Spain had done. Despite my horror at the same administration’s handling of many other matters, I had hope that this country could be different. However, this was extremely naive; we were simply at an earlier part of the curve, some weeks behind those other nations, and the Government was complacent and unprepared to make the right decisions and implement them at the right time.
In mid-March, like many, I was still going to work, travelling into Manchester or Birmingham several days a week, and I spent a weekend staying with my girlfriend in Kew. On the following Monday morning I went to work as usual but on arrival didn’t feel quite right. I thought I might just have walked the mile between the station and office too fast but after about 30 minutes I packed up my laptop and headed home, still not feeling good. I started social isolation as soon as I got home but continued to work. It wasn’t until the Wednesday morning that, during a video-conference, I finally decided to stop working and I didn’t open my laptop again until the Friday. My symptoms weren’t bad; a seasonal flu in 2016 was far worse. I mainly felt groggy, with a sore throat and a raised temperature from time to time. The most clear symptom, however, was a tight chest and I was breathless each time I walked up the stairs. By the Sunday the symptoms had gone and after the seven days I came out of social isolation on the Monday morning.
Coming out of isolation, I headed to local shops to get some provisions for my parents (social distancing, of course) before driving down, non-stop, to my girlfriend’s flat. Sarah had suffered worse symptoms than me but we both got off pretty lightly. However, it took more weeks for us both to recover; we were extremely tired and quite weak. When I eventually went for a run, about two and a half weeks after becoming ill, my breathing was terrible and painful. However, exercise slowly got easier and strength came back and we’re now physically both back to normal.
The evening I arrived at Sarah’s flat, the Prime Minister made a television address to announce lockdown and I was therefore to stay for the duration. My journey down to Kew was a calculated decision, travel down and risk being locked down away from home but with Sarah, or stay at home and risk being apart and alone for weeks. There was really no contest in the decision. Being alone during the Lockdown must have been awful and I know that I certainly would not have coped as much as I have done. The bonus from this is that Sarah and I have been living together for the best part of six months and it couldn’t have gone better, despite the added pressures of being in the biggest national crisis since the Second World War.
I found the first week of lockdown especially stressful. The combination of anxieties over the virus, food availability, family and friends, restrictions on life, being away from home familiarity, as well as day-to-day work pressure, was a powerful mix. By the end of the week, however, I’d settled in and over the following weeks the pressure reduced somewhat. The anxieties didn’t go away but I got used to them and found ways to cope. There were bad days and good days, bad weeks and good weeks. For some reason, the seventh week was particularly bad; something I know others felt at the time too.
Getting into a routine helped enormously with managing, particularly with work, which often took a front seat during the week. The routine seemed to make the time fly and the weeks went past at a crazy speed. This also meant that days and weeks merged into one another and it was difficult to keep track of time. Working at home meant that it became increasingly difficult, particularly at the height of lockdown, to make the distinction between work and home life. We tried to be disciplined in keeping work hours and home hours separate and not looking at work once the day had finished. As I was working in the bedroom, I made sure that each day I cleared away to another room all work-related gear so that the night would not be invaded by signs of work. We also nearly always exercised immediately after closing down our laptops for the day, making a physical as well as mental break from work; we got so used to doing so that it could be quite unsettling not to. After many weeks of working from home, I have little desire to go back to the office. I’ve been more efficient and worked harder with less ongoing disturbance and the IT is good enough that I can talk to colleagues as well as I can in the office much of the time. However, I have missed the face-to-face interaction and it still remains a struggle sometimes to switch off; the commute does create a time-barrier between work and home without which there is more merging of the two.
Anyone who reads my blogs will know I love the countryside and outdoors and the prospect of being locked down, and locked down in a city in particular, goes against my basic nature (as I’m sure it does for most). Despite having loved being a student in Birmingham for four years and subsequently having worked in Manchester for over 20 years, cities are not my natural habitat and I like to spend as little time in them as possible. However, Kew is not central London and I have found that, whilst it’s not exactly rural, we are surrounded by wildlife and a lot of green space. This has enabled nature to become a key coping mechanism and I’ve learned to value it more than ever. After spending so much time in nature last year, not least through spending three months volunteering on RSPB Ramsey Island, I had become a bit jaded and unmotivated in my nature interests but the boost it has given me over the last few months has made me even more determined to make a difference. Quite what that I’m going to do next with this I don’t yet know; some big changes in my life are continuing and I perhaps need to focus on those first and then see what I can do when we’ve settled a bit.
That boost from nature has come from many different directions. Firstly, the slowing of human activity enabled nature to come more to the fore. The disappearance of both traffic from the road and very frequent low-fly planes overhead brought a peace to Kew that it probably hasn’t known in many decades. What had been constant intrusions from city life diminished for a period to the extent that even light traffic became unusual and passing planes became a novelty. This allowed the bird calls to rise above manmade sounds and I could frequently sit at my desk listening to chiffchaffs, blackcaps and green woodpeckers. Then, later, came the swifts; for me the bringers of summer. They arrived in small numbers at first but eventually I could see a dozen or more chasing around the rooftops while I was on video calls (with the camera turned off!).
The weather also brought nature into our lives and what weather we have had. After months of, frankly awful weather, which seemed to start last August, as soon as Lockdown started the sun came out and the temperatures rose. I can’t recall a period of such consistently good weather, ever, from so early in the year. Starting in March the weather, with a few short and minor exceptions, has been fabulous, all up until I left Kew after 15 weeks to head home for the first time since this all began. Some might complain; the weather is awful for months on end and as soon as we can’t get out, it turns nice. To the contrary, I think it is one of the best things that could have happened to get us through all this. If the weather had continued to be awful, it would have made it so much harder to cope with. The single sessions of exercise a day enabled springtime walks or runs where the warmth of the sun could be felt on the skin, getting some vital Vitamin D and getting more fresh air into us (now even fresher without all the traffic).
Then there were the gardens, trees and plants all around us. With the Botanic Gardens across the road closed to the public and no garden of our own, we had to walk the streets and Thames Path for our hit of greenery. As Lockdown was announced there were still no leaves on the trees but the signs of spring were very strongly there. First were the daffodils, which were just finishing when I arrived in Kew and then came the great displays of cherry blossom on many of the streets. Once the blossom had fallen confetti-like to the pavements, the wisterias flowered on many of the houses, with particularly lovely displays on the grand buildings of Kew Green and adjoining streets. We then had the gradual breaking out of the leaves in sequence on all the different species of street trees, followed by further blooming of the horse chestnuts and elders. With such a limited view of scenery from the flat and along our limited choice of walking routes, the transition of different flowers and leaves became very noticeable and provided one way of marking the rapid passing of time.
Back to the fauna, I’m utterly surprised by the number of birds I’ve seen or heard over the course of Lockdown. In total, I recorded 71 species of birds in London, which, amazingly, is two more than the 69 I recorded in my three months on Ramsey Island last year. The range of habitats helped, with a mixture of gardens and woodland, parkland, lakes, tidal river and, yes, cityscape. There were some great species amongst them too including great crested grebe, peregrine, hobby, common tern, nightingale and, of course, the ever noisy ring-necked parakeet. We were also kept company by some regular visitors to our balcony with a crow, woodpigeon and magpie making the best of the seed and fat balls put out for them. Crow, as he was affectionately known, had a brood of chicks not far over the wall into the Botanic Gardens and would come often to pick up food. It took us a while to work out who was taking big chunks out of the fat balls but eventually we saw Crow swinging upside-down jabbing at them to break pieces off. It seemed that we weren’t the only ones feeding him as at least two other flats in our block put out food for him and we saw him coming back from other houses with food in his bill.
The mammals played a supporting role too, with foxes often seen and heard in the streets at night and even in broad daylight at times. We also saw them as we looked through the cast iron gates of the Botanic Gardens before it reopened; a mother being energetically followed by a well-grown cub. Once we were allowed back in, we also saw one in the wild area just before we left late one afternoon; it stood and watched us watching it and then trotted off into the undergrowth. With the relaxation of some parts of Lockdown, we drove the short distance to Richmond Park and added red and fallow deer to our list, and there was the occasional rabbit and squirrel too.
The lockdown walks were a lifeline, in getting exercise and being closer to nature. Walking around the streets of Kew is very pleasant with the large houses and well kept gardens but it is all rather urban. However, the Thames Path made a real difference. Being close to water gave a different sense of place and more in touch with wildness. The Thames is tidal around Kew and seeing the water rise to wash over the path was a real sign that no matter how urban the place is, nature still has some control. There are also some parts of the path where, once the leaves had fully come out, the urban views were obscured and it felts almost rural and away from the dense population of the city.
As we come out of lockdown, the past few months have left me feeling a mixture of anxiety, disillusion, shame, fear, hopelessness and anger. So much of me wants to cheerfully move on from where we have been, in the hope that there won’t be a resurgence of the virus over the next few months and into the winter. However, the position this country has been left in by the virus and other choices we have made, or have been made for us, is so poor that I really fear for the future. The Government has shown itself to be self-serving and incompetent, with little care for anyone outside its immediate circle. Where we go next as a nation is anyone’s guess.
I can’t end my post there. Whilst I do fear for both the short and the long term, there is also hope. That hope focuses on the potential for a green recovery, the potential to reduce our impacts on the climate and the resources we use, the hope that there may be opportunities to steer ourselves away from an even greater catastrophe and towards building back a stronger relationship with nature. My hope as we turn from summer into autumn, perhaps only from a first COVID-19 chapter to a second, is that this year can finally be the start of an environmental revival spurred on by people’s experiences of nature over lockdown.