Another two weeks have passed and Lockdown now almost feels mundane. Fourteen weeks in and the pattern of life is now so set that I feel it’s just a case of getting on with it and not hoping too much for a quick return to whatever normal we get to. Probably repeating previous comments, I’ve had it relatively easy compared to key workers or parents having to home tutor children, or indeed, key workers having to home tutor. I can’t say that this situation hasn’t had any impact, like most I’m feeling the strain and anxiety from what is a complex set of challenges. For me these challenges have particularly focussed on working differently and the difficulty in dividing work from home; the restrictions on movement, now receding, and at the beginning very great concern over food supply. What could have been one of the biggest challenges, hasn’t been a challenge at all; moving with a new partner can difficult but for us it has been the easiest of transitions despite the added stress of COVID-19.
The summer solstice passed on a week ago and we didn’t really mark it. We were going to but after having a lunchtime picnic in Kew Gardens, we decided to stay in. Thinking about this has made me realise that it’s now months since I’ve seen the sun rise or set. It’s now too early to see the sunrise before I get out of bed and the view to the west from the flat is obscured by trees. It may not seem a big thing but watching the sunset always links me back to the fact that we are all so small in contrast to the vastness of the world around us and beyond. The sunset also links me back to the many places I’ve seen them before and stood watching this daily spectacle. With the easing of Lockdown and a move back home for a period, I’m hoping for a few nice sunsets to watch.
This past week has been tremendously hot, with over 30c for several days running. After a couple of weeks where some well-needed rain came, the return to good weather brought with it temperatures I don’t see very often in the UK and it brought into perspective the notable differences in climate between the South-East and the Midlands and North.
Last weekend we left the urban area of Kew behind and headed for a different part of the River Thames where it makes its way through the south Oxfordshire countryside. Parking at a village station we headed through the houses and onto the Thames Path, walking westwards in the direction of flow.
Not long after leaving the village behind, we looked north onto the Chilterns and just above the houses was a shallow valley facing the river with a large spread of poppies amongst the crops. As we picked our way along our route, we aimed to drop back into the village through that valley but just missed it by coming off the hills too early. However, we decided to head back up and were rewarded with the best view of poppies I’ve ever had.
As we walked up the slope a natural spectacular revealed itself to us. The upper part of shallow valley’s slope was covered in wild plants including various sorts of orchid. We found marbled white butterflies feeding on thistle flowers and numerous skylarks sang above our heads under the changing patchwork sky of clear blue and cloud. As we reached the top of the hill, we looked down into a wide open-ended bowl and a mass sweep of poppies spread down the slope, across the field and into neighbouring plots. The skylarks were joined in their songs by whitethroats and yellowhammers, all around us and across the valley, flying and calling, was a great congregation of red kites, at least 15 but perhaps more than 20. We walked up and down the path, stopping to take a few pictures, watching and listening, as the wildlife made the scene complete. As we prepared to leave and wander back down the hill, a couple of swifts sped past on their flickering wings, completing a quintessentially English summer scene.
Now into Week 13 of Lockdown there is a growing sense of normality. Not that things are back to the way they were but Lockdown itself seems almost a normal thing to be going through. The recent relaxations allowing more exercise and, as of today, all shops can open, have given some sense of the normal in our lives, at least away from work. However, in reality there has been nothing normal about the past week. COVID-19 mixed in with the Black Lives Matter protests and the Government stating that there will be no extension of the Brexit transition period mean that this has been a week with few parallels in any recent decade.
National news aside, it was another pretty quiet week, really. Work again took plenty of attention but there has been time for leisure and relaxation – perhaps too much looking over my recent exercise stats. The amount of exercise I’ve been getting has slumped significantly over the first half of June and I need to get it back up again. Maybe it’s the relaxing of the exercise rules but I’ve felt less inclined to do much. However, it has to be said that the weather over the last week has been far from ideal with some rain and much lower temperatures at times.
One major reason to get out and walk has been the reopening of the Royal Botantic Garden at Kew. Just across the road from the flat, it’s almost like our front garden. Somehow I managed to miss this from last week’s blog. It reopened in Week 11 but we had to wait until the Friday for our first chance to get in. This week we went in for a post-work walk on Tuesday and taking a very leisurely stroll around the different parts of the garden, I have to say was the most relaxing walk we’ve had since Lockdown began.
On Sunday, we left London behind again and went for a walk along the Thames Path at Goring. Any chance to escape to the countryside is welcome but this walk was particularly lovely. I’ll do a blog post about this one separately.
As we edge ever closer to the summer solstice, I’m very mindful at the moment that while we’re all still in Lockdown to a significant extent, the seasons are moving on. I do worry now by the time we get to any sort of normal that the best weather may be over and the darkness of autumn will be quickly approaching. Despite Lockdown, we need to be making the most of the good weather and light evenings as much as we can, within the restrictions we have placed upon us.
It’s been a relatively quiet lockdown week. Work has taken a front seat with long hours at my computer screen, starting early but still trying to finish at a reasonable time. We’ve exercised every day but not done any cycling as my steed was in the repair shop. Last week’s post of new or different walks seems a long time ago but the weeks still seem to be rushing past at quite startling speeds.
It’s odd to think that I’ve been in Kew under lockdown conditions almost as long as the three months I spend on RSPB Ramsey Island last spring and summer. Fortunately, that period didn’t seem to go as quickly as this has, although at the time, that too sped past far too quickly. It also seems a long time since I was in such a wild a place as Ramsey. In the autumn we spent a week in Mull and had five nights in Devon at New Year but they both seem a lifetime ago. Our day walking in the Buckinghamshire countryside last weekend really helped to dampen the yearning for wild places for a little while but now it’s back stronger than ever.
A busy week left less time to find escape from the world of work and this weekend we have both been very tired and a bit run down so there has been no opportunity for an brief escape to the countryside. Having said that, watching Springwatch this week (we’re a week behind) has made some difference and I’ve taken to it again after growing tired of some of the silliness over the last couple of years. It seems to be more serious, more scientific, but still gives those special insights into the lives of wildlife – for me, it’s got its magic back.
I wrote a blog post over the weekend for the Osprey charity I volunteer with. It focussed on how their webcam is giving a window into the wild world that many under lockdown wouldn’t otherwise see. I think I can now add TV to webcams in giving opportunities for everyone to connect better with wildlife. For some reason, I didn’t just stop watching Springwatch, I also stopped switching on to all wildlife programmes for a while. I can’t fully explain why. I used to love watching the numerous Attenborough series and The Natural World but I either just wanted to be in those places myself or I found it all too depressing that there’s so little of the truly wild places left. However, hopefully, lockdown has reconnected me to one avenue though which we can all better engage with the wild world around us.
Writing through a digital window on the valley, it is only the eyes than can sense the changes along the Glaslyn. The trees are now in full flush with their leaves turning from the almost luminous spring shock of bright new life to deeper, firmer, more solid greens. Amongst them stand the dead, the bone-white bleached trunks and branches of the lifeless trees, where leaves no longer flourish, but providing perches for some and homes for others. The fields and meadows are drying out after months of relentless rain; they are turning from sodden and saturated mud to lush spreads of sustaining grass. Feeding across them are ewes with lambs, the youngsters no longer so small but not so grown up to stop chasing each other around.
In the woodlands, all the spring arrivals are breeding with the willow warblers, chiffchaffs, redstarts and pied flycatcher raising broods amongst the branches of the moss covered oaks. The year-round residents also have young to feed with the tits, finches and thrushes all busy gathering the next mouthfuls for their chicks. Down on the ground, the mammals are raising their young with the foxes and badgers bringing their cubs out into the open at dusk.
An early summer has reached the Glaslyn Valley, hotter temperatures than many a July or August day are in place of the more gradual incline to the year’s peak. The sun, now not far off its strongest, casts a harsh light across the land and sends burning heat on any unshaded skin or feather. The smaller creatures can hide under branch or leaf, in concealed nests or under ground but some are less fortunate. When the cloud moves from the path of the sun, the osprey parents stand as shade over their chicks. The young have lost their down, exposing dark skins that attract even more of the sun’s heat. But the heat won’t last forever, and the frequent inclement weather can soon return, with the parents then shading the chicks from the monotonous dripping of rain onto their unfeathered bodies.
The wild year keeps moving on, even as our lives are partly dormant, keeping inside and away from many of our usual haunts. For many it is currently only a digital window that provides sights of nature and wildness; those in cities, in the middle of towns, or just with no view of green spaces. I’ve been watching the webcam. From the arrival of the familiar Glaslyn pair and the first egg laid, the chasing of crows and warning off intruders, to the hatching of the chicks, the never ending supply of fish and the youngsters’ continuing growth as remarkable speeds. The webcam really does give a window into a wild world, and a view that even in normal times, would be impossible to get without technology.
The Glaslyn nest is not the only site I’ve been keeping tracks on. I’ve been watching a white-tailed eagle family in Estonia and their enormous chicks, and I’ve been following a few African webcams in place of the trip in September now postponed for a year. Even if I’m not seeing the wildlife with my own eye, digital views are far better than having no views at all. It’s simply incredible what we can now all see from the comfort of our sofas or desks (even when working – sometimes)
It looks like this year, I’m only going to get that digital view of the ospreys. As things stand, I’m remaining in London for the continuing lockdown and there’s no sign of an opportunity to return home to Cheshire. Even if there was, the differing rules between England and Wales currently prevent any journey across the border, even just for the day. However, I’m fortunate that there is wildlife right on my lockdown doorstep. We have a crow visiting our balcony as he feeds his chicks and we often have sight of foxes, even a cub, as they start their evening patrols through the uncommonly deserted streets. On the walks and cycles around Kew and Richmond, I have now seen or heard over seventy species of bird including some I rarely observe: hobby, common tern, nightingale and green woodpecker. I’m also so lucky that this part of London is green and so much open space, the now reopened Botanic Gardens, the nearby green, the Thames Path and a little further away, the wide expanse of Richmond Park. However, these are not wild places and its difficult to get away, even now, from people and their noise.
So much has already been said about the positive impact of nature on our minds as we wrestle with the stresses caused by the current situation. Without the good weather we have had for so long and the sights of wildlife, many, including me, would have found this so much harder to contend with. Any chance to see wildlife, even digitally, gives us a the stronger connection to the natural world we all need, particularly at times like these.
This has been a week of memorable walks. The easing of the restriction on the amount of exercise we’re allowed to do, and how far we can travel to do it, has given us more opportunities to be outside in the continuing great weather.
We’ve been to Richmond Park a few times since the restrictions were eased but earlier this week we went for our first evening walk. The Park was much quieter than during our daytime visits and a little cooler too; quite welcome given the recent heat. We headed from Ham Gate to the lakes and back again, through the woods and open grassland. The deer were more visible than during the day time and were out enjoying the quietness in the last of the sun. All except one group of red deer which chased of a couple and their dog when they walked past too close to their one small calf. The Park had a much calmer atmosphere that evening, as the day was coming to a close and the light dipping behind the trees, we’ll have to go again and the evening might become our favoured time if the days become even busier than they presently are.
Last night (Friday), we went for a walk after our evening meal, in the last light of the day. The walk down to Kew Green, along the Thames and then back through the residential streets, was the quietest local stroll we’ve had since lockdown began but also one of the most memorable. The air had a bit of a nip as we left the flat but the air was still. The clear sky meant there was enough light to see and the glow from the west gave a sharpness to the scenes. At Kew Green, we walked around to the Elizabeth Gate entrance to the Botanic Gardens and saw a mother fox and her small cub running around the manicured grass and flower beds. Walking onto the river path, the enclosing trees brought darkness but it was just possible to see across the water and watch the strange flickering patterns the light breeze was making on the Thames’ surface. Back through the deserted streets we hoped to see more foxes out and about. At first a cat raised and dashed hopes but on the last street before the turn for the flat, a fox wandered across the road, stopped to look at us but soon disappeared into gardens as we approached.
Today, we left the city and headed a few miles west to Seer Green for a country walk. Only half an hour away from London but distant from any busy honeypot areas, within minutes of parking the car we were out in almost silent rolling Home Counties countryside. The first footpath we passed along was in the dip of a shallow valley of ripening wheat and the only sound was a calling skylark somewhere out of sight in the clear blue sky above our heads. As we continued our walk through the fields and woods, we came across a few people, but far fewer than we do on our daily walks in Kew, and there was so much more peacefulness in the countryside than the city. We crossed a couple of busy roads but there was little other activity and we spent much of the time listening to the birdlife as we walked. We stopped to watch a whitethroat claiming his territory from a high hedge perch and later stood as red kite circled and called above the fields sloping down into another valley. We eventually turned towards the car and passed through the village but even there it was quiet with very little activity going on.
Now back in the urban Kew, it is much less quiet with the passing traffic but also the more natural sound of the breeze passing through the London planes outside of the window. The chance of a wander around the countryside has fed my need for rural space and will hopefully dampen that yearning for a while.
I was going to finish with a point about easing lockdown too quickly but will leave that for now and stop here before I let the post end on a less relaxing tone. These walks have made a big difference to us, being able to be outside in nice places, both urban and rural, connecting with nature and bringing some peace and calmness to what still remain quite hectic weekday lives.
As lockdown continues, so does the startling good weather and this week it turned properly warm with temperatures up to the high 20s. The forecasts predict this will go on for the whole of the next week and into the weekend, continuing what has been the longest spell of good weather I can remember since the heatwave of 2018. We had a very brief hail storm on Saturday and a short shower when we were out walking just before that but that was all the rainfall we’ve had for weeks. It’s hard to believe that we’re still only in May and that summer has yet to start. Back at home, the weather has been good, I believe, but the difference in temperature this bit further south in Kew is marked. I’m sure many will be thinking the same, that if lockdown had occurred in the late autumn or winter, with the accompanying poorer weather and shorter daylight hours, these few weeks would have seemed very much worse to cope with.
With restrictions lifted on how much outside exercise one can do and the distance that can be driven to take that exercise, we have been outside more frequently and for longer. Walking, running and cycling have enabled me to keep a lid on some of the stresses of the past few weeks and the lifting of some restrictions means it’s easier to take the exercise I need for good mental health.
The nature of Kew and Richmond is also continuing to give me a lift. We have now made ‘friends’ with a crow who comes to our balcony to feed on muesli and occasional bids of bread we put out for him. We are not alone in feeding him, at least two neighbours in our block of flats are doing the same and we’ve seen him flying towards his nest from other nearby buildings with food in his mouth. We have also had magpies, great tits and robins feeding on the balcony but it is crow we seen the most. He lands on the metal table with a clattering, fills his mouth as much and as quickly as he can and then flies off through the trees, across the road and into his nest.
We have also frequently seen foxes in the street below the flat, both at night and in daylight. It’s also not unusual to hear them calling in the small hours or smell their presence as we walk around the nearby roads. We’ve seen them in full day time, walking along the road or jumping a fence; they seem bold and confident much of the time but also timid when people are walking nearby. It is perhaps these foxes that make the connection with nature the strongest, seeing quite large wild animal walking the very urban, if tree-lined, streets of Kew draws some connections with some of the wildest places I’ve been.
The Government appears set to announce further changes to lockdown over the coming week, perhaps enabling some limited meeting of households or even enabling us to travel to spend some time at my house. I’ve got so used to living in the flat here in Kew and to wandering the local streets, cycling the Thames Path and now, as of last week, visiting Richmond Park, that it may seem quite odd to be living somewhere else.
An eighth week of lockdown has nearly passed and in some ways I’m running out of things to say, or at least struggling to find the clarity of thought to put something meaningful on the page. Like many I expect, simply living with lockdown, all seems very tiring despite not having the daily commute and not having the added pressure of being a key worker. At the end of each day, I often feel shattered but we do go out and exercise as much as possible; to clear the head and to get some of those endorphins going.
There seems to be more uncertainty about the future than ever and as the UK Government seems intent on pushing out of lockdown, I think there may be reluctance amongst many to follow its chosen path. I’ve always loved driving but given the chance this week to drive a short distance to Richmond Park, there was some significant apprehension; I’m not sure why and it wasn’t just a passing feeling. Breaking out of lockdown is going to require people to get back to doing many of the things that they haven’t done for weeks and if I’m feeling nervous about something I usually love doing, I suspect many others will find some of their normal activities more challenging than they were.
I’m also finding it harder to separate work from home. I’ve tried to keep the two as separate as possible, clearing all work away at the end of each day, exercising straight afterwards to make an almost physical break between the two and I try not to think about work too much outside of work hours. I think working from home is great and I want to keep on doing so for more of the time when we return to more normal times. However, I need to do more to make the break between work and home.
I think the lack of a holiday isn’t helping. We were meant to have been on the Isle of Harris this week but, clearly, we have known for some time that this wasn’t going to be possible. Without any significant time away from work and home in the short to medium term, the balance of work and home may be even more difficult to get right.
I think many of us will now be getting to the stage where we’re finding it more difficult to find new things to keep ourselves occupied. I listened to a programme on the radio several years ago which suggested that time appears to move more quickly when we do fewer new things. We may remember new activities more clearly than the routine and the more new activities we do, the more markers in time there are and thus, time seems to move more slowly. When we just do the routine activities, time seems to pass more quickly as we remember fewer activities. Maybe the routine of lockdown, when our ability to do new activities is very much reduced, is merging time, making it move more quickly and making work and home almost indistinguishable. I certainly feel that the past eight weeks have flown by.
I did work up the courage to drive to Richmond Park and I was so glad we made the visit. Having been limited to walking around Kew for weeks, it was a release to be somewhere new and in a place with wide open views across green space. We walked through the old oak woodlands and across the open grasslands, past the two lakes and along the currently deserted roads. We had some great views of nature as we walked including sand martins, house martins and swifts flying fast over the water, the herds of red and fallow deer, and even some of this years goose chicks wandering at the water’s edge.
Hopefully, with exercise restrictions lifted a little now, we can get out more and do some more new things to break up the time and help to make a greater divide between work and home time…and, maybe, I won’t find it do hard to write a blog post next week.
This week has seemed harder than the past few in lockdown. I woke up with a feeling of melancholy on Sunday and it was still there on Monday morning as I started work. Up to then, I hadn’t been feeling too bad apart from the first week, which I found very difficult to settle into. Speaking to colleagues, it seems that many have found the past week harder than others; maybe there’s a seven week itch in these things where tolerance starts to fray a little or coping mechanisms begin to weaken. Maybe it was more about people, including myself, finally accepting that we’re in this for the long haul and not even the new normal will be here any time soon.
The overblown talk earlier in the week of relaxing lockdown has been replaced by more sombre tones of small changes. However, just a little easing of exercise restrictions would be welcomed by many. It gives all of us without gardens or countryside (even if temporarily like me) to get out into some green space and connect with nature. However, those connections can be made even through an open window.
Sitting at my desk this week, I heard a familiar and very welcome summer sound. I looked up from my screen to see two swifts chasing each other over the Kew rooftops. The following day there were three and the calls have been heard intermittently ever since. They’re my favourite bird of all and their calls, as I must have written here before, lift my soul like very few other things can. In the winter, I yearn for that sound and I cherish every time I hear it. After all, the swifts won’t be here for long and in no time at all I will be left once more with many months of waiting to hear them again.
This week I also noticed as the darkness had fallen on another day in lockdown, the number of insects attracted by the street lights and circling in bright rays shining down towards the pavement. I wouldn’t say it was a startling observation but it got me thinking about how long it was that I had seen so many insect doing the same. That then led me on to consider whether the reductions in air pollution resulting from the lower levels of traffic might be be causing an increase in the numbers of insects. I’m no scientist but on my next long car journey it will be interesting to see if the number of insects picked up the front of my car has noticeably increased. Anecdotally, it seems that ‘fly splatter’ on cars has decreased over the past few years and any change in these observations over the next few months might be telling.
We have continued to go for walks this week and yesterday was a particularly memorable one. We set off in the morning and stopped at Kew Bridge to wait for the Red Arrows to pass overhead on their route from the VE Day commemoration flypast. They duly did and we went on with our walk and stepped down onto the shore of the Thames. It was a very low tide yesterday and we could walk almost all the way between Kew and Chiswick Bridges. Down on the short was the usual mix of swans, geese, ducks, gulls and herons but this time we came across some of the first young of the year with a gaggle of Egyptian goslings.
Even in lockdown, even staying inside, there are ways to connect to nature. Writing this post has lifted some of the gloom and I’ll go out for a cycle in a while, which will hopefully lift it further. I’ll have to see how many insects I get splatted on my sunglasses!
The weather turned this week, away from the summer-like sunshine and temperatures and towards something more appropriate for the end of April. We’ve had a few heavy showers, some stronger winds and there’s definitely been a chilly edge to the air. Tuesday was almost a write-off with heavy rain for much of the day but it slackened off in time for a walk after work. The weather over the previous weeks has been almost surreal with so much consistency in the warmth and sun, and whilst I do want it to return, this week’s rain and wind was almost a welcome return to the norm. The change has also brought another marker to show the passing of time.
Those walks after work have been so important in keeping some semblance of sense and perspective in my head. I hadn’t really realised just how important they have been until late this week when I’d had to wait until later in the evening. We usually go out immediately after finishing work for the day and they have formed a demarkation in time between the worlds of work and home. It seems I’ve finally noticed that working from home really can blur those worlds too much and without something to separate them it’s much more difficult to shut off the thoughts of the working day from home life hours. It’s also quite noticeable that I find it easier to block out home from work time than work from home time. That is not a reflection of the relative value I attached to them but more to do with my usual working self-discipline, the merging of home and workplace, and my significantly reduced ability to keep my mind occupied with my usual range of outdoor activities.
Those walks, as I’ve written previously, have enabled us to keep in touch with the nature around us. Kew is pretty special with all the lovely gardens, street trees and open spaces, as well as the River Thames. However, there is one unassuming spot that has been particularly good at providing wildlife highlights. There’s a closed off road between a railway embankment and the National Archives which provides a link to the river. The embankment is covered in trees and deep undergrowth and, on the opposite side of the road, the Archives have a hedge in front of its gardens. As we’ve walked there over the past few weeks we’ve seen a daytime fox and plenty of birds including a garden warbler and two very loud blackcaps. However, this week we got a special surprise as we made our way down the road. In the deep undergrowth came a call I’d heard before but didn’t quite recognise. At first I thought it was a thrush but that wasn’t right. I then realised, it was a nightingale! I’ve only heard one once before and that was in a nature reserve, so it was a startling find, particularly in such a spot on the edge of London.
Whilst there is still a long way to go to get anywhere near back to normal, or more likely forward to a new normal, there are now at least some signs of hope in the daily news. We’re past the peak, the sad daily toll of deaths is dropping, at least in the measure of those passing away in hospitals. There is talk of relaxing some aspects of lockdown, if not social distancing, and the country is looking at ways to live with this virus while going about more normal daily life. I still think my girlfriend and I haven’t had it too bad compared to many others. However, the realisation that I really do need to go for a walk straight after work has highlighted that this situation can take its toll even on those who aren’t on the front line.