22 July 2021
A Trip to London
By Lynda Goetz
I lived in London for around 12 years from my mid-twenties to my mid-thirties. I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent first in the Bloomsbury area and then in Clapham and working in the City. After a year and a half spent in Japan, we moved out twenty six years ago. I did miss some things at first and went back frequently. I still go, although have since moved even further away. I no longer have any lingering wish to return and this Covid time has confirmed that feeling. I have however missed my occasional visits and it was wonderful to have an excuse to go again.
The original invitation was for 1st July, but, like so many invitations over the last 16 months, it had to be postponed. 21st June was no longer to be ‘Freedom Day’. So, the invitation to an old friend’s 70th and his daughters’ 30th and 25th respectively was postponed to 20th July. (All those birthdays had, in fact, happened some while ago, of course.) This was a first opportunity in a long time to pay London a visit. How much had changed since the first lockdown on 23rd March 2020?
On an extremely hot morning, we drove to our local station to get one of the fast trains to Paddington. The last time was on 4th March last year to see a performance of Upstart Crow. Then, with coronavirus becoming an increasingly popular news topic, we played ‘spot the mask wearers’ as we walked around a crowded West End. We counted a handful. They were, unsurprisingly, all Asian. After the end of lockdown, last summer, we didn’t bother with London. Mask wearing became mandatory from 24th July across the country, but had been required on public transport from 15th June. There was no way we wanted to sit on a train for over two hours wearing face-coverings in order to visit a city where firstly our risks of catching Covid were far higher than where we live and secondly, almost everything which makes the place attractive was closed.
Tuesday was thus a first in over a year. I had booked a hotel; sorted ‘Super off-peak open return’ tickets; looked out a favourite dress, unworn since a friend’s wedding in May 2019 and my other half had dug out the DJ (the party was in a club where formal attire is expected) although he could only find the pre-tied bow tie, which he was unhappy about. Still, since that was probably the most minor of his ‘unhappinesses’, (the biggest one being that we were going at all), this was not a serious problem. Armed with our bottles of water (the nanny state had issued an ‘extreme heat warning’) we boarded the 10.27.
Mask-wearing seemed to have been retained by about 50% of passengers, even though no longer required. The train was certainly not busy; nothing like as busy as it used to be pre-Covid. Was this due to Covid anxiety or simply the lack of appeal of travelling into a city on a day where the temperature is 30 degrees? Passengers settled down to their laptops, phones or even books. Time passed; coffees were ordered and drunk; conversations murmured and tickets inspected. Just short of Newbury we got an inkling of things not going quite as planned. The train glided to a graceful halt.
‘Our’ train manager’s young voice came on over the intercom to apologise for the delay; a delay which she couldn’t yet explain, but would update us as soon as she could. The next announcement provided the information that there was a train in front of us ‘which couldn’t leave Newbury station, because of a train further up the line’. The father in the seats across from us confidently explained to his young son that it would undoubtedly be a freight train ‘which would have priority’. He was delighted to be proved sort of right when the next time the intercom came to life our train manager explained that a freight train had stopped between Newbury and Reading. Just what we all needed as we headed towards our essential and inessential appointments in the big city; stuck on a stationary train on one of the hottest days of the year. Still, there would have been no guarantee that driving would have been any better. My son missed a family funeral recently because he was delayed by two hours due to an accident on the motorway. Travel seems to be increasingly fraught these days.
GWR staff were clearly doing their best to sort out the chaos. We were given water by the catering staff and lots of apologies and sometimes pointless and repetitive updates from our young train manager. Some passengers, hot, furious and impatient, felt they would do better to find taxis or buses. Judging by the report of the exhausted lady from the previous train, who slumped into the seat across from us after we had drawn to an unscheduled stop in Newbury station itself, this would not be a good move. Having failed to find a taxi and trekked to the bus station only to find a hundred or so waiting for a bus that would take an hour and a half to get into London, she had returned. Too late to advise the father and son who had been sitting there minutes earlier.
Eventually, after two hours we started moving. Because of the delay we had to change at Reading. For my other half, an unwilling travelling companion in the first place, this was very nearly the last straw. Advice that we could reclaim the cost of the train ticket on the GWR website was faint compensation.
London itself was quiet. There are almost no tourists, of course. Several eateries of different ethnic persuasions were clearly never going to reopen. Other shop spaces bore large signs showing they were available ‘To Let’. The Tube was hot and stuffy, but uncrowded. Mask wearers outnumbered those choosing to flout TfL announcements that they were still a ‘condition of carriage’. A number surreptitiously lowered them as the claustrophobia and heat got the better of them. As the police have said openly that they no longer see it as their responsibility to enforce face-covering, I would like to say I was surprised that more people had not cast the wretched things aside. Of course, I’m not. (At Exeter Cathedral the previous day, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall carried out their first ‘maskless’ appointment; could they be leading the way?)
I had hoped to visit an exhibition at the RA (Royal Academy), but apparently even members currently need to book a ticket as ‘because of social distancing capacity is greatly reduced’. So, in the face of the heat and the continued obstacles to any sort of spontaneity, we decided to head home. The countryside feels far less changed by Covid than the city. My next visit will probably be in October – unless we are in lockdown again by then.
The party was lovely, by the way, although disappointingly for the hosts, with rather reduced numbers owing to those who had been ‘pinged’. This is still a far cry from freedom or ‘normality’. Do people not want it back?
Cover page photo – unsplash (Creative Commons)