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Walker Paul


Experiences of the COVID-19 lockdown, Hayes March-May 2020

It is the 2nd full month of lockdown. There is a sense that things are beginning to return to normal - more cars on the streets, people gathering in Barra Hall Park in greater numbers. But on the streets everything is still fairly quiet. You can walk from my flat near Botwell Lane to the Lombardy Park Sainsbury's and meet less than ten people. Nevertheless I still find myself crossing to the other side of the road every time I see someone approaching.

Despite instructions to stay indoors, Barra Hall Park has been popular throughout the period as a place to exercise or to meet up, sometimes in groups. The park has remained open all day and most of the night. I pass it often at about 9 or 10 at night, and can still hear people enjoying the open space.

I have only been into Botwell Town two or three times since the lock down. Pretty early on, the Hayes Medical Centre near the station closed - though prescriptions could still be ordered by phone. There were long queues at Boots and Superdrug pharmacies. A member of staff at the front door of Boots took our orders while we waited outside.

At the bank, there was an almost indecent, though understandable, haste to deal with members of the public as quickly as possible. I was particularly conscious of having to stand as far away from the member of staff dealing with me as possible, and having nearly to shout at her through my mask.

Supermarkets are generally stringent about social distancing outside, though the plastic strips laid down to keep people separate are not really two metres apart. Early on, at Sainsbury's in Lombardy Park, one particular woman got very annoyed with the shop staff as she had to queue and it had started to rain. Two men in Iceland nearly came to blows over social distancing at the till. But generally people have accepted the restrictions well.

Inside the supermarkets, social distancing is less well observed. Not all the staff have or wear masks, and their work stocking shelves brings them too often into close contact with shoppers. And shoppers, once inside, are too busy looking for items to worry about social distancing. I actually find my weekly big shop (a massive change from the daily shops I did before the virus) a real treat. I've started checking out the dvd, book and vinyl aisles, even the household section, even though I've no intention of buying anything. The longer period between shops also means I've saved a lot of money.

Early in the crisis, before the lock down, panic buying was a real problem, and a source of anger and frustration for many. While queuing to shop once, I saw one man wheeling out around twenty pints of milk. Toilet rolls, soap and hand sanitiser tended to be sold out in most shops within a couple of hours. I remember exploring virtually every shop in Uxbridge and coming away with one bar of soap.

I was lucky enough to find one local grocer in Botwell which had an upper shelf stocked with loo paper. Once the lock down kicked in, shelves became fairly well stocked - though there are still some randomly unavailable goods - Pepsi Cola was short in one supermarket last week, bars of chocolate the week before.

I've become used to lugging two heavy bags and a rucksack full of food for thirty or forty minutes without grumbling. It's quite a hike down Hemmen Lane and Freeman's Lane, but the streets are virtually empty, and as the weather improves I actually look forward to the walk.
I am going to miss the quiet more than anything. I have got into a routine of getting up, spending all day in my dressing gown, getting a bath in the evening, then going for a walk near nightfall when I know I'm unlikely to meet many people.

I walk up Freeman's Lane to the Fountains House Hotel, then up to the churchyard where I have a Hobnob and a drink of water - it's become a habit. Early in April, Venus always showed just above the church tower, with the constellations Orion and Taurus overhead, so it seemed a perfect place to stop and think. Then I start back, down Church Road and up Botwell Lane to my flat. In April, when the lock down was starting, even though there is very little street lighting in Freeman's Lane, I never felt unsafe walking there - knowing virtually the whole population of Hayes was indoors. On the other hand, every time a police car went past, I half-expected to be quizzed about why I was out.

Church Road includes the old Hayes Town. Yesterday I discovered - or I think I've discovered - the old walls of the grounds of Hayes Court, home of the Minet Family. Further research might prove me wrong, but it fits what I know already. Hayes Town is virtually unchanged since the 19th century as far as I can tell, though some of the old shops are long disused. The whole road has a quiet, secluded, friendly feel - especially during these months.

As I walk down Church Road, I cross the street to avoid people when I do meet them - conscious of the need for safety. All the houses seem shut in. It is quite a weird feeling. The foxes are generally more visible. I see two or three every night. They seem interested in me, and somehow tamer than previously.

When out for a walk at night, there are visible signs of support for the medical services - slogans hanging from front gates, paintings of rainbows (the symbol of the day) by local children. On Thursday evenings every 8 o'clock, there is voluntary applause from many households in support of nurses, doctors and other frontline services. I feel slightly guilty if I am out for not joining in - I'm not a great clapper - but there is something very gratifying about the family involvement in the process.

Botwell in late March and early April was still fairly full of people. I haven't been into town since, so I've no idea whether it is quieter now. Certainly the local buses are less full of people, though for some reason people still tend to gather downstairs on the double deckers, leaving the upstairs virtually empty. The fronts of the buses are taped off with hazard tape, to safeguard the drivers from infection. I wonder if the passengers even have to pay.

I do more walking than I used to, and like most people may take some time to trust guidelines on returning back to normal. I intend to walk in and out of work in Uxbridge when work out of home begins again. I look forward to it. I'm sure I'm going to end up fitter after the crisis.
Though there are negative sides to being locked down in a one bedroom flat for two months - it is essentially one room living - there are also positives. I have taught my dad (and myself) to Facetime - he is in his eighties and we chat each day - learnt how to make an excellent cheese omelette (admittedly late in life), discovered Vimto (looks and tastes of fruit and bubblegum), and happily involved myself in all the Facebook memes doing the rounds - top 10 album covers, favourite films, etc, etc. To ensure social distancing, I have video lunches with a friend of mine - sharing cheese and crisp sandwiches on screen.

Early in April, like many others I imagine, I was paranoid about catching the virus. Any slight cough, stomach complaint or sore throat seemed a sign of worse things to come. With news and statistics at the time - the Prime Minister had only just been taken ill - not to mention reports on conditions in the hospitals, the horror of the disease was just becoming real to people. It took a couple of weeks for me to feel safe even inside. I was unfortunate enough to lose a friend to the virus, though I imagine I'm in no different a position to most people.

Meanwhile, over the last two months my hair, cut short for nearly thirty years, has been growing entirely out of control - all the many barbers in Hayes are currently shut down. I welcome the change. Who knows where it will end?

I was generally unwell early in April (nothing to do with the virus), and - as is common with anyone slightly ill or sleep deprived - had a succession of very vivid dreams. I had the idea of keeping a Covid dream diary. It is now a month later, and the diary has over a hundred separate dreams. I am not sure what it has taught me about my subconscious, but it is certainly the strangest and most fascinating result of the whole period. Perhaps a dream expert could tell from it how I've really coped with the lock down.

I've no idea how Hayes will be affected once the lock down ends. Judging by the response to the easing of restrictions recently, I guess the answer is - not much. Though in truth only time will tell as we make our way through the next few months.

Paul Davidson, Hayes

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