On Saturday 7 March I led a couple of dozen people on a Hidden River walk, tracing the line of the River Peck. After arriving at its outfall in Surrey Docks some of us pushed on along the Thames Path for a couple of drinks in The Mayflower at Rotherhithe. (It’s the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower and I’m sure the Pilgrims would want us to celebrate with a couple of beers or some glasses of wine.) The coronavirus was obviously a topic of conversation but it still seemed to be a foreign thing and in the late spring sunshine outside a crowded pub, social distancing was absolutely not the order of the day.
The following Friday, 13th March, me and Clare were all ready to head for a weekend in Ghent. It was gonna be Belgian beer, Belgian chocolate, lots of walking in the pedestrian friendly city and visiting the Van Eyck exhibition, An Optical Revolution. While listening to the Today programme we heard that Belgium, along with others in continental Europe, where planning to close, until further notice all bars, restaurants, museums and galleries from midnight that night. Instead of the Eurostar we caught a 65 bus and went to Kew Gardens.
I’d been feeling a bit achy for a couple of days but that afternoon I started running a temperature and lost my sense of taste and with it my appetite. Normally my daily step count is 10000+. On Sunday I managed fewer steps than my temperature which was touching 39°C and my whole world became the bedroom, the sofa downstairs and the bathroom. I didn’t get outside the house again until Thursday 26 March. I assume I had covid-19, but, of course, like most of the UK I wasn’t tested. There was nothing mild about my symptoms but I guess I was lucky to only develop a slight cough and have a little trouble breathing for a day or two.
In those 2 weeks the whole world got turned upside down. Most of continental Europe, learning lessons from Italy, locked down on Saturday 14th March or even before. The UK dragged its heels and only took this step on March 23rd. Now any trip outside the front door whether for essential shopping or government sanctioned exercise is a challenge as we first put on face masks (if we have them) and then when we’re out try to modify an awkward version of the danse macabre that we’ve all adopted in various degrees to be able to safely social distance in the outdoors.
Counter intuitively everyone from park managers through government ministers to environmental charities prays for rain instead of sunny weather. This means we have organisations who now spend all their time and resources understandably discouraging people from leaving their homes to help stop the spread of coronavirus and protect our NHS.
These are often the same organisations whose major mission is to promote leisure use of city, town and countryside. And I have to say from where I’m sitting I think they are mostly doing a marvellous job in very trying and scary circumstances.
The Ramblers, under the hashtag #RoamSweetHome, has consistently emphasised exercising within the government guidelines. At the same time, it has had to take the extremely painful decision of suspending our amazingly successful group walks programmes, revise the business strategy and furlough about a third of its staff.
Here in London, the Royal Parks, became the poster child for overcrowding and were plastered all over TV, radio, newspapers and social media platforms as the country started to demonise cyclists, sunbathers and picnic’ers. In truth, it would have been easier for them to try and close their parks, as some London boroughs did. Instead they worked extremely hard in a thankless situation to try and find some accommodation that allowed the parks to stay open. Where they could they shut the parks to cars and gave the car parks over to key workers/NHS staff, instituted a No Cycling policy (except for key workers/NHS staff) and re-deployed their own staff to emphasise the social distancing regulations. So that’s a big ‘hats off’ to all Royal Parks staff and a plea for them to consider a permanent ban on motorised traffic in Richmond Park going forward.
The Thames Path National Trail, over 300 miles of trail on both banks of the river and just one trail manager, resorted to social media to cajole and plead with walkers and riders to avoid congested areas along parts of the route that it was impossible to practice social distancing on. In some places they resorted to hi-vis tabard wearing marshals asking folk not to jog or cycle or a timetable restricting cyclists, walkers and joggers to specific separate times to maximise use and maintain social distancing.
CPRE London, along with Paul Wood (aka @thestreettree), rather than postpone or cancel, elected to move the Urban Tree Festival to the virtual universe. Unfortunately, the evening walk in the City of London I was scheduled to lead Wednesday 20 May will have to remain in the physical world and I plan to re-arrange as soon as is possible under relaxed regulations.
The Canal and River Trust who possibly have a harder challenge to avoid congestion took a similar approach. TfL kept at it and made sure walkers knew that the Capital Ring and London Loop were still open and ready for use and have begun investigating the possibility of ‘cone-ing off’ some roads to reduce motorised traffic and give this over to walkers, joggers and cyclists. And we certainly know, just anecdotally so far, that the number of people walking in London has increased dramatically.
With ‘lockdown’ regulations looking set to continue in their current guise until June, and no hint of what the world will look like afterwards, perhaps we could hope TfL put into action more plans to close roads to traffic, or make some routes one way, or examine how quiet ways might be made over to just walking and cycling. And perhaps all the environmental, health & wellbeing and community groups in London could convene a meeting of all the stakeholders in London interested in active travel to find out exactly what we all want in this brave new world that will eventually emerge.
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The walking class hero ‘Lockdown Days’ playlist: