I am sure it is the same for others – like a small child deprived of a toy they scarcely noticed before but who now wants it more than ever, I am missing some of those things I took for granted just six weeks ago. They are not huge things and are almost meaningless in the face of the hidden threat sweeping the globe: the chance to sit with a pot of tea and a newspaper in the supermarket cafe before heading home, because for someone who is usually home-based it represents a change of scene; knowing my teeth are still in good condition and are briefly super-clean when leaving the dentist’s after a six-monthly check-up – now postponed until who knows when; not having to wonder before every video call whether I look – as my mother used to say – as if I have been ‘dragged through a hedge backwards’. I am pretty sure that being dragged through a hedge in any direction would result in the ruin of one’s hairstyle but, like many, I am feeling the lack of access to a hairdresser.
Today, however, I did get to do something else that I realise I have been missing. In the normal course of events I probably travel up to London on the train around once a week on average, almost always outside the commuter rush and for a variety of enjoyable reasons: board meetings with colleagues, who are also friends; climate events; lectures; or theatre or opera performances. Unlike a number of my friends I also actively like travelling on the Underground, having never become sufficiently familiar with London bus routes to be sure that I will end up where I need to go, and having no problem with being in a crowd. So, setting off this afternoon to make what is classified as an ‘essential journey’ I was interested to see how the whole experience would feel in the very different circumstances that now prevail.
The first surprise came as I reached our local railway station and discovered that the very long-drawn-out building works had progressed: the new footbridge to the five platforms is now in use and the lift shafts have been given rather space-age roofs. The station carpark, which research tells me has a capacity of 508 cars and which is often completely full on a weekday, had only half a dozen cars in it in the early afternoon and there was only one other passenger getting on the almost-empty twelve-coach train; social distancing was no problem at all. A few people joined the train at each stop but it was still comparatively empty when we arrived at Euston station. Everywhere was quiet and none of the shopping outlets on the concourse was open; outside, there was the muffled sound of construction work for HS2 going ahead from behind hoarding but no one was in sight and the throng of people who would usually be there was noticeably absent. There was something very poignant about all the posters flanking the escalators, tempting travellers to West End shows that are no longer being performed, and the Underground platforms are all now marked with blue spacers reminding people to stay two metres apart. However, the staff – among the country’s key workers – looked as cheerful as usual and were not exactly rushed off their feet.
Oxford Circus is normally a hive of activity at any time of day and in any weather but today it was almost deserted, with very few people about. The contrast between London and at home was very marked – we have recently got used to being greeted across the street by strangers or at the very least acknowledging others out for daily exercise but those people who were out on London’s pavements avoided eye contact as well as keeping their distance. I had a successful visit to donate blood, knowing that the need for this has not gone away while the lack of other medical provisions are making the headlines, and there was a great atmosphere in the donor centre, where all staff were wearing surgical masks but making the best of the difficulties they caused for communication. They were also apologetic about not being able to provide the usual cup of tea. Like all the other key workers up and down the country, they are doing a great job.
Euston almost empty at 4pm on a weekday was a strange and rather desolate sight – it reminded me of a journey on the M25 one year at around 1am on New Year’s Day – so empty that we were really did wonder if we had somehow strayed onto a road that had been closed.
I cannot really say that I felt too worried about making this journey as all the indications were that people are adhering to the Government’s instructions and are taking things seriously. But I do look forward to the day when I can jump on a more crowded Underground train and not have to think about how far away the other passengers are.