London Villages Covid 2020

Peter Moore describes how he arranged and led multiple trips to Covent Garden.

Like everyone, the London Villages group was buffeted by changing government rules on social distancing, travel, lockdowns, business closures and safety concerns as infection rates raged up and down then up again.

Celia Lord completed her visits to Whitehall with two trips in January.  For the rest of 2020, instead of the usual repertoire of another three walks, only limited and rescheduled walks to Covent Garden were possible.

At the beginning of February dates and booking details for Covent Garden trips in April and May were sent for inclusion in the March Newsletter. Bookings were taken on 9 March and the four trips were filled with 90 members.  Infection rates were increasing ominously and by 23 March we were in ‘lockdown’ and all trips were cancelled.

It was not until early July that ‘lockdown’ was lifted and we entered a new era of ‘the rule of six’. What to do? 

I went to Covent Garden in August for a reconnaissance trip. What was it like on the trains, what was open for coffee with toilets and how crowded was it?  I needn’t have worried. Trains to London were running with only 1-3 people per carriage and they were just as busy coming home. The capital was very quiet, with a huge reduction in numbers of tourists and office workers. Plenty of coffee shops were open and similarly quiet. However, realising that most would not wish to use the tube, the plan was to get a Thameslink train direct to Farringdon and walk the 20 minutes to the start of the Covent Garden walk.

The ‘group of six’ restriction was now the only impediment but with so many wishing to come and with all the preparation done, I decided to run two trips in September and two in October, though taking only six at a time is not viable long term.

It proved a popular and successful decision. We had two walks for the price of one: Covent Garden and Covid London.

Our emergence above ground at Farringdon Thameslink was into a London that has never been seen before. The 20 minute walk to Kingsway via Hatton Garden, Ely Place, past the old Prudential building on High Holborn, Staple Inn, then into Lincoln’s Inn Fields was along wide pavements with few people on them. Holborn lacked its normal heavy traffic so we didn’t have to wait for the ‘green man’ to cross the road, or even bother going to a crossing point. Buses trundled by, proudly carrying their small quota of passengers. A succession of shops and eateries were closed or closed down for good. Close pairs of Sainsbury’s Local and Pret a Manger had reverted to one closed outlet and one little-used outlet trying to keep its head above water. The office workers had vanished.

The most prominent and noisiest workers were in construction: Conversion of Bow Street Magistrates Court to a luxury hotel, restoration and repairs to Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, conversions to Drury House, conversion work to the vacated offices of ‘The Lady’, and so it goes on.

At Covent Garden, foreign and British tourists were virtually absent, making the streets easy to walk and easy to socially distance and much reduced traffic noise made my job easier. This had been helped further by the road closures around Covent Garden, instigated by Westminster and Camden councils. Colourful market trolleys filled with flowers had been used to block the roads to traffic allowing much more space for pedestrians and allowing the cafes and restaurants to spill onto the roads - an inviting prospect in August but not October.

The lack of people on the streets was mirrored in the cafes which we virtually had to ourselves. I had no competition from the usual buskers so could stand and deliver some of the talk where they normally perform in front of St Paul’s church, on one occasion inadvertently delaying one from starting. He didn’t mind at all and happily let me finish but then, there was no-one waiting to hear him. He was very friendly and chatty and we left feeling rather sorry for him but it was a sad and not particularly uplifting experience to wander those near-empty streets that were once a hive of activity.

Lunch was picnic time on the first three trips when the weather was kind enough for us to enjoy the sun-trap of the near-deserted benches in the churchyard of St Paul’s.  But whose was the expensive white Tesla S, reg. L2 EAT, always parked by the church door? The vicar’s? I spoke to the church warden, a really pleasant guy who recognised me from previous visits. Apparently, it belonged to a good friend of the church whose family ran the nearby Italian restaurant, Pasta Brown on Bedford Street. It was getting colder by our last trip in October so Pasta Brown it was for lunch. A separate table each, good service, good food, good price and a welcome, warm sit down,

On three of the four visits the finale of the day was a performance by a professional opera singer, also busking, in the old market buildings. Much discussion on whether they were using amplification. Of course, they were not. They were just amazing!

Lockdown v2 scuppered plans for November but the new regulations and tiers for December look as though I should try for a final two trips before Christmas

So how will London look and feel in the next few years when, hopefully, we are living without significant restrictions?

Will those closed streets be opened up to traffic again? - I hope not.

Will tourists return in number? - probably.

Will office workers return to their daily commute? - probably not.

Which businesses will survive and which newcomers will rise up?

Will Crossrail be up and running? Its gleaming portals, already brightly lit and emblazoned with ‘Elizabeth Line’, lead directly from the Farringdon, Thameslink platforms. It was due to open in 2018 and is now projected for ‘as early as possible in the first half of 2022’. .

London Villages Group have had walks planned using this interchange since 2017, so we continue to hope!


Photographs by Rachel Thomson

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