Tuesday 5 January.
The morning is beautiful. A long, blue shadow from the house still covers most of the garden, but the morning sun has reached the alder and hawthorn trees at its far end and they are brilliant in the winter light, gold, bronze and terracotta. The sky is blue, although a thick sheet of grey cloud lies low in the Northwest, promising rain or sleet later.
It's the first day of a new lockdown, and I open the back door hoping for the miraculous silence that descended here when the first covid lockdown was announced. That morning my husband and I stood in wonder in the garden, listening to the absence of traffic. As the first days of that lockdown passed, the absence continued and the air became cleaner and cleaner until one day we stood outside and took great sniffing inhalations, smelling earth and leaves and an air that smelt almost like it does in my mother’s Welsh garden, sans the warm lanolin scent of sheep.
Those days and weeks of aural peace, free from the constant drone of traffic were strange and lovely. The silence was perhaps a little unsettling, the absence spoke to a changed world and our uncertainty and fear. But it was also beautiful because in the silence was a faint clarion call that this could be our new normal, that we could change how we live, get cars off the roads, put health and well-being and nature first. There was a brief, flickering hope for a new world order, the dawning of something good coming out of the pandemic.
It didn’t last. We went back to serial incompetence at the highest levels, the fear of the disease turned people toward their cars and away from public transport, councils didn’t have the will or the funding to implement new commuting infrastructures in the city, and the major and minor lockdowns that followed the first countrywide one just threw into stark focus the trapped, unhealthy lives that many urban residents face. Pollution was implicated in the severity of how the virus affected people; the mother of a small child who died from the effects of traffic pollution fought valiantly to bring awareness of the problem to public consciousness.
As soon as lockdown was eased city folk flocked to green spaces; woods, lakes and beaches, desperate to breathe, to experience a vista that went further than the next street, to feel some kind of normal again. But many rural areas, including my beloved Wales, closed themselves to visitors or urged ‘incomers’ to stay away, afraid of disease transmission into parts of the country that had poor medical infrastructure and despairing at the mess and litter left by people who are used to littering city parks without a thought, forgetful or unknowing that the fields and woods of rural Britain are someone’s workplace, someone’s business, or somewhere where council workers don’t follow after you, cleaning up your rubbish. Where it’s up to local residents, farmers and wildlife rangers to keep the land clean and healthy.
So this morning, the first day of the third national lockdown, I go into the garden expecting another great silence and feel a jab of emotion, anger? Fear? Grief? When I hear, as usual, the constant drone and roar of traffic and airplanes. Nothing’s changed, it’s just the same.
I lace up my boots and wrap up in jumper, hat and mittens for my daily walk. Rounding the corner, I am passed by a van puffing out bitter, chemical fumes that catch in my throat. It is very cold, a faint sheen of ice on parts of the pavements. I take my usual route, up a very short steep hill, up out of our dark, rather damp little house-filled valley and onto the top road, then dropping down a hundred meters or so before climbing again beside a wide open green space. At the top of the hill I turn left, away from the road through a stand of graceful white pines and into the park. Here I take off my ubiquitous headphones that I always wear when I’m walking around here, where the traffic is loud and hateful. I take a deep breath under the trees and scent the pine and grass, faint under the city smell. I walk on into the park and after a few meters I am at last in the green, beside trees and blackthorn scrub, home to foxes, rats, a sparrowhawk, crows, songbirds, passing herons and buzzards and gloriously, last year, a family of ravens.
Here I am above the city. Below me are the roofs of houses and the cloud-like billows of many trees. Up here the city looks much greener than it seems at street level. My gods, but I am grateful for this precious, high green space. So grateful for it I could prostrate myself on the muddy ground, churned up by hundreds of other folk, walking dogs and children, escaping for a few minutes from the tarmac and grey, and pray to those gods for the gift of it. I look further, away across the roads to the distant blue line where sky and land merge. I can’t get out there, to the places where I feel I really belong, the lanes and hills and fields of rural Britain. Like millions of others I’m stuck here, longing for there, staying close to home to stay safe, to keep others safe.
The first lockdown I stopped going out for walks, I took the government advice to heart and stayed at home, walking a mile or so every day endlessly up and down my small garden. This time I’m not doing that. Even if my daily walk is limited to the streets around here, to visiting the hill park, to walking in the fumes and pollution of the city, I know now that I have to get out, I have to walk and I’ll just have to do it here, in the city like most everyone else. And even in the city there is nature to be found, so it’s the trees and birds and green spaces that I’ll be seeking out on my daily walks. I’m looking forward to seeing what I discover.