Seeking peace in nature: Back to Life with the National Trust and English Heritage

In these troubled times, it can be difficult to find peace.  One of the best ways of doing so is walking through woodlands or gardens, and so I’m delighted that Dunham Massey, Lyme Park, Quarry Bank Mill (Styal) and Tatton Park have reopened, and that Brodsworth Hall and Beeston Castle will be reopening this weekend.   “Something kindly, beautiful, peaceful and stable … evoked whenever the name of England was spoken.”  (Reay Tannahill, Passing Glory).  You have to book, they won’t let you into the gardens at Dunham and Lyme for some irritating reason, and there’s a disappointing lack of takeaway tea and scones;  but it’s a start.

Nature doesn’t care about coronavirus.  The flowers are still coming, the fruit and vegetables are still coming, the deer are still wandering around in the deer park at Dunham, and birds have been nesting in the woods at Lyme whilst there’ve been no humans around.  You can walk and walk, enjoy the timelessness of the woods and the beauty of the flowers, and forget about everything that’s happening for a little while.  Lockdown spring’s come and gone, and now we’re into the summer with no Wimbledon; but it’s still summer, and the natural world continues to turn, turn, turn.  It’s good to leave everything else behind for a few hours, and lose yourself in that.

I went to Dunham Massey on Saturday and Lyme Park on Sunday.  It was certainly different to all the previous visits I’ve made to either of them.  There were cones all along the roads outside, to stop people from parking there and walking in.  We really are in a difficult position at the moment.  People are bored and fed up and feeling trapped, and shops, cinemas, theatres etc still closed, and sport are only just getting going again.  We need somewhere to go.  But there are issues with overcrowding.  I’ve seen some very nasty sneery comments about this, and I suspect that most of them are coming from people who do not live in densely-populated urban areas where public parks are getting very crowded and many people do not have gardens.  It’s not easy.

And stupid local councils are not making things any easier by refusing to unlock public toilets, sealing up bins and closing car parks.  Having said which, there’s no excuse for people parking all over the place, dropping litter, and trying to break into places which are closed.  I’m missing the Lake District like mad but am staying away as I know the authorities there don’t want too many visitors, and it annoys the hell out of me when I see pictures of litter being dropped all over the place.  Could we all make more effort, please?  That also goes for the people ignoring the “one way only” signs at Hollingworth Lake.  People were even ignoring the signs asking visitors to go into the Lyme Park toilets one way and out the other.  Come on, folks.  I’m sure we can all follow an arrow.

Anyway, to get back to the cones, sites which have reopened are presently admitting people for pre-booked visits only.  It’s a bit of a hassle.  If you’re working, you’re restricted as to when you can go, so you have to be very efficient about booking.  Then you have to stress about making your timeslot – not so bad at the moment, but might be more difficult once traffic gets heavier again – and can’t change it if the Great British Weather does not smile on you.  It’s hardly ideal for the National Trust or English Heritage either: they’re expecting big losses this year, the actual houses won’t be opening for some time yet, and a lot of people have cancelled their memberships, so they urgently need more visitors, not fewer.  But nothing’s perfect at the moment, and we’ve got to go with it – and focus on the positives.  And these really are very big positives.  We’ve still got these places.  They’re still there.

I didn’t half need to get out at the weekend.  I know that many people have been furloughed from work, and that many others are still working but getting tremendous support from their employers.  I’m working from home but we’ve had no support whatsoever, just complaining, and, with my holiday having had to be cancelled, I really was feeling quite down and very trapped … and the National Trust picked me back up.

The familiarity helped, for one thing.  Does that sound strange?  I’ve been seeing an awful lot more of my own house and garden recently than I do usually, and of my local park, so looking for more “old familiar places” might seem odd, but they’re familiar in a different way: they’re places which I associate with comfort and relaxation, with getting out and about.  And with scones, but hopefully the tearooms will reopen before too long!

And they’re so big!  Lyme Park in particular.  I walked round parts of the woodland there which I’ve never been to before: I usually spend most of my time there in the gardens.  Climb over a stile and you’re out on the hills, the Peaks – all that Manchester Rambler feeling.  You can just wander and wander.  It’s all open.  You feel so free.  And it’s quite hard to feel free when you can’t go on holiday, you can’t go out to a café for a drink and a scone, and, unless you sit outside, you can’t even go round to a relative or friend’s house for tea.  But, in the deer park at Dunham, out amongst the trees, or in the hills and woodlands of the Lyme estate, you can.

And, next week, all being well, I’m looking forward to visiting Styal and Tatton, where, hooray, the gardens are open, and I’ll literally be able to stop and smell the roses!   This year, I haven’t been able to see the daffodils at Chirk Castle or Biddulph Grange, I haven’t been able to see the bluebells at Windermere or Erddig or Capesthorne Hall, and I haven’t been able to see the laburnum arch at Bodnant Garden.   OK, I’ve seen daffodils and bluebells at the local park, but I always go to visit particular places at particular times: anxious people don’t like having their routines interrupted, and I’m particularly fond of those places.  But we’re moving on now, and I’m going to have a few hours of getting away from the uncertainty (I do not cope well with being unable to plan ahead), from the doom and gloom on the news, from the nastiness – all that Spirit of the Blitz/communities pulling together stuff we were hearing about in April didn’t last very long, did it 😦 – and from feeling trapped, and being able to stop and smell the roses, just as I’ve already had a few hours of walking through fields (at Nostell Priory, the first National Trust property in the North of England to reopen) and woodlands.  And that is something for which I am extremely grateful.

 

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran

Wordsworth

 

 

Football’s coming back!

I’ve just inscribed on my calendar, for a fortnight on Friday, 14 glorious characters – “Spurs (A) 8:15pm”.  I don’t know why I’ve put “(A)”, because, whether it’s at White Hart Lane, Old Trafford or the Maracanã, I sadly will not be able to attend in person.  I don’t even know why I’ve put it on my calendar at all, because it’s not as if I’m likely to double book myself by arranging to go to the theatre, the cinema or a wild party that night.  But it felt so good just to be writing it – even if it was rather odd seeing a Premier League fixture written on a day when I’d already noted that England would have a Euro 2020 group match and the Queen’s and Halle tennis tournaments would be taking place.  It’s coming back, it’s coming back, it’s coming, football’s coming back!!

The huge upsurge in interest in German football since the return of the Bundesliga’s shown how much football is being missed.   La Liga and Serie A aren’t back yet, but, in attention to the Bundesliga, I’ve found Portuguese, Danish and Polish football on my TV, and I believe that Norwegian football’s coming soon!  But it’s not like being able to watch our own teams, our own league.  Bring it on!   But let’s all behave, please.  There’ve been some unwelcome scenes in Portugal: we don’t want to see that repeated anywhere else.  And, whilst we get excited over the return of the Premier League, the Championship and the Cup, and then, hopefully, the Champions League and the Europa League, let’s not forget all the clubs lower down the pyramid and beyond, and the women’s teams.  But, when Villa and Sheffield United walk out at Villa Park on June 17th, to kick off the restarted season, it’s going to be a big moment.

And I also want to say that I’m very proud of all the good work done by the Manchester United Foundation, and by individual players, especially Marcus Rashford, in these very difficult times, and that other clubs and players have done similar work.  I’m sure that that will continue.

Football matches with no fans are very weird.  We saw that when United played LASK Linz behind closed doors back in March.  It’s sad for us that we can’t go to matches, or even meet our families and friends to watch them on TV together, and it’s sad for the players that they’ve got to play without crowds.  Some players, especially those with household members in vulnerable groups, have expressed concerns about the restart, and hopefully no-one who doesn’t feel comfortable playing will be asked to do so.   And the situation is a huge blow for all the cafes, pubs, souvenir stalls etc near the grounds, which depend on income from fans going to matches or stadium tours, and for the economy as a whole.

Then, putting club rivalries aside, there’s the strange situation which Liverpool are in.  Surely, surely, Liverpool will clinch the title, maybe even within the first week of the restart.  I’ve got concerns about all clubs being asked to play so many matches in such a short space of time, especially when the players aren’t going to be at peak physical fitness, but these are strange times.   Liverpool are so close.  The title surely can’t be far away.   And they should have what United had 27 years ago.  Is it really 27 years?   Our first title for 26 years.  It was incredible: it was one of the best feelings of my life.  The Sunday when Villa slipped up against Oldham and the title was ours, and the Bank Holiday Monday night when we lifted the trophy.  Liverpool have waited 30 years – Jordan Henderson should be lifting the trophy in front of a packed, delirious Anfield crowd, people should be celebrating into the night, and then there should be an open top bus tour.  But none of that can happen.  And I’m so sorry about that.  Take that from a Manchester United season ticket holder!

But at least the Premier League and Championship  season will, all being well, be finished.  At least Liverpool should get their title, their reward for their superb season, and they will actually have that moment of winning it, not have it decided by some mathematical formula.  In some countries – France, Belgium and indeed Scotland – the league seasons won’t be finished.   Nor will they in League 1, League 2 and all the women’s leagues here.  Places have been or will be decided one way or another – points per match, current standings, whatever works best – but it’s not the same as finishing it properly.  In some of the lower leagues here – I’m talking non-league leagues (silly expression, isn’t it?!) – the season’s been declared null and void.   OK, there are more important things than football, but that’s still sad – especially for those clubs set for promotion in the leagues where the season’s been scrapped completely.  We’re going to finish.  The title, the European places and the relegation places will be decided, fair and square.  And we’re going to have football back!

We’re going to have football back!  For an awful lot of us, life is pretty empty without sport.  Sporting fixtures and events mark out the year.   Weekends revolve around football fixtures.  Supporting a football club is part of our identity, of who we are.  Football is what people talk about – with their families, their friends, their colleagues, their schoolmates.  And life’s pretty empty full stop at the moment.   We can’t go to the theatre, the cinema, the pub, restaurants, cafes, or even round to see our families and friends.  Holidays are being cancelled right, left and centre.  You can’t go out anywhere without stressing about whether or not there’s going to be a toilet available!  We’ve already lost 2020’s Wimbledon, the Grand National, the Boat Race and so much else.   The Olympics have been postponed until next year.  Euro 2020’s now Euro 2021.

It should have been such a glorious summer of sport.  Most of that’s gone.  The US Open tennis hasn’t officially been postponed yet, but it’s very hard to see it happening: Rafa said straight out yesterday that it can’t happen, as things are.  But at least we’re going to have the Premier League, the Championship and the Cup back.

Football’s coming back!

Bring it on …

 

 

 

Blackpool

I went to Blackpool yesterday!!   I’d have expected to go this coming Sunday instead: I’ve got a ritual of going to Blackpool for a long walk before coming home to watch the French Open men’s singles final.  But, whilst there’s no French Open this month 😦 , there’ll always be Blackpool.  So off I went.

I know that many people are nervous about going out, and also that there are mixed feelings in tourist areas about the urgent need to restart the economy versus concerns about the risks of visitors coming in.  There are no easy answers to any of this.  I will say that walking along the wide pedestrianised areas of the Prom, and of course the beach, was a lot easier and safer than walking along narrow pavements in housing estates, having to step into the road whenever someone comes the other way, or dodging cyclists and gangs of bored teenagers in busy city parks.  And it felt great … to see the sea, to feel the famous Blackpool breeze making my already messy hair even messier, to see our beloved Tower, and to hope that The Scales would forgive me for eating ice cream and fish and chips!

The vast majority of people, whether walking along or sitting on the beach, were trying very hard to observe social distancing.  I did see a few large groups, and I also saw the police completely ignoring them.  I see this every day in my local park.  I don’t know what the answer to that is.  I do understand that two or three police officers, on foot, probably feel uneasy about tackling a group of 20 or 25 people.  But the majority of people were sticking to the rules.

And, to get back to the diet-breaking, yes, there were loads of food places open!  Places like McDonald’s weren’t, so the local, independently-owned food places were taking all the money, which was great.  The chippy which I went to had plastic screens up to protect staff, who were wearing gloves, and customers were being asked to go in one door and out another, and to wait 6 ft apart.  That was great.  Other places weren’t trying so hard:  at those, staff were not wearing gloves, and people were being told that only cash payments would be accepted for transactions under £5.  But most were really making an effort, and it was wonderful to see them open.

It was sad to see all three piers closed off, and the Tower, Madame Tussaud’s, the Pleasure Beach and all the amusement arcades closed, as well as all the hotels.  One of the big amusement places had posters in its window, innocently put up earlier in the year, advertising family fun days for Easter weekend, VE Day and Euro 2020.  I could have cried.   Our tourist places have been hit so terribly hard by this.  Hotels remain shut, and it’s proving hard to get answers about when they’re likely to reopen, even if they’re allowed to reopen in July as currently planned.  And, even if attractions are able to reopen within the next couple of months, visitor numbers will have to be limited.  Also, it’s June already, we’re not far off the Longest Day and then (to state the obvious!) days will start getting shorter, and this good weather can’t last for ever.  People won’t be rushing off for a week or even a day on the beach in November.   So I was very pleased to see people in Blackpool yesterday.  It’s a difficult balancing act, but we need to get the economy going again.

But, hooray, the toilets were open!  By the afternoon, the queues were very long – someone should write a new version of that George Formby song about Blackpool Prom, and change the bit about queues for drinks and trams to queues for toilets! – because the usual options of using the toilets in cafes, pubs, restaurants and amusement arcades weren’t there, but at least they were open.  Some local councils haven’t shown the sense or decency to reopen toilets.  Get them all open, please.  A tannoy reminded people – not that people should need reminding, but still – to put all rubbish in bins, and, to be fair, people were doing that.

Food places were open.  Toilets were open.  Blackpool was open.  The sea was there.  The beach was there.  It had a bit of a nostalgic 1950s feel: with amusement arcades closed and no option to sit in cafes, everyone was eating ice cream and fish and chips on the beach, and kids were playing football or cricket or making sandcastles with buckets and spades.  And, as I’ve said, most people were trying very hard not to get too close to others.

And it was fun.  It was lovely.  I enjoyed myself. These are very difficult times.  We deserve to enjoy ourselves.  And we need to get the economy going: we’re already facing a severe recession and large numbers of job losses.   But we need to be careful.  And most people were being careful.  As I’ve said, it’s a balancing act.  Everyone will have their own views, and what’s right for one person may not be right for another, but I never once felt unsafe.  I just felt happy and relaxed – and I really needed to feel like that.  And Blackpool can do that, even in these weird times.

If you feel safe going out, it’s OK to do so.  If you don’t, you don’t.  Everyone’s circumstances are different.  But this worked for me.

 

 

 

Return to the National Trust

Oh, National Trust properties, how I am missing thee!  This is the first year in a long time that I haven’t been able to see the daffodils at Chirk Castle and Biddulph Grange, lambing week at Tatton Park, the bluebells along the western shore of Windermere and at Erddig, and the laburnum arch at Bodnant Garden.  Will I be able to see the rose garden at Dunham Massey this year?  I’ve known it since before it was born: I remember it being planted.  And I’m not half missing the scones!  But yesterday, for the first time in over two months, I was able to go to a National Trust property!   Nostell Priory.  It’s the only actual NT property (as opposed to stand alone car park) in the entire North of England which has reopened so far, and you can only visit the parkland, not the gardens; but it’s a start.  And it was wonderful!   It’s difficult to express the feelings of joy and freedom at being able to walk through fields for the first time in over two months, of being able to see nothing *other* than fields, of walking and walking without having to dodge cyclists, zig-zagging skateboarders and dogs which aren’t on leads, of being under wide open skies.

Coronavirus has taken a lot of things, and, for the last couple of months, that’s included something very valuable, which people in the 1930s – the leader of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass came from just a couple of miles down the road from chez moi, as I often remind people! – fought hard for us, the ordinary people of this country’s towns and cities, to have, access to open space.  Now, we can take baby steps towards having that again.  As long as we’re careful, and sensible.  My visit yesterday had to be pre-booked, with only a limited number of spaces available.

This situation is an absolute nightmare for the NT.  It is for so many organisations: Sky News ran a report on Friday about the number of museums fearing that they might have to close.  As far as the NT goes, all those awful storms we had in February and March meant that visitor numbers for the calendar year were down before lockdown even started, and then they had to close all their properties and car parks, and cancel all the bookings for their holiday lets.  There’s been talk of a £200 million loss for this year.   Caring for historic properties and the valuable items inside them is not cheap: it’s not just a case of turning off the lights and locking the doors.  Then there are the gardens, and the work that goes into them.  Some environmental projects will have to be scrapped, and NT Scotland’s even talking about having to sell off land.  A lot of people, concerned about their own finances with many businesses unable to open until lockdown restrictions are eased, have felt unable to renew their memberships.

So, hopefully, this last couple of weeks, with the easing of some restrictions, and the reopening of some car parks and some parkland, will mark the start of the way back.  It certainly needs to, for all our sakes.  It really was so good to be back!

These are very difficult times.  The term “social distancing” didn’t exist until the middle of March.  Until then, the concept of having to stay 6 ft away from other people would have sounded like something from one of those weird dystopian novels of which I can never see the attraction.  No-one’s ever had to deal with anything like this before.  And it’s all being made far more difficult by the fact that so many people are more interested in scoring political points than in the public good and trying to find workable ways to move forward.

One of the biggest issues at the moment is that of access to open space for people from urban and suburban areas.  I could cheerfully slap the people going on about how everyone should “Stay local and enjoy the countryside around them”.  Are these people actually familiar with the term “conurbation”?  What countryside around us?!  Most of them are probably the same people tut-tutting over pictures of large numbers of people in city parks.  Yes, there are a lot of people in city parks.   Where else are we all supposed to go?  A lot of people in cities and towns don’t have gardens.  Kids have been off school for over two months and are bored stiff.

Almost all National Trust properties are still closed.  English Heritage have said that they won’t be reopening any of theirs until July.  Independently-owned estates where there’s usually access to parks and gardens are closed.  I gather that there’s uncertainty regarding whether or not it’s OK to reopen pay-for-entry attractions: I don’t understand why this applies to parks and gardens (although I know there’s concern about crowding in small gardens) but not parkland, when non-members have to pay to park to go in the parkland, and members don’t pay to go into gardens, but there clearly is an issue.  I know that the managers of Blenheim Palace have said that they’d love to reopen their park and gardens, but understand that they won’t be allowed to until July.  And I suspect that a lot of places are staying shut because taking the furlough payments is bringing in more money than reopening would, certainly whilst tearooms and shops have to stay shut.

So there aren’t a lot of places to go to.  There’ve been pictures of crowds in some places, and traffic jams building up.  Obviously that’s no good.  It’s risky for anyone to be in a crowd at the moment, and it’s risky for local communities.  Some rural areas, notably South Lakeland, have had very high rates of infection, and certainly don’t need that making any worse.  But just saying “Don’t visit,” and trying to deny people from urban and suburban areas any access to any open space is no good either.  There are issues of physical and mental health.  And national parks are actually supposed to be for everyone’s benefit.  As for this bizarre thing of trying to control people by refusing to unlock public toilets, even George Orwell never thought of that one.  All that’s doing is driving people to make, ahem, alternative arrangements, and I’m sure no-one wants that happening.

This is an extremely difficult time, and I don’t know what the answers are; but we need to try to find some, and that’s not going to happen until everyone starts working together.  A lot of places are facing similar issues: there’ve been concerns about the numbers of people visiting beaches in northern France, in Catalunya, in the Netherlands, in Florida, and elsewhere.  We do need to find ways of dealing with this which are fair to everyone, and that’s not going to be easy.   But we need to try, and, with so many people either taking an “I’m all right, Jack,” attitude or prioritising political points-scoring over the general good, that’s not happening as much as it should be.  But the National Trust, with the reopening of some parkland on a ticketed basis, are trying.

I’ll be interested to hear how they found this first weekend back.  There was certainly room for more people without any issues with social distancing: the Nostell Priory estate is absolutely vast.  So are the estates at Shugborough, Hardwick Hall and Fountains Abbey, to name but three.  I very much hope that more properties will be reopening their parkland soon, and that tea rooms will soon be able to open, even if it’s only for either takeaways or outdoor seating, as well.  The term “cultural bonfire” was used on Sky News on Friday: it wasn’t actually a very good one, but the point was made.  We don’t want to lose these places.  And we need access to open space.  Thank you so much to the National Trust for letting me have today’s much-need and much-appreciated visit, and I hope that there’ll be more to come soon.

Football without fans

I’ve received an e-mail from Old Trafford, saying that refunds are to be issued to season ticket holders for the remaining matches of the season.  We’ve known for weeks, months, that fans wouldn’t be returning to matches this season, even if the season can be completed in the three top divisions – it’s already been abandoned at other levels in England, and in Scotland.  I knew this had to happen.  I knew that City had contacted their season ticket holders last week.  I’m glad that the clubs are doing the right thing and offering refunds rather than credit notes.  But still – it’s so final.  No more match going for this season.   And who knows what’ll happen next season, if there even is a next season?  You can’t exactly practise social distancing inside a 78,000-seater stadium filled to capacity, not to mention on the crowded trams before and afterwards.  The Dutch government’s talking about banning fans from matches until there’s a vaccine.  I’m trying to forget that I read that.

Four generations of our family have gone to matches at Old Trafford.  Or, whisper this, on one side of the family, to Anfield.  Families all over the country can say the same.  People go with their relatives, or with their friends.  Or on their own – you make friends with other people who sit near you, even if they’re only there for one match.  We’re all their together.  It’s an amazing bonding experience.

In any pub, or park, or workplace, or school playground, you’ll hear people talking about football, whether it’s with fellow fans of their own team or “banter” with fans of a rival team.  I know some dads and sons (it’s not such an issue with daughters or mums – we can always find plenty to talk about!) who hardly talk about much else other than football!  If the season can be completed, as it’s being in Germany, it’ll be something, but it won’t be the same.  I’ve watched some of the fanless Bundesliga matches.  I watched United’s behind-closed-doors with LASK Linz just before professional football was suspended.  Football without fans is very odd.  Owt’s certainly better than nowt, but it’s very odd.

And the thought of months, maybe more, without being able to go to matches, without that buzz, that excitement, that shared feeling, the shared celebrations, the shared moaning and groaning and criticising, is just horrible.  Going to football matches has been part of my life since I was a little kid and nagged Dad into taking me to Old Trafford with him.

It can’t be helped, as things are.  We all accept that.  And yes, I do know that far worse things are happening.  But, as former AC Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi once said, “football is the most important of the least important things”.

And spare a thought for the forgotten losers in all this.  As I’ve just said, it can’t be helped, but think about the knock-on effect of football without fans, or no football at all.  Think about the people who run the cafes and pubs near the grounds.  The people who operate the burger stands, hot dog stands, drinks stalls and ice cream vans – and remember that most of them will also usually work at music festivals, which have also been wiped out.  The people who run the souvenir stalls outside the grounds – and, at big clubs, they’re there every day, not just on match days.  The offices and factories which make a little extra money by charging fans to use their car parks on match days.  The local transport networks.  Anyone who’s ever been on a Metrolink tram half an hour or so before United or City are due to kick off at home can well imagine what a hit Metrolink are going to take from this, at a time when they’re suffering so badly anyway.  The hotels where visiting fans stay.  The whole economy of a footballing town or city.

Remember all the devastation about the effect that Bury being expelled from the Football League would have on the economy of the entire town of Bury?  That’s now happening to every single town and city in the country which has got one or more professional football, rugby league or rugby union teams, or is home to county cricket.   And football without fans, or maybe no football at all, is going to have a similar effect in towns and cities in Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece … the list goes on and on.

There’s always been football.  In 2013, when I had such severe anxiety and depression that the doctor wanted me to go to the emergency psych unit at Crumpsall Hospital and I was off work for three months, I still never missed a match.  Although the counsellor said that I had a setback due to the emotional trauma caused by Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement!

There’s always been football.  Now there isn’t.  I know that people have got very mixed feelings about trying to finish the season.  I can see both points of view, but, if it can be done safely, I very much hope that it can happen – things seemed to go OK in Germany last weekend.  But football without fans, fans without football matches to go to … that makes me very sad.  I do know that football isn’t “much more serious” than life and death.  But it’s still very serious to a lot of people.  And, whilst we understand and accept that we won’t be going to matches for a long time yet, that doesn’t mean that we’re not devastated by it.  And our local economies are going to be hit very hard by it as well.

Our world’s been turned upside down.  Not being able to go to football matches might not be the biggest part of that, but, to a lot of people, it’s a big part.

 

 

 

Mental Health Awareness Week

“Our streets are not empty.  They are filled with the love and the care that we have for each other,” as the Queen said.  The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week is kindness; and I’m extremely grateful to everyone who’s shown that to me, and to other people, especially to those in vulnerable groups.  However, obviously these are very challenging times.  I’m actually getting quite a mental health boost from working from home – it means that I’m much less anxious, and have got more time to exercise and to enjoy spending time in the park; and I’m not having anything like the usual eating issues.  But that hardly makes up for all the other difficulties caused by this horrible virus.   Please take care of yourselves and, if you’re in a position to do so, of others.  Please be kind.  And, if you’re struggling, please do as Tears for Fears said (shout, shout, let it all out).

We’re separated from our families and friends.  We’re concerned that we or our loved ones may contract the virus.  Many lives have sadly been lost, and the bereaved haven’t even been able to have the comfort of a proper funeral or other religious/cultural mourning rituals.  If people have got other health concerns, they may well be nervous about seeking medical help.  Whilst it’s great that we’ve got the furloughing scheme and its equivalent for self-employed people, which is far more than many countries have been able to offer, it unfortunately seems inevitable that many businesses will not survive this, and that others will have to make redundancies.  Parents are having to try to school children at home.  Holidays, sporting events, theatre trips and weddings have all been cancelled.  We can’t really go for days out (public toilets are closed!), or even for a cup of tea and a cake in a tearoom.  Feeling that you look a mess because your hair urgently needs cutting and dyeing doesn’t help matters any!  And there’s no prospect of things returning to normal any time soon.  So Mental Health Awareness Week has even more significance than usual this year.

However, it’s not all bad.  Despite having long-term issues with anxiety and depression, I have to say that, during the working day, I actually feel far better working at home than I do at any office.   I’m probably getting much more done, without the constant interruptions of phone calls and general mithering.  And it’s a much healthier lifestyle.  I’ve had a lifetime of weight struggles and eating disorders (and am getting rather concerned about the recent trend for coronavirus to be used to demonise overweight people), but I’ve (touch wood!) been able to lose a bit of weight during lockdown, because I can go out for a long walk every day (ahem, dinner hour tends to be more like an hour and a half).  I do go to the gym twice a week normally, but, when you’ve been trapped in an office all day and are tired, hungry and fed up, you tend not to achieve brilliant results: it’s much easier to exercise earlier in the day.  And, without the general anxiety of being trapped in an office, I don’t comfort eat/binge eat anything like as much.

When lockdown first started, I found banks of daffodils in the park which I never knew were there – even though I’ve been going to the park since I was a baby.  We used to go for primary school “nature walks” in there!   The daffodils went, but then the bluebells and the blossom came.  Everything’s come early this year: it’s as if it knew we needed cheering up.  The azaleas are out now, and the rhododendrons.  I saw the ducklings and, these last few weeks, the goslings, as soon as they were out in public.  Even the peacocks from the farm centre have flown out to see what’s going on.   Compare that to rushing along the pavement, breathing in the rush hour traffic fumes, on your way to being trapped in an office all day.

There isn’t that awful pressure of having to be somewhere at a specific time, even if there’s a problem that you need to resolve.  There’s no frantically rushing about in your dinner hour, trying to get things done and meeting long queues everywhere because everyone else is in the same position.  There are no queues for the kitchen.  And, hooray, there are no noisy people bellowing down the phone on hands-free, with no thought for anyone else, or coughing, sneezing and snivelling all day!

One of the main reasons I had severe anxiety issues seven years ago was an ongoing saga with my boiler. Whenever you need to get an engineer in, you’re told that they’ll come “between 8 and 5” or “between 12 and 6”.  I quite understand that they can’t give you a specific time, but how do you manage if you’re trapped at work with only the legal minimum number of days’ annual leave?  Usually, in my case, ask my wonderful mum and dad to house-sit … but then I feel guilty about it, and also worry because I can’t be there to oversee it myself.  Same issue if you’re waiting for a delivery.  Or what if you need to sit in with someone who’s not well and can’t be left alone?  I’ve known desperate people send sick kids to school.  And I’ve also known people have their pay or their annual leave docked when they’ve been physically unable to get to their workplaces due to extreme weather.   Working from home has an awful lot of things going for it!  I hope we’ll see a lot more of it in future.

Having said all that, I live in fear and dread of problems with something happening which can’t be sorted out by an engineering visit.  Every morning, I feel ill in case there’s a horrible scary update on my phone, or an issue with the internet, the computer or Sky TV.  We’re very reliant on technology.  But thank goodness it’s there.  Imagine doing this thirty years ago.

I’ve seen Mum and Dad (at a 6 foot difference!), and some other relatives and friends whom I’ve been lucky enough to see whilst out for my daily walks, but my sister, brother-in-law and nephews live 200 miles away, and I haven’t seen them since February.  Nor have I seen most of my other relatives and friends.  But we’ve got Facebook, and WhatsApp.  To go back to the theme of kindness, people have been amazing, over social= media.  I’ve had friends tagging me in posts about things they think might interest me, and sending messages to ask how I am, and there’ve even been Facebook “parties”.  Plus, of course, so many things have been made available for free online.

And, whilst I can’t see many of my loved ones, I’ve had chats (at a safe distance) in the park with people I barely know, or haven’t seen for years.   The window cleaner asked how I was.  So did a delivery driver dropping some stuff off for one of the neighbours.  So have neighbours, even those I don’t know very well, and casual acquaintances, some of whom I don’t even know by name, only by face.   I’ve asked how other people are too, I hasten to add!

There’s been so much kindness.  People helping to raise money for good causes – Captain Tom Moore’s a national hero.  All the people who volunteered to help the NHS.  People doing shopping for vulnerable people – so many people cannot leave their homes for 12 weeks, or aren’t under official shielding orders but are still nervous about going out.  Football clubs and other organisations helping out in the community.

Of course, sadly, it isn’t all like that.   There are the inconsiderate people who leave their horrible dogs to bark in their gardens all day, play loud music at unsociable hours, or jog or cycle past you at a distance that’s more like six inches than six feet, not giving you time to try to get out of the way.  And, far worse, there are the vile people who are more interested in political points-scoring than in the general good.  The Guardian newspaper (in its case, I use the term “newspaper” loosely) has seemed at times to be stopping barely short of celebrating every British and American death, and will no doubt greet every business collapse with great glee.  Despicable people like Miriam Margolyes have spoken of wishing that the Prime Minister would die.  Instead of being pleased to see that some small businesses are still able to operate, and offering them their support, some people have made spiteful comments about the fact that gardeners and window cleaners are still working, even though they don’t come into contact with anyone else and are wearing gloves.

I’ve been very saddened by some of the things I’ve seen on social media and in the general media – at a time when we need to be united, some people seem intent on promoting division and trying to whip up hatred.  The spite, the venom, the bitterness – even in normal times, never mind troubled times, is there any need for this sort of thing?  But I’m trying to ignore it, and to focus on the majority of people, who, regardless of their political views, are kind and decent.  It’s not good for anyone’s mental health to get worked up about the nastiness of a minority.  Nor about the fact that, in eight weeks of lockdown, my employers have not once so much as sent round an e-mail saying that they hope everyone is well, although individual colleagues are asking each other.

Focus on the nice people!   But it’s a tough time for everyone, despite the fact that so much kindness is being shown.  There’s no denying it.  I’m one of the lucky ones – I’m still working, I’ve got a garden, and I’ve got a big park within walking distance.  But it’s still so tough.  And there’s no prospect of things getting back to normal any time soon. Even when football, hopefully, resumes, fans won’t be allowed to go to matches.  There’s no likelihood of professional tennis resuming any time soon.  Nor of theatres reopening.  I can’t even see that the Christmas markets will be allowed to operate this year.  I miss the Lake District.  I miss Old Trafford.  I miss my favourite cafes.  I miss the National Trust properties.   I miss the cinema.  I’ve only even been into town once since lockdown started, and that was for blood donation.  And I miss my hairdresser!!

I’m very, very upset about the travel situation.  Coach trips are the high points of my year: the prospect of them has kept me going through some pretty grim times.  Even if sunbathing holidays become possible again, what about coach trips?   And when will it even be possible to go away for a few days in the UK?  My first choice would be the Lake District, but it keeps giving out a “no visitors, please” message, and I respect that.  The National Trust are saying that, when properties or even just car parks reopen, it’ll be for limited numbers and you’ll have to book – and, if you live in a densely-populated area and have to work during the week, you’ll be very lucky to get a slot.

And when will we ever get to be with our families and friends again?

There’s just the general disruption, as well as all the specific things.  Any sort of major change to your routine takes some getting used to.  When everything changes at once … that’s a lot to take.

We all need to take care of our mental health, and to keep an eye on those around us – not easy, when we aren’t seeing those we care about and who care about us.  But kindness is a very fitting theme for this year.  There’s a lot of it around.  We all need to try to contribute to it as much as we can.

If you’ve read this, thank you.  Be kind.  And stay safe and well xxx.