The Summer of Staycations – holidaying in the age of Covid-19

  The lovely coach tours of  Iceland and Japan which I booked last year and had been so looking forward to were cancelled due to the evil virus, and I didn’t fancy a week in a beach resort on my own, panicking in case wherever I was got added to the naughty list and I had to self-isolate for a fortnight … so, like many people, I went for a staycation, and had 9 days in the Lake District.  It’s somewhere very special to me, and, given how little annual leave we get, I normally only go there for day trips or weekends, or a Bank Holiday weekend at most; so it was really rather lovely to get this additional time there, and to visit some areas which I don’t normally get chance to see.  OK, there were some wet times, but there were plenty of dry times, and even some glorious sunshine.  So, what was it like being on holiday in the age of Covid-19?   Did I feel safe in the hotel and in busy tourist places?   How different  was it being in a rural area, where many shops are very small and can only let a few people in at a time, to being in a big city?  And what was it like having to plan everything like a military operation, because you now have to pre-book most things: you can’t just turn up!   Well, it was lovely, but it wasn’t quite like going on holiday in normal times!

It was good to see “no vacancies” signs on nearly all the hotels, B&Bs, guesthouses, rooms, cottage let sites, campsites, etc.  The Lake District and other tourist areas have suffered terribly this year, first with the bad weather in February and early March and then with lockdown.  And it could be some time before overseas visitors come back: there are usually a lot of Japanese and American tourists in the Lakes, and a lot of money was spent last year on promoting the area in China, which, sadly, was money down the drain, not that anyone was to know that at the time.  So, hopefully, the staycation boom we’re seeing this year can give the “Lakeland” economy a much-needed shot in the arm.

However, there are issues with that.  The roads in the Lake District were not built for heavy traffic, there’s a limited amount of parking available, and it can be difficult to stay 3 foot, never mind 6 foot, away from other people on narrow pavements.  There’s also, obviously, concern from residents about large numbers of people coming in at this time, and we’ve also seen a worrying increase in littering in the last few months.  I have to say, though, that I didn’t really experience any problems.  Nowhere was so crowded that I felt that there was anything to worry about, and the issues with parking and traffic were no worse than they usually are on sunny summer days.  However, there isn’t anywhere in the Lakes where people really tend to congregate, because you tend to walk around.  The problems seem to be happening more in beach areas in Devon and Cornwall, where people stay in the same places.

What there were were some issues (what’s another word for “issues”?!)  with limits on the numbers of people allowed into shops and cafes/restaurants.  A few places weren’t open at all.  Most eating places were open, but, with tables having been moved further apart, and not everywhere having the room for outdoor seating, there were queues and waits in some places.  However, nearly everywhere was operating a take-away service, and that was great.  Well, as long as the weather behaved (and there were no wasps around)!   I’ve never eaten and drunk outdoors as much in my life as I’ve done in the last 5 months: it’s like being in an Enid Blyton, Elinor M Brent-Dyer or Lorna Hill book!   It’s lovely.

Except if it’s raining!  Oh, and except for the dogs.  The one big killer about staycations is that so many people have dogs with them.  But, mostly, it’s lovely.  I did eat indoors at the hotel, though: there were outdoor tables, but they weren’t really in use for evening meals.  And the tables in the restaurant had been moved well apart, with some people being asked to sit in the bar or lounge, and the hotel having to turn away people who weren’t staying there.  The hotel restaurant was also providing disposable condiments, so you got little sachets of salt, pepper, vinegar, tomato ketchup, etc, and cutlery rolled in serviettes with “sanitised” stickers on them.  And, at breakfast, you got those little plastic things of jam and marmalade – and there was no breakfast buffet, as buffets are currently no-go.

What else was different at the hotel?  I think that the original idea was for rooms only to be made up if people asked, but people must have got fed up of that, so the rooms were made up daily, as usual, unless you specifically asked for them not to be.  There was hand sanitiser everywhere, in the hotel and in shops and elsewhere.  And the staff were wearing masks in the restaurant, although I have to say that no-one was sticking to the rules about wearing masks in the hotel reception area … but it’s only a small hotel, so it’s not as if there’s a lounge/lobby area where people hang around.  And, at the hotel and in some other places, they were saying that they’d not got as many staff on as usual, so there might be waits … now, was that because of the virus, or was it an excuse?!

People did better with wearing masks in shops, though.  And whilst ordering in cafes, which I have to say is something which people aren’t sticking to at home.  The shop situation is quite different in the Lakes to that at home: here, the shops in the city centre are generally big, and the small shops in the suburbs are generally quiet.  In the Lake District, there are a lot of small shops and, with so many tourists around, there were some queues.  The Co-ops had a “traffic light” system – when the maximum number of people allowed were in the shop, the light went red and the automatic doors closed!

I do wonder how it’s all affecting business.  How long are you going to wait in a queue to buy a postcard or a souvenir fridge magnet, or something else which you’d like but don’t actually need?  One small bookshop was only allowing one person in at a time.  10 minutes’ browsing time max, but, if there are 3 people in front of you, that means you’ll have to wait half an hour to go in.  However much you might want to support local businesses, are you going to wait half an hour, if you’ve got somewhere else to be, or a bored child (or partner, or friend!) tugging at your arm, and you can open the Amazon app on your phone and order a book in a matter of seconds?  I worry about the effect that this is having on small shops, and I don’t know what the answer is.

Oh, and so many places were asking for card payments only!  It doesn’t bother me, but I hardly use cash at all these days, except for some car parking machines which won’t take cards.

The pre-booking was a hassle, though.  I’ve got mixed feelings about this: I understand that some places can get quite crowded, but I think it’s all a bit OTT.  There are enormous estates – not particularly in the Lakes, but in other areas – where large numbers of people can walk around without getting too close to anyone else.  And it is a problem.  Some places let you book well in advance, but you don’t always know that far in advance where you’ll be up to.  Others only let you book a few days in advance, which is even worse, because what if you’ve made plans but then can’t get a slot?  If you’re away for more than a week then, unless you travel with a laptop, you have to try to book on a small mobile phone screen, which isn’t easy.  And some places are very inconsistent about when they make the next week’s tickets available and, if you’re out or working, you can’t be checking the website every five minutes.  Then there’s the Great British Weather.  You book your tickets for outdoor seats on a boat trip or a walk round some nice gardens … and then, on the day, the rain is coming down in torrents!

And it’s the timing.  With the National Trust, you only get a 30 minute slot.  You can’t even go into the car park before that, or go in at all after it.  If you’re travelling some distance, it’s very hard to be within 30 minutes: traffic conditions can vary a lot from one day to another.  And, if you want to go somewhere beforehand, it’s a nightmare: how can you know exactly how long you’ll want to be at the first place, or how long you might have to queue for the tea rooms or the toilets, and that’s before you even start with the traffic.  So, yep, I see the problem, but it is undoubtedly a pain.  And I just want to have a moan at Ullswater Steamers, who refuse to sell single tickets.  Windermere Lake Cruises, the Coniston Launch and the Keswick Launch are quite happy to sell single tickets – which I appreciate in particular from lovely Windermere Lake Cruises, of whom I’m a regular customer, because they’re allocating seats so it is an issue if they’ve got to leave one empty because a customer is on their own.  I hope this isn’t going to be an issue with theatres and cinemas get going again.  I’ve already seen someone getting upset online because they’d been told that they couldn’t book a single ticket for a scenic railway … again, Windermere were great about this, and let me book a single ticket for the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway.

I suppose the pre-booking avoids having to queue for the ticket office, and rush to be near the front of the queue when the steamers are ready for boarding.  But it is generally a bit of a pain!   But, hey, at least things are open and up and running again!  I booked a Windermere Lake Cruise as soon as they started running again, in July, and I did three more (yes, three!) during my staycation, including the cruise which is combined with the steam railway trip. I spent some time in lovely, familiar Bowness, and Waterhead, and also at Ambleside which I don’t usually have time to walk round properly.  And I stayed in Grasmere and went to Coniston, Hawkshead and Near Sawrey, which I usually do in daffodil time, late March/early April.  I usually do the walk from Wray Castle to Claife Heights in May, when the bluebells are out: this year, I did it in August.  And I walked all the way back, seeing as the small boats which usually take you back to Bowness weren’t running because of the virus!  And I also went to Keswick, Bassenthwaite (where a bride and groom were having their photos taken), Borrowdale, Muncaster Castle, Holker Hall and Pooley Bridge, and, hey, I walked from Grasmere to Rydal.  And, as usual, stopped off at SIzergh Castle on the way home.  So it was a busy 9 days.  But it was lovely.

I miss going abroad, though.  I’m hoping desperately that I’ll be able to do my Iceland and Japan trips next year: I’ve rebooked them.  But, in this strange year, I had a lovely staycation, and I’ll never forget those 9 days in my beloved Lake District.  I’ve often regretted the fact that I don’t get chance to spend more time there.  This summer, I did.