A fair Saturday afternoon in July should be peak season for Thorpe Park, but with a limited number of guests, many can walk straight onto rollercoasters and forgo the typically nightmarish queues. Some rides, including the ghost train, stayed shut.
“It’s better than normal today as it’s not too busy”, says Charlotte Knight, 29, who drove her 10-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son from Northampton to the park in Chertsey, Surrey.
Changes have been made to keep everyone safe at the park: there are temperature checks at the entrance, and gift shops operate a one-way system. Mostly strangely of all, face masks must now be worn on all rides.
Given that the rollercoasters go up to 80mph, upside down, and round like a corkscrew, keeping them on is a challenge. My homemade mask was not up to the task, and during a dramatic swoop downwards on one ride it made a bid for freedom. I caught it with both hands, just in time for the ride’s official photograph. The trick, I learn afterwards, is to keep part of the mask clamped between your teeth.
This has a downside: it is nearly impossible to scream. Finding the right picture at the photograph booth is a bit of a challenge. “Usually I search for faces, but everyone looks the same with face masks on,” says the attendant.
Every other photograph is of an empty row of seats. Others show people struggling to grip onto their mask. Many of the attractions at the park have a dystopian theme.
At the log flume, which is also closed, rusted agricultural buildings are sunk into the pool. A rollercoaster called The Swarm has a plane torn in half, an upturned ambulance and crashed fire engine. “Major incident site” reads a sign above the near-deserted queue, which now seems to have a rather more sinister meaning.
Kiosks offering face painting and temporary tattoos are closed off, for obvious reasons. With these hygiene systems in place, it seems unimaginable to go back to sitting next to a stranger on a ride while their nose leaks at 80mph.
As the day wears on, the park starts to fill up. As people complain of 45 minute queues for rides, things started to feel a bit more normal.
When 72-year-old Roger Phillips began his car journey from Liverpool to London on Friday afternoon, he felt strangely nervous. It was one of the first times that the presenter for BBC Radio Merseyside had left the house - other than to walk his dog and go to the supermarket - since the start of lockdown.
It was a journey worth making. That evening, after nearly six hours of driving, he was reunited with his 33-year-old daughter Ellie for the first time since Christmas. The pair, who say they're more like "best mates" than father and daughter, have spoken on Facetime almost everyday during lockdown.
But nothing could beat the feeling of a real life hug. “It was a wonderful moment after not seeing Ellie for six months,” he says. "My wife would have liked to have been here too, but she stayed at home to look after the dog."
Roger has been isolating with his wife, 67-year-old Margaret Rosenfield, at home in Liverpool while Ellie has spent lockdown in Greenwich with her boyfriend. For Ellie, the first hug was an extra special moment. She has had “no human contact” with anyone apart from her boyfriend since the start of lockdown. “Seeing my dad first was my priority, so I didn’t want to put him at risk by meeting up with friends before,” she says.
There's another joyous reunion on the horizon for Roger. His older daughter Alex Phillips has been stuck in France with her two-year-old son since the start of lockdown, but next week the family are returning to isolate with Margaret and Roger in Liverpool. It will be the first time Roger has seen his two-year-old grandson since Boxing Day.
However, long-distance reunions are not without their impracticalities. As someone in the high risk category, Roger was reluctant to leave the car for a toilet break on the journey down to London. “It wasn’t that emotional; the first thing he did was hand me his luggage and say that he was desperate for a wee,” said Ellie. “I thought he looked like a bear; his beard and hair was out of control!”
They spent their first night together catching up over a gin and tonic, takeaway fish and chips and watching episodes of Kim’s Convenience, a Canadian TV show. Saturday began with their favourite sausage butties from a shop in Greenwich. In the afternoon, they are driving to Alex’s house in Brighton to collect Roger’s grandson’s toys in preparation for the family's visit, before drinking "more gin" while watching Hamilton.
“It’s a short and sweet reunion. The only way to describe it is when you haven’t seen your friend for a long time, and nothing has changed,” says Ellie. “It’s the longest time we’ve ever been separated, so it’s been incredibly strange for both of us. We even used to live on the same road.”
While Roger feels "fairly relaxed” about Covid, he and Margaret have been taking all the necessary precautions, and neither felt comfortable making a journey on public transport. “I’ve had three close friends pass away from the virus,” he says. “That made it all feel very real.”
With the threat of second lockdowns looming in certain parts of the UK, Ellie and Roger are aware that their time together is precious. “Lockdown has reiterated the importance of family to us,” says Ellie. “My dad and I never thought we would go six months without seeing each other, but it happened. Now he’s here, we’ve got to make the most of what we have.”
My first night away after lockdown began with a man peering through the car window, holding a gun to my forehead. Butterflies somersaulted in my stomach. This was the furthest away from home I had been in months and I felt, let’s be honest, a little bit anxious.
What I should add, though, is that this man was a porter at luxury hotel Chewton Glen and the gun was a medical instrument being used to take my temperature.
The anxiety I felt was not one of fear, but of the sliver of chance that I might be turned away at the last hurdle. This was irrational thinking knowing I had felt perfectly fine moments earlier. With the nod of his head, my first summer holiday had begun.
Chewton Glen has been closed since March 24. The excitement in reception when I arrived at noon was palpable: lots of people were checking in early and the hotel was close to being full. Many (including all staff) were wearing face coverings; automatic hand sanitising stations stood at the ready; and each guest was given a pack with gloves, mask and sanitiser - though you’re not required to wear them.
For the most part, there was ample space to stay two metres away with a series of lounges, dining spaces and 130 acres of land; it was just the narrow corridors between rooms in the main house where you might need to exercise extra caution.
The best part though, is that once I got used to the face masks, it all felt rather normal. Sure there were QR codes to scan for menus in the bar and the restaurant, and I knew people were washing their hands more than usual - but it still felt like exactly what I had been waiting for after months cooped up: a celebration.
Now the adrenaline has worn off, I can’t wait to dress up for dinner (and not be left with the washing up) and then dive into a beautifully made bed with crisp sheets. I’m told breakfast buffets are a thing of the past, but I never liked them much anyways. Cheers to the new normal.
On Friday night, I excitedly set my alarm for 7am, but did that annoying thing of waking up at 4, 5 and 6am to check I hadn’t slept through it. Why? Because at 9am I had a long-awaited appointment at my hairdressers, Headmasters, in Windsor.
The last time I was there, at the end of February, the topic of coronavirus came up just once when I told my stylist Amy that my brother and his wife, who live in Hong Kong, were having to home school their children because all the city’s schools were closed. ‘Can you imagine?’ we asked each other, without any hint of the chaos to come.
Now, almost four months later, I was walking back through the (quiet) streets of Windsor for the first time in almost four months, my hair several inches too long, dry, and with a DIY fringe that needed a professionals’ touch.
When I saw Amy, in full face shield and rubber gloves, I practically squealed with excitement, but I resisted the urge to hug her and took my seat, which was cordoned off with perspex screens.
Amy apologised for not being able to offer me a coffee or magazine (I had a book in my bag – a must if you like to read while getting your hair done), or to be able to chat as much as usual, given her face shield. I had to keep hold of my coat, and the young girl who usually wanders around sweeping up hair was now busy disinfecting all the surfaces between clients.
But other than that, it was business as usual. I’d heard rumours, weeks before, that blow-dries were banned for the foreseeable future, but thank goodness that proved to be unfounded.
As Amy snipped inches off my parched, neglected, home-dyed hair and applied glossy brown colour, I felt so happy I started planning my second visit. When I left, I booked my next appointment, tipped double the usual amount, and walked out of the salon on air.
I wandered further up the high street and, for the first time since February, popped into Pret for a latte, Zara for a browse, and Space NK for a bagful of products to keep my new fringe under control. Super Saturday? It certainly was for me.
Forget your last meal, what would your first one be? Tough choice, isn’t it? After four months we’re allowed to eat out again, and all I really want is pizza.
Sure, you can have it at home – book-thick and oozing with oil; wafer-thin ones that have seen too many speed bumps; valiant homemade attempts that don’t quite cut the mustard; frozen, panic-bought supermarket pizzas.
Not quite the same as at a pizzeria, so here I am, at the as-yet only reopened branch of Pizza Pilgrims. It was all pleasingly, reassuringly, mundanely, normal.
Different of course, but somehow still normal. The rules of the past few months have become so ingrained that seeing them in the most intimate of settings, a restaurant, I barely batted an eyelid.
Half the tables at this pizzeria have been jettisoned, indoors and in the courtyard, to comply with social distancing guidelines – four pizzas’ width. Some tables have perspex screens between them. Capacity is down by around half, and the waiters seem very excited to be working again.
A QR code on the table brings up the menu on my phone, yet I can’t put the order through – understandable teething issues. Thankfully, for technical glitches or smartphone-less customers, there are (disposable) paper menus.
My girlfriend and I both opt for the ‘Nduja pizza, which was delicious. Pepper grinders and chilli oil are brought on request, and sanitised by staff. What reminds me most of the pandemic during the meal is the lingering whiff of detergent, sadly overwhelming the pizzeria scent of wood and fire and cheese and char.
Around half the tables were taken – young parents delighted not to cook for their kids, couples on dates, friends gossiping. All rather normal. The least normal thing is that we weren’t glued to our phones – how long can that last?
The return of restaurants is tinged with poignancy. For the precarious economy that’ll threaten their existence in the coming months, for those already shut for good, for jobs lost. Yet it’s also a welcome sign that, albeit slowly, we can convene over food, drink, conversation and laughter once more.
To celebrate Super Saturday I’ve pre-booked myself a table at the White Horse, a 1930s boozer just off Carnaby Street. On a normal summer Saturday, it would be stuffed to the with drinkers, spilling out onto the street, booming laughter bouncing off the walls.
A few dedicated punters had stopped by to quench their three-month long thirst for a pint but there’s nothing of that lively pub atmosphere that makes drinking in this city such a unique joy.
Only eight tables are allowed to be used and table service for drinks takes ages. Waiters forgetting you feels even worse post-Covid. The closest other drinker to us is seated far more than two metres away, basically on the other side of the room.
In a relatively old-school pub like this with various different cloisters, it’s quite easy to ensure customers are spread out but it does mean that there’s no real hustle and bustle. Everyone feels a bit sequestered off.
My partner and I order a drink and the waitress brings it over on a tray which she balances on the edge of the table. “Please can you pick up your own drinks?” she asks us, almost flinching away as we collect them.
We drink in near silence. I try to make some jokes to my partner but honestly, the whole thing feels quiet and rather desolate, all suspicion and silence.
Fellow patrons murmur to themselves but there’s no real pub-like camaraderie. It’s clear that staff are trying their best.
Our waitress is bubbly and friendly, with a warm smile, cracking a joke as she collects our empty glasses which we have to slide across the table to her, rather than passing over.
James Blunt is being pumped from all the speakers to drown out the silence, but it’s grim. As lunchtime wears on the pub starts filling up, but it’s certainly far from the "Super Saturday" the Government has warned about. Fear of the virus is clearly still rife. The big restart certainly doesn’t feel like a tidal wave of excitement to be back in the world.
It was a low-key, ordinary service. But it was also extraordinary. The doors opened at 7.30am, allowing ushers half an hour before Mass began to get people seated two metres apart, shown the hand sanitiser machines and make them aware of arrangements for Communion.
This was where liturgy met public health. Catholics, unlike Anglicans, have been able to watch Mass in their churches throughout lockdown via streaming; there were no kitchen table altars for their clergy. It was the best that could be offered in extreme circumstances – but oh, how we missed actually being in our sacred spaces.
Catholic Mass is a feast for all the senses. And even though this Mass of the era of eased lockdown was pared down – no altar servers, no readers, no music, no sign of peace – it was still indisputably Mass with all senses attuned.
And it made me realise what had been most absent from the online experience: the taste of Communion, and that lingering smell of incense mixed with candle wax that tells me that I am in the sanctuary of church.
Fr Julio Albornoz, acting as reader as well as celebrant, declaimed words from the book of Amos: “That day I will re-erect the tottering hut of David … and rebuild it as it was in the days of old.”
The cathedral wasn’t exactly tottering but it did feel rebuilt with the people gathered again to celebrate the miracle of Christ present in consecrated bread and wine. And it was Communion above all, where changes to the church service were most obvious. There was no chalice, only Communion hosts for the congregation. A prie-dieu between priest and each communicant kept them apart.
Kneeling and receiving Communion on the tongue were both banned. Instead each person stretched out their hands and a host was dropped into them, all done in complete silence. “May Almighty God bless you”, said Fr Julio at the end of the short, half-hour service. It was certainly a blessing to have been back at Mass.