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Life under lockdown in Cambridge: Extracts from Sarah Walter’s Journal of the Plague

Sarah Walters, from Cambridge, kept a diary during the pandemic that offers a striking insight into its impact on everyday life. Over two weeks, we’re publishing extracts, starting with March 2020.

Sarah Walters kept Journal of a Plague. Picture: Keith Heppell
Sarah Walters kept Journal of a Plague. Picture: Keith Heppell

March 18, 2020

When did it start, the growing expectation that what you wanted to do was no longer a matter of choice? That our actions were governed by outside powers, that we were at the mercy of events?

Today is Wednesday. Today is the long-held date for a meeting in London of my old college friends for a reunion lunch. I cancelled it finally on Sunday night, March 15th. Only three days ago. But today it seems preposterous that I ever thought it might go ahead. Of course not! Five or six innocent days ago, we sent gentle, enquiring messages to each other as to whether seven people should take public transport to and through London to meet at an Italian restaurant in the heart of the City, greet each other with a kiss, sit close, share food, gossip and laugh, catching up on two years of absence.

Today, I am agreeably surprised to find cafés open at all. Those that are have placed tables well apart from each other, not the usual carefree scrum. Card payments have replaced cash because they are free of human contact. The few people that still frequent bars and restaurants here in Cambridge eye each other with interest, perhaps wondering why we are here? What unites us? Are we the slightly bolshy ones who defy government ‘advice’, even though we know that we shall eventually obey the same government’s edict?

Shopping this morning, I scurried to the International store, ostensibly to stockpile more veg, but actually to buy the remaining packet of paracetamol which yesterday I had spotted behind the counter – only to find it had been sold. Curses! Why didn’t I buy it yesterday?

‘Self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are the buzzwords. But they are interpreted variously. Today the Queen is distancing herself from her subjects by retreating to Windsor. She can hardly be blamed. She is well over 70 and, as of yesterday, people who are 70-plus should isolate themselves as far as possible, getting others to buy their provisions, going outside only to ‘exercise’. Thus far these precautions are advisory, not policed.

Schools and nurseries are still operating today, though many parents have withdrawn their children already. We are still three weeks away from Easter, but students are emptying their college rooms and departing as though chased by rats.

The world is closing down. But in other, small ways opening up. Today I had the first real conversation I’ve had with a neighbour of over 30 years. He said he didn’t know whether to take all the scaremongering about the spread of the virus with a pinch of salt, or to be properly worried. I said I was turning from the former to the latter position; he agreed.

9.30pm: And already, tonight, a previous paragraph is out of date. Schools, we are told this evening, will close this Friday for the foreseeable future.

Tonight the total of deaths in the UK due to the virus is 104.

March 19, 2020

Last night there were rumours that London was entering lockdown mode and people would be unable to move in, out or around the capital. I scoffed at that. This morning at 5am the BBC confirmed that liberty of movement around London would be curtailed, 40 tube stations shut and people advised not to make any but essential journeys. My daughter and children will be appearing sooner than predicted in Cambridge, by car!

By 10 am there was neither loo roll nor – again – paracetamol to be had in our neighbourhood shops. There are nappies, thankfully! Other dry goods also scarce, like pasta and rice.

March 20, 2020

The streets are eerily quiet, very few children (schools close today) are about, only delivery people and shopkeepers. It reminds me of Christmas Day, or how Sundays used to be in my childhood, when you could hear the birds sing because there were so few cars.

March 24. 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson making a televised address to the nation from 10 Downing Street, London, setting out new emergency measures to control the spread of the coronavirus in England
Prime Minister Boris Johnson making a televised address to the nation from 10 Downing Street, London, setting out new emergency measures to control the spread of the coronavirus in England

Last night’s announcement by Boris Johnson told us that the UK is now in proper lockdown. ‘Social isolation’ was not working as a mantra, so now there are strict rules which will, it is threatened, be enforced by police and by redeployed army personnel. People may only leave their houses/flats to buy essential food or to take exercise once per day, keeping a two-metre distance from everyone else. Food shops alone may stay open, and chemists. The NHS fears it will not be able to cope if the number of ill people rises as fast as it threatens to do here, and as it has done in Italy. If we stay at home, perhaps we can contain the virus.

To our delight, the local French baker, Maison Clément, was still open to receive customers, one at a time, keeping their distance, paying only by card. The Hills Road chemist too, delivering medicines to the locals by hand. We greeted each other, as people do now, like old friends in desperate times. Sympathetic smiling at neighbours whom we’ve been ignoring for years.

March 25, 2020

Schools are shut indefinitely and many parents are turning themselves into more or less enthusiastic home-school teachers. All I can say is, that trying to settle lively, four-year-old Toby to a focused learning activity after breakfast until c. 11.30 am is not straightforward. He soon discovers that learning solo is less interesting than in the classroom.

March 26, 2020

What type of person is best adapted to these peculiar new circumstances, which now affect, we are told, one quarter of the world’s population? People who don’t mind solitude; who have an inner store of mindfulness; who are not outward-facing? Those who are restless, who dread confinement, or simply want to spend their lives with other people rather than on their own or in one tight-knit family group, are having the worst time.

March 27, 2020

Like many others, we are taking refuge in nature. The days have been sunny and dry for nearly a week. My friends tell me how they walk in the woods or along beaches, or spend time gardening or on the allotment. These are all wonderful ways of defying the major problem of our lack of freedom. On such walks, people give way, skirting around each other so as to keep a distance. Only nosey dogs sniff strangers closely.

We are sort-of getting used to the routine here at home, with little time to think. The grandchildren keep us in the here and now, although every news bulletin reveals some fresh horror: increasing death toll, further deprivation, lack of Covid testing equipment, over-crowded hospitals.

How many businesses could run perfectly well from home, I wonder? Working habits may change forever on this account. Even the radio broadcasters are speaking from home, sometimes with their children in adjacent rooms.

March 28, 2020

People are showing random acts of great kindness, which make you wonder where our natural good instincts have been hiding all this while. I walked with my slumbering granddaughter to the local post office, to find some paints for the children. They didn’t have what I was searching for, the kind of palette with brush that we had years ago. An elderly woman was watching. She told me to wait outside, because she had what I needed at home. After a few minutes she returned and quietly handed me two perfect paint sets. Rather shyly she dismissed my effusive thanks with a wave of the hand.

April 1, 2020

Nowadays I catch myself being surprised and vaguely fearful if I see people shaking hands or kissing each other on a tv programme. It seems odd to see the usual adverts about cruises, when cruise ships were some of the first sites of the outbreak as it spread among people in confined quarters. Or to watch travel programmes on tv, when all possibility of travel has been removed.

April 2, 2020

My dance class is now held via Zoom! We get a disjointed image of our teacher, and distorted music, and it takes me at least ten mins to log on each morning. But our teacher persists with the attempt every few days, and does so for sheer love, not money.

April 5, 2020

The new wisdom is that we should be wearing face masks to protect ourselves and others from their/our germs. Nobody is quite sure whether they are useful or not, and the stats aren’t conclusive. People exchange funny images of their home-made masks, as though it were all a joke. But when you’re out and encountering the enemy Other, it’s deadly serious.

A woman puts on a fabric face mask (36457606)
A woman puts on a fabric face mask (36457606)

April 11, 2020

Trumpington Road is always noisy with cars going in and out of the city. Today it felt as it must have done 70 years ago, when cars were few, the population of Cambridge far lower, and life slower. I was walking with the buggy to our allotment. It was so quiet that a bold heron, unfazed by his intermittent admirers, was stalking Hobson’s brook, catching fish. He stayed there for many minutes, undisturbed. A muntjac roamed freely in the long grass of the strangely abandoned Botanic Garden. High above our allotment, five buzzards wheeled upwards, catching the thermals. Nature is thriving under the lockdown.

April 12, 2020

Easter Day. We broke the mould, never mind the rules, by taking our granddaughter Magnolia on a walk to deliver a basket of little cakes, decorated with birds, to her cousin Lottie, and even sat with them in their garden. We didn’t dare to hug Lottie, she who is so demonstrative! Terribly sad.

April 23, 2020

Exercise classes by Zoom became part of the new normal (61024134)
Exercise classes by Zoom became part of the new normal (61024134)

Shakespeare’s birthday. Not much going on in Stratford-upon-Avon today except the rueful admission that until this year the Birthday procession has taken place continuously since 1893.

My Zoom dance class worked well today. Although we can only see faces, I know that everyone is keen, that in our own kitchens, bedrooms and conservatories we are dancing for all we are worth, expressing ourselves as best we can, to the beat of the imperfectly transmitted music. We send effusive thanks to our teacher, Cathy M., after each class.

May 12, 2020

The phrase, ‘the new normal’, is everywhere. It supposes that the habits learned during lockdown will persist, possibly for good. One of those is constant handwashing, each time you come home, and between all interactions. Wearing a face mask may become customary. Maintaining a distance from others in shops and on public transport could last for years. It’s not easy to imagine that we shall ever return to crowded commuter trains.

May 26, 2020

Had an evening river swim. The first this year as the Riverbank club has only been open for a few days. A lovely, long sunlit swim. Observing a social distance on the river isn’t hard, as a pair of mallards and the odd moorhen are the only competitors for space. Very few river craft to worry about, because the punting outlets aren’t open yet.

June 2, 2020

All over England, young children are returning to school and nursery, after an absence of 10 weeks. Parents fretting over how they will settle back to a different system. Some are too frightened of the consequences and haven’t allow their children to go back at all.

June 3, 2020

A woman visiting her grandmother in isolation during the pandemic (61023607)
A woman visiting her grandmother in isolation during the pandemic (61023607)

My brother went to visit our mother (aged 100) in her care home yesterday. He stood outside a downstairs window, while she sat in a wheelchair inside in order to ‘see’ him, as through a glass, darkly, and to listen while he yelled greetings. They had a sort of conversation. Is this the new normal for care residents?

June 7, 2020

Worldwide deaths from Covid 19 are now, officially at least, over 400,000. But today’s UK death toll under 100, so the downward trend continues.

June 15, 2020

Today the inessential shops of the UK were free to reopen, and most did, to some measure.

‘Only’ 38 deaths from Covid today, partly due to the absence of reportage after the weekend, but nevertheless the lowest UK death toll from Covid since recording began.

June 20, 2020

One of the better sounds of lockdown: a neighbour’s son playing the cello in the evening for the pleasure of whoever is there to listen. It’s a Saturday night, but there is no other partying, so he’s here at home, practising in the kitchen with the window open.

July 4, 2020

Cafes reopened with measures in place to reduce the spread of Covid (61024358)
Cafes reopened with measures in place to reduce the spread of Covid (61024358)

US Independence Day, but also the first big unlock in England, if not the regions. We were going to celebrate by sitting at a table indoors in our local café, when we realised the implications: they take your name and number so that if there’s a case of Covid reported and the café is contacted, they can give out all contact details of other people who were in the vicinity, which means they /we would need to self-isolate for a fortnight. We backed out! Seems to me this fear - of being tracked and traced - will prevent many from entering bars and restaurants.

Only around 50 per cent pubs and cafés have actually reopened today. Some cannot manage the distancing requirements; others don’t think it’s worth it for the number of customers they will get. People are still wary, and not keen to socialise if they can only do so half-heartedly.

Next week: The Second Wave

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