After doing so well with writing regularly at weekends since the lockdown began in the UK, I failed to write a post last Sunday because, for personal reasons, I was out and about, venturing far farther in a single day than I have been in the last three months combined.
Leaving the small town in which I live and boarding public transport for the first time since March proved an interesting experience.
The whole question of what we are and aren’t legally permitted to do, what we’re supposed only to do if it’s absolutely essential, and where we are allowed to use our own judgment to decide whether we have a “reasonable excuse” to flout the regulations and recommendations etc. is a complete can of worms. And it’s further complicated by the fact that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are doing their own thing and the rules in each place are different.
That said, I decided that I had a valid reason for travelling so, after buying my train ticket on line, downloading an e-ticket, and ordering a taxi to meet me at the other end, I packed my bag with a generous supply of disposable face masks and hand gel, and set out on a relatively long journey, which required two changes of train and a taxi ride to get me to my destination and the same to get me back home.
When I started out, there weren’t many people travelling and it seemed as if those who were were following the rules about wearing face masks to travel on public transport. At least, it appeared that way when I saw people get on the train. But while I was waiting for the second connection, I looked across at the passengers in a train going the other way and was less impressed: around 50% had removed their masks or were wearing them at half mast, dangling from one ear, round their necks or under their noses.
I can’t say I enjoyed wearing a mask, and I found a few drawbacks I hadn’t heard about. I know that people with glasses say they have problems with the lenses misting up, and that certainly was the case for me, but I hadn’t realised that, if you wear the mask high enough up your nose that it doesn’t slip, it makes it really difficult for the glasses to balance right. Maybe my nose is just an odd shape.
Then, of course, I’m use to using face ID to unlock my phone screen and if you’re wearing a mask there’s not enough of your face on view to identify you. So you have to remember your PIN. In fact I needn’t have worried about making sure my e-ticket was ready for checking as there was no sign of a ticket collector or any other staff on any of the trains. I did have to show it once to get through a gate to change stations, but that was the only time it was needed in the whole trip.
The stations were all marked up for social distancing and for single-file flow of travellers – which at Birmingham added a considerable walk and a good five minutes to the connection time. At New Street, there were dozens of staff making sure everyone followed the correct route and stopping people from entering the station without a mask.
At the smaller stations, though, it all seemed slightly academic as there weren’t that many people about. When I arrived at my destination and when I arrived back home again, I was the only person to get off the train.
At several stations I saw that cafés and loos – except the disabled ones – were all locked up and out of bounds, but at New Street it seemed to be business as usual. I guess it makes sense that station cafés aren’t doing a lot of business if we are wearing face masks the whole time.
Lots of seats on the platforms were roped off or labeled not to be used, meaning there were very few places to sit. And the waiting rooms were locked, too. I suppose there wouldn’t be room for many socially-distanced people inside, so we might as well all be exposed to the elements.
In Wales, I don’t think face masks are actually compulsory – certainly I saw travellers without them – but the trains themselves were all gaily decked with bunting showing where you were allowed to sit.
In general, the lockdown hasn’t made a huge difference to me, except for limiting my wandering. Business meetings have been moved online quite successfully and I’ve managed to keep busy while following the recommendations. Yes, I’ve been to the supermarket more than is perhaps advisable, but as I don’t have a car, I can’t really manage to carry a full week’s shop in a single trip. Beyond that, though, I haven’t been visiting or shopping and have stuck to the rules. Last weekend I genuinely felt I had a valid reason to travel or I wouldn’t have gone.
As I said, it was an interesting experience. It made me a lot more aware of how, whatever I do myself, I am at the mercy of other people’s behaviour. And I have to admit that made me feel quite uncomfortable.