Summer sojourn in London during the Plague

By this stage the strict lockdown restrictions had been lifted in Ireland. Restaurants had reopened and free travel throughout the island was permitted. I was going one step further and boarding an airplane.

Feeling slightly like an outlaw I took the bus to the airport – wearing my mask of course. I was nervous that I’d be stopped and asked my reason for traveling. Guidelines stated that foreign travel was discouraged – it was never forbidden. Flights were coming in and out of Dublin every day. They weren’t flying empty. While traveling to see a friend might not be an ‘essential reason’ under the strictest of interpretations, it passed my own personal necessity test.  

The transit through Dublin airport was splendid. It seemed almost entirely abandoned. There were only a handful of flights departing, and I was on one of them. The omnipresent queues were a thing of the past. I sailed through customs and security in minutes. If only travel could be like this all the time.

The plane must have been about 25% full, yet for some unknown reason I was seated in the middle seat next to another passenger. The second the airplane doors closed I moved myself to an empty row. I was feeling slightly paranoid – cursing myself for my reckless stupidity in flying. I was going to catch the lurgy, wasn’t I?  How could I be so foolish? The flight was less than an hour however, everyone was wearing a mask, and the flight attendants were policing this strictly. A young gentleman with an English accent who had his mask pulled down while boasting about being in his own words  a ‘half-breed’ – 50% English and 50% Irish – was told in no uncertain terms that he would be removed from the flight if he did not follow mask protocol.

I had my temperature taken before boarding the National Express coach from Stansted to Bethnal Green. One of those forehead thermometers. I had not seen these before. I was impressed.

There was a heatwave in London that weekend and it was still thirty degrees at 7pm. We repaired to a Turkish restaurant nearby for an outdoor meal overlooking the Regent’s Canal. It was very pleasant. Afterwards we made our way by foot to the Queen Adelaide Bar in Hackney. I was a bit flummoxed – this was just a bar. There was no obligation to buy food. It felt novel. The strange thing however was how the drag queen hostess took us to our table and all tables were partitioned from each other with a Perspex screen. It was table service only.

Our plan for Saturday was to visit the Tower of London. Which was conveniently located in the East End. We walked there the following morning – stopping into the Whitechapel Art Gallery en route. This was mainly to get out of the 35 degree sweltering heat. I had come to London on the hottest weekend of the year. The Tower of London was impressive as expected – steeped in horror and history. I discovered that the famous Beefeaters all live in cottages on the Tower grounds. One friendly gent told us how lovely this is, aside from the complications that arise when he wanted takeaway food delivered. No pictures were meant to be taken of the crown jewels. ‘I’ll be the judge of that’ I thought to myself.

Later in the afternoon we meet up with some other friends and made our way to the town of Rochester outside London where we were to spend the night in a grubby B&B. This is the historical town where Charles Dickens spent his childhood in prison. In those days imprisoned debtors were jailed with their families, and his father was a ne’er-d-well. Rochester castle was an imposing edifice as we passed it after eating a meal on the terrace of an Italian restaurant in the town.

The reason we had left London was because on Sunday we were sailing on the Medway River and my friend had his little sailboat docked in the village of Gillingham.

It was a stupendous day for it – the sun shone brightly and we felt very nautical as we bobbed about the river. The picnic we had brought felt far more glamourous than it probably was. Eating on a boat adds a certain panache to even the most basic cheese sandwich. Despite slathering myself in factor 50, my skin still tingled slightly as we docked the boat that evening and made our way back to London.

The day sailing on the river Medway was a suitable last day to my summer sojourn in England. It was my sabbatical from the drear of the Plague that we were all enduring. I felt most satisfied on the flight back to Dublin.

‘How was your weekend?’ asked my colleague on Monday morning.

‘Oh very quiet – you know yourself’ came my bland reply.

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