With lockdown and the pandemic still so real and fresh in our minds, writing about lockdown in Sussex now may seem like an odd thing to do. But there will come a time in years to come when people that didn’t live through it will ask what it was like. So, for the sake of posterity and while the memories remain raw, this was how lockdown felt in this little corner of West Sussex.
An impending sense of doom
From mid-February of 2020, there was an impending sense of doom. First came images from China of hazmat suits and the first mention of the word lockdown. Schools in China closed but It will never happen here, we thought. Images from Italy followed and it felt very near. Then came the first super spreader, and we watched anxiously as the first case was reported in the UK, and then the first death.
The days leading up to the March 2020 lockdown were extraordinary. Driving home from Crawley two days before lockdown the streets were deserted. And I remember walking on the South Downs with friends and saying, Well at least they can never take away this (the freedom to walk with friends), and then they did. That week the children didn’t want to go to school and to be honest, we didn’t want to take them.
Then, on the 23rd March, we gathered around our televisions, reminiscent of WWII, as we listened to Boris Johnson telling us that we had to stop work, stop what we were doing and stay at home. We were in lockdown.
Well, at least they’ll never shut down the construction industry, we said (my husband being in that industry). And then they did.
A sense of shock
No sooner had the lockdown been announced than the sun came out and shone brilliantly for the weeks that followed. We all moved in a sort of stupor, repeating the same conversations, not convinced that this was really happening. We were caught in between three curious worlds: a slightly idyllic sun-filled world of Zoom, a bizarre world of lost liberties and enforced confinement and a terrifying world of nurses reduced to tears and people dying alone. You’ll be back at school after Easter, we said. But of course, they weren’t.
I remember being immensely proud of my elderly mother who, when offered under-the-counter toilet roll (that was a thing), just took one on the basis that there were people needier than her. For my part, I refused to give in to the urge to panic buy but for the first (and I hope the last) time in my life, I remember walking through our woods, wondering what I could forage in early April if we couldn’t get enough food to feed the family. It’s a sobering position to be in.
My husband queued dutifully each week with others to get what food was available and we genuinely gathered in excitement to see what he’d managed to buy when he returned. Meanwhile, we exercised as much as we could within the limits of one excursion a day for permitted exercise, and then we ate too much, drank too much and clapped every Thursday night for the NHS. And of course, the skies fell quiet above Gatwick and the surrounding Sussex countryside.
A turn for the worse
In May, we said, It will be over by the summer. But it wasn’t. In September, I held a farewell lunch outside for my parents, realising that by the next day it was going to be illegal to meet them (they are two and we are a family of five and gatherings of more than six were outlawed). I still have trouble getting my head around that … illegal to have lunch with my parents. By October we started to realise we were in it for the long haul and I don’t think anyone really believed the sort of half-hearted attempt at lockdown in November was going to see the virus off. By early December things were bleak. The first talk of a new variant countered the positive news of a vaccine. We made plans for Christmas and then we cancelled them. Two days before Christmas day, we got a positive Covid test result in our house so rather than celebrate with friends or family, we waved at them from the windows as they left us some supplies on our doorstep. We thought it was the worst of times, but it wasn’t. They were still to come.
The dark months
In our part of Sussex, the early part of 2021 was particularly bleak. It was dark, it was cold and suicide rates in the area soared. We lost a number of young people who we shouldn’t have lost. The children were back at home from school again but rather than relax in the garden in the sunshine as before, they lingered in bedrooms and fell asleep in Zoom lessons. Tempers were frayed. Spirits were low.
The brighter side
Of course, all the above makes it sound pretty dark. And it was. But there were also moments of great optimism. Businesses innovated. Michelin-star restaurants started providing make-at-home meals. Our Speakers Club moved online. Small personal connections suddenly seemed very precious and one and all seemed to embrace the Sussex countryside and set off on foot to discover new footpaths and beauty spots.
Then came the vaccine and a ray of hope, strangely combined with this bizarre sense that we were all blindly and unquestioningly accepting a mass vaccination programme. Volunteers stepped forward and with devasting efficiency, we offered up our arms. This was our ticket out.
We also learnt a whole new language: social distancing, Zoom, I’m double dosed, I’ve been pinged, I’m in iso, I’ve been furloughed, the Delta variant formerly known as…, track and trace, social bubbles, the third wave, PCR, lateral flow and viral load – they all started to trip lightly off the tongue. Whole sentences that a year before we wouldn’t have understood. And we learnt new behaviours: wearing masks, constant washing of hands, QR coding our way into restaurants and keeping windows open on the coldest of days.
This too will pass
But it hasn’t yet. At the time of writing, we’re nearly 18 months into the Coronavirus pandemic and it’s still going strong. The country remains divided about the months ahead. Masks on? Masks off? Red, amber or green? Staycation or quarantine. Lockdown or open up. It’s very divisive and friends have fallen out over what is the best approach. There are still tricky times ahead and “learning to live with Corona” is going to present us with a whole new set of challenges.
So, what was it like in Sussex during the pandemic? Well, it was and is the most extraordinary of times. It’s been life-changing, soul-destroying and yet in some ways inspiring in equal measure. I doubt if many of us will be the same as we were before, and I suspect our children will be forever marked out as the children of the pandemic. But Dickens put it better than I ever can:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
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