Pulling Up The Drawbridge

Yesterday, with the UK on the brink of lockdown, I made my final journey before hunkering down at home with the family for God knows how long.

My journey involved passing through two major northern cities, and both of them were like ghost towns.

This is Millennium Square, in Leeds. Normally teeming with life, there wasn’t a single soul to be seen. Up on that large screen, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer was giving advice about the Coronavirus, but there was nobody there to heed his warning except me.

A sign of the times: no matter the faith; the denomination, all services are cancelled. Faith can still be held, of course, faith and hope, but behind our closed and secluding doors.

There is normally the bustle; the mad scramble; dashing figures frantically digging out railcards and phones before merging into a bottle neck to pass through these ticket machines to access the platforms. This time, however, it was more in the way of an amble, a gentle stroll, a handful of people passing through these vacant gateways.

Waiting to board my train back to Manchester. There was only me on the platform. Eventually a couple of other people arrived. For most of the journey I had the carriage to myself. No guard arrived to check my ticket. The train passed through countless deserted stations. This country is shutting down.

The only thing to keep me company was this information screen, giving further advice about the virus. There’s no escaping from this all-pervasive crisis that is gripping the globe. When we pulled into Piccadilly, I noticed a girl, who had been in the adjacent carriage, use the cuff of her sleeve, wrapped around her hand, to open the door. Unwilling to risk the germs of previous travellers.

Back in Manchester. Exchange Square, in afternoon sunshine. Who’d have thought it? There’s only so many ways I can say empty or deserted. Only so many end of the world novels I can think of. A few posts ago I’d mentioned The Stand and ‘Salem’s Lot. Now a couple I’d read quite a few years back came to mind: Earth Abides and Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang. A touch dramatic, I know, but there is that feel to things. A man in Waterstones said that he felt like Charlton Heston in The Omega Man.

Cutting through the Arndale Centre, this is the Starbucks where my daughter works at weekends. Closed up; the machines stood redundant behind those darkened windows. The chairs stacked away to discourage loiterers.

There were a few sporadic shoppers, hunting in vain for bargains and best buys. Those days are over for now, the priority must be food. Of those that I did see, I’d say a fifth were masked.

I’m not sure how these people eat or drink while wearing these masks. And I know they weren’t supposed to be sitting there.

Lip-readers would be screwed.

From here I caught the bus to my town.

We are not quite on lockdown yet, at least while I’m writing this, but it’s surely imminent (the Prime Minister is due to address the nation in thirty minutes). For all intents and purposes, though, it’s already happened. Manchester is now off-limits to me and my clan. We are pulling up the drawbridge, but thankful for the technology that keeps us all connected.

This crisis is on such a scale that all of you-all of you, are likewise affected. No matter where you are in the world, in whichever country you are currently reading this post, this virus is challenging the very foundation of your everyday lives.

Look after each other, people, and stay in touch.

Together we will all pull through.

Morning; Evening

A day bookended by two events: the final morning school run before the Christmas holidays, and a visit to Manchester in the evening for the last night of the Christmas markets.

It was like a lesson in irony, a blazing, ineffectual sun on a cold morning.

And more irony: for all of the times I have strolled through woods, along river banks and winding, countryside canals, in the centre of my town came a first – in a flash of fleeting blue I saw my very first kingfisher, skirting the edge of a fishing lake that lies adjacent to my son’s school. Not far from this frosted over short cut.

Later, night fell on us as we walked one of the Manchester’s deserted arteries, leading inevitably to its beating heart.

Laura’s place, at this time of year an appropriate light in the darkness.

Did I pronounce it correctly? Glühwein? Glüvein? Either way, it brought some welcome spiced warmth as my son clumsily devoured a Nutella pancake.

That juxtaposition again; light and darkness, in Piccadilly Gardens.

To be honest, though I’d been warned of swarming pavements and heaving roadsides, I’d seen Manchester much busier at this time of year. But, as the final Friday before Christmas, perhaps many had forsaken the outdoor markets for the indoor clubs and bars.

Outside Manchester Cathedral, surely the focal point of the festival.

The Cathedral was closed to the public this night as a charitable event was taking place, so I contented myself to take some photographs from outside. This is the Blitz window, looking into the chapel of the Manchester Regiment. The original stained glass was destroyed by the Luftwaffe bombing in World War Two.

Nearby – the blades on ice. Time was against us taking part, so I took this photograph before we set off for the car.

On the way back we stumbled upon this urban fox. Unlike the kingfisher that morning, this was not my first fox and, not shy in the slightest, it was probably the tamest of all of the wildlife we’d spotted on Manchester’s streets that night! With a tolerance that bordered on indifference, he went about his business as we returned to ours.