My next couple of blog posts are not my usual subject matter, but I wanted to tell this story (and, honestly, it feels cathartic right now to do so). These posts are perhaps best described as travelogues, serving as experience reports of what it was like travelling between Australia and the UK during the pandemic. I’m writing this one on day 4 of an enforced 14-day home quarantine period following our return to Australia.
Late last year, we were pleased to learn that a good friend in the UK was getting married in April 2020 and so planned a month-long trip from Australia to attend the wedding, do some travelling around the UK to catch up with friends and family, and take in a few events along the way.
As we looked for good flight options, Cathay Pacific offered a good deal and we were happy to use them given good experiences in the past. Since we would be transiting through Hong Kong, I decided to take the opportunity to break the trip there and go spend a few days in Quest’s Zhuhai office as I was long overdue a visit there anyway. For the rest of the trip, I planned to work a day or two a week during the trip to minimize the impact of my absence on Quest.
We built an itinerary of about a week in China followed by three weeks in the UK, mainly based in Wales then finishing up with the wedding and a few relaxing days in Brighton before the long trip home just after Easter.
The first spanner in the works came with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak in China, meaning a visit to the office was too dangerous (and also, as it later turned out, pointless as all our staff would be working remotely during isolation). So we changed our plans slightly to transit directly through Hong Kong, tacking on a few days in London to start the trip to replace the planned time in China.
As our departure date approached, the coronavirus news of course became much worse as the spread continued around the world. The UK seemed to be faring well, though, and Boris was persisting with his “keep calm and carry on”/herd immunity idea so we risk-assessed and decided to still make the trip, arriving in London very early on Monday 16th March.
It was a beautiful sunny & crisp day in Hyde Park as we killed time before checking into our hotel, La Suite West (with its very own vegan restaurant!). Exploring the local area again, Notting Hill was noticeably quiet but most shops, cafes and restaurants were open and it felt pretty much like “business as usual”. We were really tired by mid-afternoon and opted for a very early dinner at the excellent farm-to-table vegan eatery, Farmacy.
Back at the hotel by 5pm, we tuned in to the first of Boris’s daily missives to the people of the UK – and this is when everything really started to change. In this first speech, he announced that pubs and other places of social gathering would be stopped, the real start of social distancing in the UK.
We decided to avoid all forms of public transport for the rest of our time in London and so explored locally on foot on Tuesday. The Design Museum, housed in an amazing building in Kensington, was an excellent start and then we took in part of the glorious Victoria & Albert Museum, thinking we could come back to explore some more in the days ahead. There were quite a few people in the museums but their vast size made it feel safe in terms of keeping well apart from each other. We headed to the Brasserie at Cloud Twelve in Notting Hill for dinner at about 5pm, a lovely quiet and relaxing organic vegan eatery. We were warmly welcomed with very friendly service – we later found out we were their first customers for the day. We left with a pile of free vegan cakes, walking back through the very quiet local streets to our hotel for the next installment from Boris – this time finding out, among other things, that all the museums would now close, so much for our V&A revisit! If the Melbourne Cup is the race that stops the nation in Australia, Boris’s daily speeches quickly became those that stopped the UK as people tuned in to hear of the latest disruptions coming to their daily lives.
It was another sunny day on Wednesday so we kicked the day off with a long walk in Hyde Park around the Serpentine. There were plenty of people out exercising but respecting the social distancing rules. Heading to Kensington High Street, most of the shops along this usually busy street were closed but Wholefoods was doing good business and was a little too crowded for comfort but we stocked up on some supplies there while we had the chance. We had a relaxing coffee stop over at Cloud Twelve again (still very quiet and remarkable that it was still open) before walking back to the hotel along Westbourne Grove, which was eerily quiet but for a few food shops staying open (including the excellent Planet Organic where we gathered more supplies). We noted that Farmacy had signage to indicate even more reduced opening hours (closing at 5pm) so we made sure to head back there for a very early dinner at about 4pm, enjoying another excellent meal. It was almost empty and we enjoyed nice conversations with the manager as he sought to work out what to do for the best in terms of staying open or closing up indefinitely. A post-dinner stroll in Hyde Park at dusk revealed many others making the most of the fresh air but the vastness of the park made social distancing very easy.
By now, it was clear day-by-day that more and more facilities and events were being cancelled around us and Boris’s daily updates clearly indicated stronger and stronger restrictions on what could stay open as well as limits on personal movements. All of the events we had planned – a Status Quo tribute band gig in a pub, Francis Rossi speaking in Aberystwyth and the “Only Fools and Horses” musical in the West End – were already cancelled and the postponement of our friend’s wedding, though not officially made yet, seemed likely.
Based on what we were seeing and hearing, we decided to cancel the various touring around the country we had planned to do and instead extend our stay in my old University town of Aberystwyth in Wales until our scheduled return date (14th April). With lower population density and no confirmed cases, Aber seemed like a good spot to take safe haven in familiar surroundings – I had the good fortune to live there for seven years and have returned almost every year for the last twenty years too. Cancelling our existing hotels and so on was straightforward and we could extend our AirBnB stay in Aber easily as all of the host’s other bookings had already cancelled for months ahead.
Our last full day in London on Thursday was a more typical drizzly, damp cold affair but we still donned our walking shoes and enjoyed a stroll around Little Venice, an area we’d discovered some years ago on a previous trip to London. It was a quiet locale with only a few locals on the tow paths around the canals. A return to Hyde Park followed and what would be our last coffee stop at Cloud Twelve, remarkably staying open while almost all around it had already closed indefinitely. We also stocked up on some more supplies at Planet Organic on the way back to the hotel. Our area was much quieter than even the previous day. Dinner was again taken early at Farmacy before they closed at 5pm, this time closing indefinitely. The manager was clearly upset at having to stand down all of his staff at this great restaurant. A final dusk walk in Hyde Park rounded out our outdoor time in London and we packed up ready to leave on Friday. Restrictions on the numbers for social gatherings such as weddings confirmed that our friend’s wedding would need to be postponed.
We had already booked a hire car to pick up from Heathrow on Friday as part of our original itinerary, so we opted to spend the extra for a private taxi back to the airport rather than travelling by tube. Terminal 3 was almost deserted as we caught the empty Budget car hire shuttle bus to collect our car. It was a lovely clear day for a drive and the roads (especially around Heathrow itself) were really quiet, so it was a relatively easy, if long, drive to Aber via the M4, Severn Bridge, Abergavenny, Brecon, Builth Wells, Rhayader and Llangurig. It was late afternoon by the time we concluded our almost five hour drive but we were relieved to be in Aber and our AirBnB apartment was great. Its central location, full kitchen and strong wi-fi boded well for a comfortable (and, if need be, longer term) stay. We figured we had enough time to make it to Dragonfly Bistro, a nice vegetarian eatery near the Castle, so headed there for a coffee and ordered lots of takeaway food to help us see out the coming days. Boris was giving his latest speech while we waited for our takeaway food and it ironically included the news that cafes and restaurants would now also need to close (apart from those offering takeaway and/or delivery services).
It was a stunning clear and sunny Saturday as we ventured out early on a shopping run in Aber. Our first port of call was to the newly-opened vegan deli, Iwtopia. Yes, a vegan deli in Aber, who’d have ever thought it!? This would be the last day for Iwtopia for a while so we took the chance to strongly support this great new place and stocked up on a heap of vegan goodies. We enjoyed a very long chat with the lovely owner too, we hope she can survive the downtime and come back to continue offering this great selection of vegan food to the people of Aber. It was especially pleasing to see that lots of the products were local and actively promoting other small vegan businesses. We were a little surprised that the splendid Farmers Market was still on (and practicing good social distancing too) so we also grabbed some quality fresh organic veggies, yummy sourdough bread from Anuna Bakery (and chatted with the owner who relocated from Melbourne to rural Wales!) and interesting food from the ingeniously named vegetarian producer, Parsnipship. Next stop was an old favourite, the stalwart organic shop, the Treehouse, where we stocked up on more quality produce as well as taking advantage of their new bulk supplies store. We’d had a big morning of shopping and felt like we were in a good position to not have to shop again for a week or two. But, more importantly, we’d enjoyed some great conversations with people and felt warmly welcomed – that familiar warm embrace of Aberystwyth was still there for me all these years later. We returned to the Farmers Market to grab lunch from the all-vegan Renegade Kitchen food van and again had an enjoyable conversation with the owner operators while they prepared our food.
With shopping and lunch sorted, we could finally take the opportunity to enjoy a long walk along the Prom and South beach. A hefty storm the week before had deposited some of the beach up onto the Prom. Aber was surprisingly crowded, it felt more like a Bank Holiday weekend than a town in semi-lockdown, but the expansive Prom gave everyone room to spread out (though not all chose to do so). We supported Dragonfly Bistro by grabbing a takeaway coffee and bought a few interesting Welsh ciders from the new Bottle and Barrel bottle shop. As sunset approached, we walked the Prom again and watched the murmuration of starlings over the Pier, always an amazing sight! Settling into our apartment, we assembled a big vegan dinner from our day’s shopping haul.
Aber turned on another clear and sunny day on Sunday, albeit chilly out of the sun in a cool wind. We drove out the short distance to Penparcau to climb Pen Dinas, with its wonderful views across all of Aber and the Cardigan Bay coastline. A few hardy souls were hiking in this area but again it was easy to keep our distance from others. Heading downhill, we relaxed at Tan-y-Blwch beach, before the climb back to our car. Lunch back at the apartment was followed by a visit to Dragonfly Bistro for a takeaway coffee – and we then learned that the owner had decided that this would be her last day of opening for the foreseeable future. Back at the apartment, we felt like the world was closing around us with the vegan deli and vegetarian restaurant now gone. It was lovely in the sun down on the Prom and we sat there for a couple of hours to again watch the free show put on by the thousands of starlings heading home for the night under the Pier. Dinner back in the apartment was followed by the news that our return flight with Cathay Pacific (on 14th April) had been cancelled and to await news of an alternative flight home. Little did we know then that this would be the start of a series of flight-related highs and lows in the week ahead.
In my next blog post, I’ll cover one of the most uncertain, stressful and expensive weeks of our lives.