My routine, like those of many others, was pretty much fixed from the 16th March until the week that people in Wales were finally allowed to travel more than three miles from their homes. I slotted into it easily – after the first couple of weeks I actually felt more rested and relaxed than I had for a long time – not because the amount of work I had to do had reduced, but because I enjoy solitude and without realising it had been needing it for a while.
As a lecturer running and developing online courses, working from home wasn’t a hard step to take practically; a monitor, a camera and green screen to record material, and some bits and pieces from the office and I was set up. I got up around eight, worked through the morning with a pause at half ten for a cup of tea and our team’s virtual coffee break on MS teams, and then another couple of hours of work until lunchtime. I would make and eat my lunch while listening to The World at One and then work once more at the computer in my bedroom until about 5.30pm.
After I’d finished work each day I took my exercise. I worked out that I must have done the same walk around 80 times by the end of lockdown, a loop that I followed in an alternate direction each day to give me some variation.
It’s not a bad walk to have on one’s doorstep. I would take the side road that passes my house, climbing a rise that gives views back over town and down to the harbour with its fishing boats moored up against the sea wall and to the yachts clustered with swaying masts in the marina. I would walk down the other side of that hill to cross the little bridge to the carpark at the end of Tanybwlch beach, where as spring progressed I would often see a Rock Pipit flitting down from the parapet to its nest in a crevice somewhere beneath, at first with twigs in its beak, later with worms or insects. Then out along the shingle ridge that slopes down to the sea, a gently curving bay of grey stone with the flat open grassland of the Ystwyth flood plain inland, and a steep slant of mudstone cliffs to the south.
The river, which at first lies across the ridge from the sea, turns inland at the centre of the plain and I would follow the path beside it, where willow trees burst into flower and leaf as the weeks passed, lining its course, the water running shallow and clear over beds of gravel when it was dry, later in the year swirling and brown as rain storms broke over the hills to the east. Over the water, in late spring, swallows, house martins, sand martins and – most impressively – swifts would swoop, skimming the surface, plucking away the midges that spiral there on warm evening air.
At the bridge near Rhydyfelin I would leave the river behind and follow the lane, turning back towards the sea at a fork in the road near a tall Aspen, which – when it reached full leaf – shimmered and rustled, making a sound like the waves on the beach. The latin name of the Aspen is Populus tremulus, its leaves having flattened stems so that they twirl back and forth in response to the slightest breeze.
From there the lane follows the valley side under trees where jays squawk and woodpeckers knock, and along the verges of which the spring flowers followed one another as the year passed, the strange weather mixing their annual succession a little – celandine, blue bell, wild garlic, red campion, stitchwort and then a growing cast of others. Below the mansion I would take a narrow path by a bungalow whose garden I envied – a blank canvas that could be so creatively filled, but which remains a close mowed desert. Here, in May, from the woods the spectacular purple flowers of rhododendron towered over the way, buzzing with bumble bees and hoverflies.
Skirting the banks of bramble and young hawthorn that slope up to the old house – which has been converted into flats – there are views north over the whole valley, the river like a snake, Pen Dinas with its gorse and blackthorn-covered flanks yellow and white when the bushes flower, the monument at its peak, the grey of the coast, and the town visible in the distance between hill and sea. Then back to the beach where Wheatears flutter and twist among the rocks, and Oystercatches, Dunlin and Ringed Plover feed along the tideline. As restrictions were lifted I would swim there, under blue and grey skies alike, and then sit and watch the sea and its ever changing colours.
It did not get boring. At first I saw it as a return to island life – I worked as a seabird researcher on Skomer Island in 2011 and 2012 – that had never been dull, not only through having work to do, but also because the constant cycling of nature bought something new to the same scenes every day. That calming image of life made me feel less constrained, and I settled into the pattern of life around me. Once a week came the trip to the Treehouse – a local store where you ordered from an open window during lockdown – and apart from that I ordered fish and veg and beer online from various places. I grew tomatoes and courgettes (the latter pretty unsuccessful, battered by unseasonal gales or chewed at by slugs, some of the plants having to fend for themselves in soil without compost, the garden centres being shut).
Later, a new narrative for the experience came to me, brought by the events that were changing the outside world and my own – the daily figures of cases and deaths, news that my ex-girlfriend had married – things that showed that this routine, however fixed, was not static – I was moving in time if not in space. I was – harking back to my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella years before – a pilgrim again, on The Way. Fixed in one location but facing the tribulations of the road, finding in the things around me the ways to deal with them, learning about myself, learning, struggling to have faith. Lockdown was not a gap, a stasis, it was a time to grow – if a moth can transform within its chrysalis, why should a human being need to have and do and travel so much in order to grow?
The narratives helped, but so did the weekly Skype quizzes I set up with friends – two or three hours of laughter and shared drinks at a distance, a punctuation point to register the turning of days and weeks that grew so alike – video calls with family, and even a weekly game of Dungeons and Dragons. Through online dating I met a new girlfriend – things did change, the time was not empty. I have been lucky – that, so far, neither I nor my family nor my friends have had the virus, that I live in west Wales by the sea and the open country and not in a tower-block, that I still have a job. And I hope that I’ve taken the opportunity to re-evaluate and re-prioritise – that in a few months I will look back on lockdown as a time of real change in my own life, and not just as five months lost.