At around about this time of year I’d be beginning a new travel blog, usually involving the USA and invariably including a trip to my favourite city on the planet. But not now, and probably not for the rest of this year.
It’s March 2020 (if you’re reading this in the future) and much of the world is living in lockdown because of Coronavris, Covid-19. I’m hoping to be able to look back on this in years to come and be thankful for the immense privileges normally afforded by global travel.
In regular times, the process is simple – buy a ticket and go. Once you get to a location, do as you please. None of that is currently possibly. Indeed, in the UK leaving the house is becoming increasingly difficult. The restrictions are there with good reason, but for anyone who loves travel and socialising it’s not just frustrating but heartbreaking too.
So, as we’re living in such a strange world, I see no reason not to join in and make it a little stranger – with a virtual blog, taking in the sights and sounds of the places I had planned to go to, coupled with the current state of play in those locations right now.
At times, it’s likely to read somewhat disjointed if not downright surreal. But who cares?
My virtual journey begins in London, and a view I never tire of. St Pancras railway station is a cathedral to transport. Arrival is like entering a different country to the UK – and its also the gateway to the continent thanks to Eurostar trains. You don’t have to be a rail buff to appreciate the stunning glass archway stretching from the platforms to the street, with high end shops running the whole length.
In March 2020 London is, like many other places, virtually deserted. Or rather the streets are. This past weekend – amid confusing and conflicting advice – the capital’s parks have been teeming with crowds. On the one hand the Government has told people to stay two metres apart.
It’s a phrase we all know now but hadn’t heard of a fortnight ago; social distancing. But it isn’t working, because with all the pubs and restaurants closed everyone is getting outside in numbers normally reserved for a summer’s bank holiday weekend. As I write, it looks increasingly likely that the UK will be placed on something approaching complete lockdown – a prospect that makes people even more anxious to get outside while they still can.
London is somewhere I’ve never particularly liked, but in recent years I’ve grown to tolerate it. Treating the place like a series of small towns and villages makes it easier to take in. And this time in 2019 the country was in a state of similar turmoil and uncertainty because of the delayed process of Brexit.
This is Steven Bray, who became famous on British TV through 2018 and 2019 for his frequent interruption of news broadcasts with his cry of “Stop Brexit”. Many saw him as a comical character, but his message resonated with plenty of campaigners.
It’s the kind of random thing I do like about London, but it’s never too soon to get out. My usual plan is to stay in a hotel on the night before a big trip and then take the tube to Heathrow. The journey time of an hour is slower than using the express train, but it’s more convenient from St Pancras as there are no changes to make – so once you’re on board that’s it.
March 2020 saw the tube – the London Underground – reducing its services because fewer people were travelling to work. The problem is, key workers like doctors and nurses still had to get into the capital, which meant the trains that were running were just as packed and crowded as usual. Again, social distancing simply didn’t happen – running the risk of further spreading the virus.
By contrast, many suburban trains on the London Overground were deserted – an unexpected upside of the crisis that nobody really wanted.
On 23rd March 2020 the UK Government took complete control of the rail network to ensure it could keep running at a time when private companies were bringing in next to zero revenue. It was part of a much wide, massive financial package to pay 80% of the wages of private sector workers – unheard of in peacetime.
And so to Heathrow Airport – and Terminal 5, the home of British Airways and another gleaming transport hub. One of the extra special parts of the trip I’d planned was my upgrade. And I don’t mean Business Class, I mean the one where you turn left at the door.
In the run up to the holiday I’d carefully planned timings, to take things easy and to also use the First Class facilities in moderation. Sure, it’s very tempting to down two bottles of champagne before a flight but that would have taken away the fun of the luxurious service on board. Sadly that will have to wait for another time – but at least I have the memory of slumming it in the Business Class lounge previously.
On my virtual trip, I’m headed first to Atlanta – before travelling onward to Memphis and New Orleans. It’s a classic deep south itinerary, and although I’ve visited all three cities before, this year was to be a chance to explore them further. In Atlanta, I wanted to get under the skin of the Civil Rights story, and to take an evening wander through Martin Luther King’s home district. By day, it’s a pleasant working class neighbourhood, but at night I suspected it might get a bit more edgy.
Even up until a couple of weeks before this, I’d still planned to travel. The United States had imposed a ban on visitors from the European Union, but that didn’t initially extend to the UK or Ireland. At that point, it seemed as if I’d be able to enjoy these places perhaps without the usual huge crowds. It’s s sign of just how quickly everything changed.
Getting refunds on all of my accommodation and US internal flights was simple enough, and I got the cash back in my account within a couple of days. Only British Airways stalled – at first insisting that my flight was still going ahead, and so all I was entitled to was a voucher for future travel. They even tried to charge me a £300 cancellation fee. I eventually got it sorted – after a painful hour of holding on the phone. And while the company’s Customer Service agents were brilliant, BA’s communications strategy badly let them down.
I firstly got a vague text with a brief reference to my flight booking and “Please visit the website” – nothing to say the flight wasn’t running (which I’d already found out) or my options for a refund. And after all of that, this email.
I suspect my “continued loyalty” might be wishful thinking.