Lockdown Walks | Brian LewisPosted: April 1, 2020
Day one. 6.45am. It will be good to be out, I think. I am delivering a book to a friend on Roscoe Bank, a friend who has not left the house for several days. I lock the door and turn into the street, a man is walking on the other side, shuffling and staring, I don’t meet his gaze. The traffic is thin. I cross the road, then another road, there is nothing coming. I reach the banks of the Rivelin, I start to run, I am not a good runner. I sprint, then stroll. I reach the park. I pass a dog walker, a water play area, a shut cafe. The playground is unlocked and the heat from the soft rubber surfaces drifts through the gate. I pass the allotments and another dog walker. I cross a stone bridge over the Rivelin and climb the steps and slopes to Roscoe Bank. Uninterrupted birdsong. I am taking care not to touch handrails, gateposts, stiles or fenceposts. I reach the friend’s house and post the book through the door. Milk on the step, two pints, blue top. It is good to see deliveries. I leave and start back down the slopes and steps, there are a few more walkers now, one person one dog, also a young family, two adults two children, we nod from a distance. There are a few more cars on the road. It is 7.30am, a road sweeper passes slowly, brushing the kerb, a haze in its wake. In the display window of Towsure the question STAYING HOME THIS EASTER? I wait for the cars to pass and cross the street to my house.
Day two. 2.40pm. Someone in Stannington has ordered a copy of The Footing so I decide to walk it over, a round trip of six miles, a new route. I have the pavement to myself. I think about the intervals between vehicles, there are long, regular gaps. White car, white car, white van, white car. There is work going on at the river, I can hear it, Rivelin Cutlery, Slater Sheet Metal Ltd. I pause at the confluence of the Rivelin and the Loxley, the water rust-red with iron deposits. As I enter the valley park I meet a friend who is pushing a child in a stroller. We talk at a distance and he mentions the sale of his parents’ house yesterday, how the conveyancing documents had to be witnessed through glass, then signed at a stretch, the pen making contact with paper, but not the hand. The trees filter light and trap heat. The playground is locked and deserted, no it isn’t, there is a muscular man using the frame of a child’s swing as a pull-up bar, his actions are practised and calm. The gyms are closed, I understand that, but this doesn’t seem right. At the banks of the river some people are forgetting how to behave. Walking feels strained. I climb the same steps and slopes to Roscoe Bank that I climbed yesterday, then start to lose what I’ve learned, the road dips and I stop to check the map. I pass Liberty Hill and continue west, the road seems busy for a back lane, the cars don’t slow. None of the fields are at rest. There is machinery everywhere, starting or stopping. I pluck a blue flower from a stone bank, is it a forget-me-not, a blue flower with a yellow centre. At The Rivelin pub the WHATS ON board is wiped clean. I turn through Tofts Lane and find the steep footpath to Stannington. An electric fence divides the footpath from an uneven field. The field climbs with the footpath, the fence makes sparks in the heat, it is rhythmic, one two three four pause, then it is constant, like a dripping tap. I labour uphill, it grows faint, then stops. The path opens into a long, narrow field and I glimpse the western edge of Stannington above it. This is the first poem in The Footing, I think, a ‘high scrape / of heather and bracken’, I have stepped into it. I walk the length of another field and into Nethergate. The address is around here, there are gaps between houses and house numbers, I walk the crescent and back, I start again, I start to understand the crescent, I find the address. The person who ordered the book is at her window, she is painting her porch frame, we talk at a distance, she asks me about the route I took. After a few minutes I leave and she goes back to her work. I slip into the long field and watch the city breathe out and fall back.
Day three. 8.10am. I have run out of bananas and things so I leave the house in search of them. I turn east along Holme Lane and cross the road, diagonally to the chip shop, there is a notice in the window, handwritten on chip paper, DUE TO CORONA CLOSED TILL FURTHER NOTICE STAY SAFE. I pass more commercial premises, there are notices in almost all the windows, penned or printed. The 81 bus idles in its bay with three people on board. The windows of the tram stop barbers are boarded up, there is no message, there is no need. Usually, at this hour, Langsett Road can’t be crossed without signals, I count three vehicles heading into town, car ambulance car. There are great soundless gaps between people. I take the steps to The Parade, the local shopping centre, most of the units will not be opening today, I descend the steps on the other side, to Morrisons, the main entrance and lower car park, there is a queue, it winds around the side of the former barracks, I can’t see the end. After a few minutes I join the queue, a few feet from the secondary entrance, which is closed. The queue is largely made out of gaps, some of the gaps have trolleys in them, this helps to preserve the distance. Every few minutes we shuffle forward. The mood is relaxed but there is little conversation. This feels normal, expected, inevitable. As I near the head of the queue I see that people are being counted by the staff on the doors. One out, one in. Several people leave in close succession, some with trollies, some with bags, sanguine, defeated, absent. A man gives a thumbs up to no-one in particular. I am waved through and I grab a basket. I make for the mozzarella, there is no mozzarella, I go to where the oats should be, there are no oats, I repeat this for yeast, olives, tinned tomatoes, where have all the sweeties gone. There is no flour, obviously, I will never see flour again. There is floury residue on the flour shelf and I consider scraping it together to make a small biscuit. ‘You’re Beautiful’ is jammed in the overhead speakers, this stops after a while, it is followed by late-period Cliff Richard. My basket is empty. I go to the grocery section, there is much fruit, I take some bananas, apples, a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. There is no queue for the self-service checkout and no-one is standing on the social distancing floor stickers. I leave the store to meet a queue as long as the one that I left and the tower clock striking nine.
Day four. 11.30am. People in Ormskirk and Leicester have ordered some books so I spend the morning fiddling with cardboard and sellotape until I am satisfied with the geometrically correct packages. ‘I’m going to the Post Office’, I call to Emma. I go downstairs and enter the kitchen, I forget why I have entered the kitchen, I am going to the Post Office, I leave the kitchen, then leave the house. The roads are quiet, the pavement less so. The Post Office is three streets away and two of these streets are side streets. I start to sprint across Taplin Road, I almost nearly don’t quite see the car in my path, I stop myself in time, I am getting unused to traffic. I turn left into Middlewood Road. The banks are closed, the estate agents are closed, most of the shops are closed. The people on the pavement make the street look busy, there is no hurry, there is nowhere for them to go. I cross Middlewood Road and reach the doors of the Post Office. A poster taped to the glass states that entry is restricted to a maximum of two persons at any one time. A second poster states that opening hours are 9am – 1pm until further notice. Warily, I try the door, a member of staff beckons me with a nod, I step forward, I am the only customer. The air is heavy and flat. I put my parcels on the scale and try to complete my half of the transaction with minimal contact. I thank the staff, awkwardly, and leave. I cross the road to my local newsagent. My local newsagent is shuttered and taped to the shutters is a note that reads WE HAVE TAKEN THE DECISION TO PROTECT OUR HEALTH AND YOURS STAY SAFE ALAN KEVIN + FAMILY ALL STOCK HAS BEEN REMOVED FROM PREMISES. I cross back and pass B&M Stores, where an unsmiling man is stationed at the door, a small queue winding down to the street. I pass Eve’s Fruit Store, it is busy inside and out, an elderly woman glares at a nectarine. After a few minutes I am at the forecourt of the Jet Petrol Station on Bradfield Road. I take a newspaper from a display stand and go inside to pay. At the kiosk there is a conversation between a builder and the cashier, the aisle is narrow, I don’t know where to stand. The cashier signals to me and I move forward and pay. I step back and the builder and the cashier resume their conversation. I hear only the builder’s side, it seems that he is talking about his boss, this has not been a short conversation, he is summing up now. This is about the size of it, he says, this is what the boss is saying, in effect, he is saying I’ll stay safe at home while you go out and earn me money.
Day five. 2.30pm. Another book order, it is from Crosspool, a few miles south-west of here. I consult a map and consider possible routes and decide to walk out via Rivelin Valley Road. There are other routes, possibly easier, probably quicker, but I am liable to misremember them and stall at a junction, over and over, consulting a map. The traffic is light on Rivelin Valley Road. The pavement is made out of mulch, so it seems, leaves and twigs from tall trees that stand at regular intervals. Some of the trees still have handmade SAVE ME banners tethered to their trunks. The campaign is over, the banners are the memory of the trees that didn’t make it. Here is Hagg Hill and its bastard gradient. There is no pavement on either side of the road so I sidestep into a narrow verge to avoid the cars on their descent. I see a bridleway to my right and I take it, it is like a holloway, a sunken track with canopy cover, part of a network, branching west, supporting the allotments that terrace the hillside. The bridleway winds uphill, parallel to the road, I stop every few minutes to take in a different view of the suburbs below. Stannington rises and falls. I pass the alpaca farm with its alpacas and turn right along Back Lane where I find another mesh of allotments, everyone is here, it seems, bent over their plots, in little sheds and bowers, people come and go, distantly, singly. I find the address, there is no need to knock, the door opens and I step back, then I hand over the book. We talk briefly and wish each other well. I think I will take a different route home, I can work it out from here, I can pop into ASDA and pick up a few things. I follow a bend in the road then a bend in a bridleway and I am skirting the lower slopes of Crookes Cemetery. The bridleway is crowded, there are pinch points, a few of us pausing or slowing to maintain distance and flow. I see the pastel backs of Stannington View Road and the colours drip into the park like lollies. I turn into Mulehouse Road and draw level with the houses. Some of the residents are having a go at DIY and gardening, a woman is moving plant pots around her patio. The next street is silent, a bank holiday without the people. I enter Northfield Road, a Co-op on the other side, next to the Co-op a Sainsbury’s. There are distanced queues of roughly similar lengths outside both supermarkets. I stand at the back of the Co-op queue. It seems very dark inside. After 10 minutes I reach the front of the queue and after another 2 minutes a masked assistant unlocks the door and nods at me. I scan both sides of the first aisle, then the second, there are only six people in the shop, it is easy to maintain distance. The labels on the shelf tell me what I would find on the shelf if there was anything left on the shelf. There are two tins of Spam and no tinned fish. I give up, I leave with nothing, I don’t look back at the Sainsbury’s. It’s all downhill now, Northfield Road to Heavygate Road, South Road to Walkley Road. I think of calling in to see Chris and Jo, on the off-chance, then I remember that I can’t. I take a right down Highton Street and pass the house I used to live in, 25 years ago, it is in better shape than when I left it. There are plants in the windows and a new front door. In 1996 or 1997 a comet visited the sky above Walkley, was it Hyakutake or Hale–Bopp, it sat a few metres above the hedgerow. It was a good thing, to find it there in the evening, bright and indifferent, one of the few good things to return to. At the bottom of Highton Street there are thirty people queueing for ASDA. I calculate that it will take 30 minutes to get inside, I walk on. On the corner of South Road and Walkley Road I see a floral scarf wound tight around the loose wiring of a small mid-terrace. Was it lost, snagged, has someone tied it there? Is it supposed to be a sign, is it meant for someone?
Day six. 7.10am or 8.10am. Some of the clocks have gone forward without me and some of them have stayed where they are. I remove the large clock from the kitchen wall, wind it on by an hour, then replace it with difficulty. I punch the keypad on my battered phone and scroll through the dark display. The time is set for ten minutes ahead, or ten minutes fast, I do this because I am always ten minutes late. I walk out of my front door and look up and down the street. I think I hear an engine nearby but there is no movement on the road. I go back into the house for my camera and step back into the street. When I am sure that there is nothing coming I take the first photograph, facing north-east, towards Owlerton, then the second, facing west, towards Malin Bridge. Still no cars. The temperature has dropped again, perhaps three or four degrees, I see one or two flecks of something in the air. I leave the camera in the house and walk to the garage on Bradfield Road. There are no cars on the forecourt and there does not appear to be anyone inside the shop. I take a newspaper from the display stand, then use my elbow and shoulder to ease the shop door open. The cashier and I have a brief exchange, take care, I say, more than once, it is feeble in the mouth. I pass Lloyds Bank, then Wilko, then notice that the display area on the side of The Shakey that normally advertises drinks promotions has been replaced with a hand-drawn sign that reads MASSIVE THANKS TO THE NHS AND EMERGENCY SERVICES AND ALL KEY WORKERS FROM TEAM SHAKEY. I have never set foot in The Shakey but I have a long-standing admiration for the work ethic of their staff. I cross to Holme Lane, then cross to the south side, where most of the houses are. These are my neighbours who I’ve never met. In a ground-floor window the message STAY IN EVERYONE PLEASE AND NO ONE WILL GET THE VIRUS THANK YOU NHS FOR ALL THE HARD WORK EVERYONE KEEP SMILING in a child’s sloping script. In another ground-floor window I see THANKS ♥️ NHS across two sheets of lined A4. In a third window the glass is filled with THANK YOU NHS with the NHS at the centre of a heart and the heart centred in a field of hearts. It’s white acrylic craft paint, I think, they’ve done a good job, they wanted it to be remembered.
Day seven. 7.10am. It is black bin day. All the black bins are out in the street. I watch them from the window, then go down to the kitchen. When at last I leave the house, I find that the formations have been broken up, the bins are standing this way and that. I hear the wake of the Veolia lorry as it slows into Malin Bridge. I turn left, towards Owlerton, the traffic moving freely, no tailbacks at the junction. I pass the green space at Hillsborough Place, twelve metres by twenty metres, grass, shrubs, raised beds, three or four mature trees, large, irregular stones marking a boundary with the pavement, and, on the corner, half a dozen modular planters, black plastic, ex-municipal. The planters were formerly stationed across the road, between a bus stop and a Wetherspoons, nothing seemed to last there. The white and yellow daffodils are doing well, the tulips are letting go of their colour. There is a man I often see at work in this garden. He might live in the house next door and this may or may not be his garden. It is not a dog-walking green or a fenced-off park, it is maintained for itself, the visual amenity. The cherry blossom is still holding on to the cherry blossom tree. I cross Hillsborough corner into Bradfield Road, past Wilko, Lloyds Bank, the Jet garage, pausing at Star Upholstery, a sheet of A4 in the window, SHOP CLOSE BY ORDER OF PRIME MINISTER. I had not before now noticed the shop signage peeling out like dry transfer lettering. I pass a man, another man, then another, they all give me the same look, like I am going the wrong way. At Swann-Morton (Penn Works) a man in an orange gilet is talking with a man in a burgundy smock, there is a delivery in progress, everyone is keeping their distance. I cross over to Swann-Morton (Cobb Works) then cross the dual carriageway and into Owlerton. The lights are out at Napoleons and the casino car park is almost empty. A cement mixer rolls into Livesey Street, its drum rotating, turning right at Hillsborough Fencing. I stop to photograph the surviving sections of a mural that used to run the length of this road, along the outer wall of the speedway and greyhound stadium, twelve or more two-tone tableaux, spraypaint on brick and metal, scenes from local history, the Great Flood, the Bassetts factory, Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show. The mural runs out before it can turn the corner. The hum of the substation is quieter than I remember, I can barely hear it above the birdsong, am I listening too hard. All the while a trickle of cars toward Mondelez, a split site criss-crossing the River Don, it is business as usual, the rolling shifts, all in one, Cadbury Trebor Bassett. I stand on the bridge and stare down the length of the river. On the eastern bank I glimpse the outlying vehicles of the travellers’ camp that appeared on Club Mill Lane last summer. The footpath to Herries Road is closed and the graffitied gates of Cooper Car Spares are closed. The line of the river is a vanishing point into the south. I take the steps into Wardsend Cemetery, then the steep sloping path, it is overcast and early but the cemetery is filled with light. I come out of the trees and cross a railway bridge, the Stocksbridge line, a single track that cuts the cemetery in two. There is nowhere to go but up, steps hacked into the hillside, stopping every minute, the horizon in no particular order, the storage sheds, the breakers yard, the college and the casino, Hillsborough Park and the Wednesday ground, white smoke, dark water, last year’s leaves still clinging to the branches.
Sheffield, 24–30 March 2020.
Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. Longbarrow Press is continuing to fulfil book orders via its website during the COVID-19 pandemic; click here for a full list of our current hardbacks and to order titles.