No aqueducts, roads, sanitation nor any of the benefits the revolutionary ‘Reg’ grudgingly concedes in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when asked the same question about the Romans. But while 2020 might have been the world’s year of living dangerously, not everything conspired to make it all bad. In far north Northumberland, for instance. . .
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES: it is New Year’s Eve 2020 and I am interviewing the landlord of my ‘local’ via Zoom, the only way into my favourite country pub in these virus-blighted times. On the same date twelve months earlier, chef-owner Iain Burn and I had shared a drink at the Red Lion during his break from prepping meals for the gastropub’s traditional Hogmanay celebration.
“From being open 52 weeks a year I don’t suppose we’ve managed more than 28 weeks this year,” Iain ruefully recounts a year later, his laptop perched atop a closed and deserted bar that would normally be thick with lunchtime drinkers. “Still, I’ve seen more of [wife] Claire and the children than I have in years,” he adds with a smile. Ironically, the forced rearrangement of his work-life balance may have hit him in the pocket short-term but eventually turned the bad times better for the hard-working landlord.
“The first lockdown in March came the Friday before Mothering Sunday. I spent the Saturday apologising to the dozens of lunch bookings, closed the pub and went from working 16 hours a day, six days a week to zero so I needed to fill my time,” says Iain. “Once the decorating and odd jobs were finished I built a play-deck for the kids at the end of the pub garden. And that’s what gave me the idea.”
The Big Thought
‘The idea’ was simple: Iain used government compensation (paid to businesses forced to close temporarily) to meet staff costs and payments to suppliers, insurers and his mortgage lenders. He used the remainder – plus some weeks of unwanted spare time – to build a giant outdoor deck. “I had to lose 28 dining seats inside the pub to comply with social distancing but I gained 40 seats on the deck which gave me a net gain. When I reopened in the summer I was soon doing 150 covers a day and as time went on I added super-sized parasols, lighting and outdoor heaters to extend the time we could use the deck during dodgy weather and in the evening.”
Winter eventually overwhelmed the al fresco diner, of course, and so did the tier system and successive lockdowns that condemned the Red Lion in tier-three Milfield, Northumberland, to perpetual closure. But with never-say-die determination, Iain ploughed on to build up a takeaway pub meal service that left any metropolitan food delivery service for dead. And the DIY deck diner was well-and-truly launched and now looks forward, says Iain, “to adding value to the pub for many years to come’.
The Pandemic in Micro
That’s how it was in our little cluster of villages in the northernmost corner of England perched on the Scottish border: we mourned the casualties and moaned about lockdown but we also embraced whatever benefits that came through adversity.
Three miles north of the Red Lion, parish council chairman Richard Baker and wife Victoria’s Lavender Tea Rooms faced a tough call after the constraints of social distancing halved the already small tables capacity at their post office/grocery store in the picturesque tourist mecca of Etal village. The solution? They emptied the shop area of tables and added fruit and vegetables and expanded grocery lines to replace revenue from the cream teas, coffees and toasted sandwiches.
“That worked really well for us,” said Richard. “We also introduced a pre-order service of bread and milk plus a delivery service. We were lucky: our local suppliers never failed to provide us with all that we ordered in and we were proud to never run out of those British “crisis staples”, flour and toilet rolls! [The parish boasts a local flour mill which never ceased to meet demand.] In fact, we had people drive from Newcastle [50 miles south] just to buy the local flour they could not get in their supermarkets!
“In July, when we were allowed to reopen the tea rooms, we kept on with the enlarged shop and served food and drinks in a separate room and, given good weather, in our garden area,” said Richard. “Both decisions proved popular with tourists as well as locals.” The great plus for both the Etal shop and an equally popular neighbouring village shop and post office at Cornhill-on-Tweed was the incredible community spirit the crisis generated.
New Business Models
The Cornhill café shop and post office has always maintained a strong community link, as a result raising £110,000 for Macmillan Nurses and tens of thousands of pounds for a raft of smaller local charities. “Our charity work was where we took the hit straight away,” said Lynda Waite, who co-owns the shop with her sister Julie. “As shopkeepers we were reluctant to issue raffle tickets that would have been touched by all and sundry and our customers became wary of using cash and shopped instead using credit cards, so they no longer had that odd pound coin in their purses.
“We had to close the café to all but takeaways and used the space as an extra stockroom for the increased lines we were stocking. Our customer base remained incredibly loyal, especially as we began a text-and-deliver service, especially to older people. And, thanks to customer demand, our charity raffles recovered in no time.”
Victoria Baker at Etal agreed. “Without the support of our local community the changes we made – closing the café and expanding the grocery – wouldn’t have worked,” she said. “Regular customers bought items they normally buy from bigger shops, plus we picked up custom from people who hardly ever came in but were but were reluctant to use crowded supermarkets and preferred our more personal service.”
Care by the Community
The local benefits didn’t end there: COVID help groups sprang up to connect this sparsely-populated region: my own village was typical, organising an emergency network of mobile phones linked through the village hall, whose users delivered groceries, medication and support to the elderly and ‘shielding’ community. To this day it provides an undercurrent of support and contact.
Home cooking and baking – traditionally popular pastimes in rural areas – became necessities as local dining spots switched off their ovens and shops ran short of bread and baked goods. A flour delivery system set up by unofficial ‘friends of the mill’ took orders by text and filled them within 24 hours; ‘staying in’ with a home-cooked meal to watch a film or sport on the fast-exploding subscription TV channels (another apparent legacy of lockdown) replaced pub and restaurant outings as winter nights grew longer.
Where the countryside has seen a welcome result is in a reversal of depopulation and the appearance of rural returnees. Milfield has welcomed home from London’s commuter belt a local lass with her husband and new baby, who moved in within a whisker of the March lockdown.
Theirs is a classic case of improved internet connections making the rural idyll compatible with career demands: he works in international development, a role he can easily operate from home when he isn’t travelling the globe (and in the Year of the Virus no one was!); she was a high-flying PA before her maternity leave and planned to return to her job as a remote PA working from home while enjoying the National Trust coastline, Cheviot Hills and wide, beautiful spaces that England’s northern-most county has to offer.
In Cornhill, the shop has welcomed two new residents who have ditched city living: a couple from Newcastle who have returned ‘for good’ and a couple who have taken up permanent residence in what was their holiday cottage, leaving a house in Sheffield to their ‘front-line worker’ daughter, a nurse in the city’s major hospital.
This Farming Life
But alongside tourism, this beautiful, remote county’s primary industry is agriculture and in the most popular northern livestock marts such as Carlisle, Hexham, Stirling and Wooler the effects of strict social distancing, video cameras in sale rings and restricted attendance to all but buyers and ancillary traders are plain to see. “The bustle of the mart canteen has been reduced to a line of masked men awaiting takeaways,” said one sheep farmer. “An auctioneer needs a crowd,” grumbled a cattle farmer. “Today he faces a much-reduced audience spaced two metres apart, unable to communicate with neighbours and solely intent on securing a sale. It’s no fun any longer.”
Nationally, however, farming prospered through the lockdowns after March 2020. “Supermarkets and butchers’ shops enjoyed unprecedented sales culminating in a bumper Christmas,” said auctioneer Sandy Jeffrey whose Wooler-based land and livestock agency deals daily through marts and private sales. “Shoppers were forced to buy from traditional, dependable outlets selling British meat rather than stuff which, in times of free movement, might have come from Timbuktu!
“It is difficult to isolate the effect of coronavirus as Brexit has been a major influence. For instance, many sheep farmers sold huge amounts of stock to beat the 31 December 2020 deadline, resulting in scarcity driving up the lamb price to £100 a head and more. At the same time, prime cattle prices soared to more than £1,000 a head.”
The Balance Sheet
So, apart from all of that, what did the pandemic do for us? Well, it gave us Zoom (a boon for journalist interviewers as well as family reunions), saved the NHS (what government would dare risk suggesting privatisation now?) and rejuvenated thousands of local shops. It promoted Marcus Rashford from mere millionaire footballer to saintly schools food campaigner and bound communities closer through local COVID help groups. And it began an internet-fuelled ‘return to rurality’, allowing generations of wage slaves to swap city desks for country cottages.
As Monty Python might have sung: ‘Always Look On the Bright Side of Life. . .’
About the Author
David Banks is a former editor of the Daily Mirror in London and the Sydney Daily Telegraph who also worked as assistant editor of the Sun and as managing editor of two New York tabloids. In semi-retirement, he writes for and edits this website