However much I tried to ignore it, it was inevitable that the dreaded C word would make its way into one of my blogs. There is no need to document all that has happened since Covid’s arrival back in March – we have lived every moment in minute detail in the daily news updates. September though, seems to offer a glimmer of hope and good things are on the horizon that reek of normality…so I’m optimistic, for now!
My barometer of normality is how visitor attractions are coping and it was nice to visit a cross section of galleries and museums across the country in the past weeks.
London is only 30 mins away on the train, but it couldn’t have felt further away over the past 5 months. In August though, the National Gallery reopened its doors and that was the excuse for me to return for a gander.
Though the West End wasn’t as empty as earlier months, it was still amazing to wander through Leicester Square and Piccadilly without dodging and weaving through hoards of tourists. Though it is obviously worrying for the local businesses, it was on the other hand, quite a relaxing and pleasant experience for the visitor!
Booking online is almost as mandatory as the wearing of masks for any attraction nowadays, and so whilst having my morning coffee, I decided to book a spot at The Wallace Collection in Manchester Square. It houses a fantastic collection of artworks and armour within an 18th century mansion setting, and once through the door, it almost felt like I had the place to myself. Sure, there was a route I had to follow and there were plenty of staff, but I didn’t have to jostle for space and I could take in a whole room at my own pace. It’s a gem of a museum/ gallery within a stone’s throw of Oxford Street.
In contrast, the National, being a larger institution, caused a tad more anxiety. Though a time slot had been booked, I entered as a large group, single file, with visitors getting a little close for comfort in their eagerness to get in. I’ve been to the National many times, and so the novelty was in following a prescribed route through familiar rooms and having, once again, less people to view them with. In the main, visitors behaved themselves and tried not to crowd around the more famous pieces, and here and there an attendant would hold people back to allow others to view and pass on. My highlight was the chance to be alone with Leonardo’s ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ if only for a few minutes.
As relaxed and enjoyable an experience as my trip to London was, I understand this is not normal. Our Capital should be buzzing and busy and visitors should be flocking to the latest blockbuster exhibitions and performances. Less visitors means less income for the attractions and in turn less budget for the exhibits that draw and entertain those crowds, and for the staff behind the scenes who run the show.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited Whitby, in North Yorkshire, with my family. We had a similar experience at Whitby Museum as I’d had in the Wallace Collection – not many visitors and a relaxed experience. However, when we descended into the town itself, it couldn’t have been more different. Huge crowds of tourists squeezing down the narrow streets and pouring into the restaurants. It would be unpleasant on any ordinary holiday, but with our current climate, we had to clamp on our masks and (after a quick takeaway lunch) get out fast. I guess that the lack of foreign holidays was a factor. I also think that, due to local attractions requiring booking and with limited spaces available, many visitors had found themselves turning up in the area with few places to go.
The day after, in pouring rain, we spent a relaxed, if very wet, time wandering round the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, having booked our slot a few days before. Again, it was great to have bits of the abbey to ourselves as it added to the atmosphere, but there should have been a lot more visitors, and I’m sure English Heritage, as a charity, will suffer for it.
So, what’s the moral of the story? Well, think before you take a trip. Don’t plump for the obvious places, seek out the smaller venues and out of the way spots. Do your research and book in advance. Attractions are beginning to open up, so unless you are vulnerable or at risk, there is no excuse to stay at home. Put on your masks and get out there and visit our museums and galleries, watch films in a cinema and with any luck, prepare to see actors live on stage again.
Use them or we'll lose them.