2020: Plans, Vans and Ideas Part 1

2020 so far has been….well….we were all there weren’t we?

Like so many others, we had plans for this year that have had to be…{is it optimistic of me to use the word?} paused

I think for the first time in my life, I started the new year with some semblance of a ‘plan’. We had just returned home from Ireland, where we’d spent a couple of weeks with my partner’s family, relaxing and catching up, but also working on our van conversion. E’s family have a farm (no longer a working farm), so there’s plenty of space and tools, not to mention no neighbours to annoy with the sound of angle grinders.

We began January with this vague plan:

February: Quit our jobs. Yep. So long, suckers!

March: Pack up our belongings into storage.

April: Head off in our newly converted campervan until we run out of money > get jobs in Scotland > relocate to Scotland permanently (a goal which we’d individually had before the two of us had met).

Now of course, all of this depended on the van actually being finished. Or at the very least ‘liveable’….

Definitely not liveable, yet…
This is E, my partner in suffering.

The same week we got home and went back to work, I got sick. It started with abdominal pain that I couldn’t really attribute to any one thing. (I should perhaps mention, that up until 2019 I worked for the ambulance service as an Emergency Medical Technician – so I had at the very least a basic knowledge of what could cause such sudden and severe pain.) I knew it wasn’t right. It kept happening, seemingly with no pattern or correlation to anything else. I went to my GP surgery on 4 separate occasions, each time told that my symptoms were vague and pretty much dismissed. I had a work trip to Dorset in January which involved an overnight stay in a hotel. That night I debated getting up to drive myself to hospital. The howling storm outside was the only thing that stopped me. It’ll get better – was what I kept telling myself. We took a Friday off work in early February to go back to my beloved Manchester for a day out/revisit some favourite old haunts and go to a gig (Explosions In The Sky – post-rock transcendental greatness for those not familiar). Halfway through the day I was doubled over in pain and we had to come home. The pain was becoming worse, and more persistent, along with extreme nausea. Until one night: tears. Proper, ugly, full-blown crying. I decided to call NHS 111.

Night & Day, Manchester. Before we had to come home.

My only other experience with 111 was in my former ambulance service job, (and was constant frustration upon attending several patients per shift who did not warrant an ambulance being sent to them) but in this instance they were superb; the nurse I spoke with made me an appointment with an Out Of Hours GP at the local hospital. Within minutes of walking into the examination room, the GP told me her diagnosis, prescribed me some strong pain relief, and organised for me to come back in the following day for a scan. 24 hours later I’d had an ultrasound, had an appointment with a Consultant Surgeon, and been put onto the ‘urgent’ waiting list for surgery to have my gallbladder removed. A few weeks later, the entire country was on lock-down and non-emergency treatment came to a screeching halt. Looking back now, 5 months wasn’t that long to wait – but at the time I was in a lot of pain, and pretty fed up.

As early as December, we’d become aware, through online articles on Reddit and the likes, of what was then referred to as a ‘flu’ virus that seemed to be focused in a particular area of China; in January we’d started paying more attention to the news. We would be working on the van over the weekends and during coffee breaks, I would sit on the floor of the van reading aloud the latest stories, as the virus appeared to gain more prevalence throughout China, and then Europe – the numbers soaring exponentially. There were the tourists flown home from stricken cruise ships and put into immediate quarantine in Merseyside, there were the reports of Chinese tourists in York becoming unwell followed by the hotel closure and immediate panic in the city. The fear was growing, and rightly so. COVID-19 was here. It was everywhere.

I’d already started working from home before the “official” lock-down in March. My manager at work knew that I was worried about contracting COVID-19 and potentially jeopardising my chances of having my surgery. I’d also been in some considerable pain, particularly up until the point where I was diagnosed and given strong pain relief. I began going out for walks in our village at lunchtime, it helped to take my mind off the pain and discomfort, and probably did me a lot of good – I’d not been exercising at all since the pain had begun, and for someone who was once previously so active it was so good to get outside. I started exploring the village. Despite having lived here for almost a year at this point, I still hadn’t really seen much of the place. I loved how peaceful it was. Even walking in the middle of the day I probably only ever crossed paths with one or two people.

Speaking of crossing paths, early on in the pandemic it was interesting to see people’s interactions and behaviours changing, including my own. I noticed that I had began to cross the street if I saw someone walking towards me on the same pavement. It wasn’t an entirely conscious or intentional thing, and the wry smile I would sometimes get in return made me stop and wonder if I was being ridiculous. I would walk the same loops to begin with, and would pass a house where an older gentleman would be sat in his chair gazing out of the window. Every single day. He looked lonely. I began waving and smiling to him as I passed. I wanted to make him smile, and it worked. His face would light up, and to be perfectly honest, it was making me happy too – being able to make someone else smile just by saying hello – I had been pretty miserable with the pain, and then the doom and gloom of the burgeoning pandemic. I felt like we both probably needed cheering up.

Since I’d left my job with the ambulance service the previous year, the thing that I truly and genuinely missed was the interactions with the older patients. Old school: stoic and never wanting to trouble you, but nothing was ever too much trouble for. The many wonderful and interesting stories they would share, their wisdom and experience, and how appreciative they would be – even for such small and simple things. Us youngens have so much to learn.

Leaving the ambulance service in 2019 was a huge decision that didn’t come easily.

By the time Boris eventually announced that the entirety of the UK would be locked down, (he took his time, right?) I had already got into a routine of homeworking. Working from home isn’t all fun and games (unless you work as a kid’s PE teacher, obvs.). I don’t know about other people, but I have found myself working much more than I would if I was in the office. Previously, you could close your laptop, leave the office and not think about work again until the morning. Now, it’s all too tempting to not take proper breaks, or leave your laptop running and try to resist checking your emails after hearing that ‘bing’. It’s difficult to switch off, in more ways than one. What it has been good for though, is having a more balanced work/life ratio. The time I would spend putting on makeup (why?! I seriously haven’t worn any since March) and getting ready, and also commuting to the office has become time for just being a bit more present in my own life. Having more time to dedicate to cooking nice meals during the week (instead of just at the weekends), catching up with jobs (SO many jobs) 🙄 and just generally being an adult.

The absolute best thing about it all, though, is just being here, and appreciating all of it. As cliched as that sounds, it’s so very true. I never fully appreciated the joy you could get just from just taking a few minutes, sitting in the garden and observing the birds. I can’t say that I’ve ever given birds so much attention before! We have visits from the usual crowd – Blackbirds (who nest in the wisteria under the bedroom window and wake us up from 3am in the summer), Robins, Carrion Crows, Great & Blue Tits – as well as Goldfinches, Long Tailed Tits, Waxwings – and I’ve even watched a Sparrowhawk eat a pigeon on the front lawn. I also never knew that I’d be enjoying planting bulbs in the garden and watching them become beautiful, living organisms.

Buying a bird feeder is surely the first sign of middle age?
Flower plugs for planting (Note the skull in the background. I was always a strange child)
I adore wildflowers (see below for proof!). They are always such beautiful, vibrant colours, but they’re also really beneficial for wildlife and the ecosystem.
Gardening for the first time
A blooming good feeling
Seeing everything blossom and grow!
Magnolias; as beautiful as they are, they seem to flower and then shed in no time at all.
Squigs & Starlings are scavengers and they bully the smaller birds. Cue banging on the window and bellowing “They’re not for you, they’re for the little ones!!” at the top of my lungs like a mad woman.
I’ve changed…send help!

I read a few articles recently about how the pandemic has been turned into learning opportunities by so many people: some were using the time they had after being furloughed to learn a new language or musical instrument, or those working from home were finding time to discover a love of baking, or even just fitting in more time with their children. I still had to work, but I have managed to grab an hour or so here and there to pick up E’s woodcarving knives to try my hand at carving (but actually just ending up carving my hand – see below), or picking up the ukulele I bought 10 years ago, or even just finishing work early and enjoying a nice cold beer in the garden. For the last few years, working shifts, and especially with the job I was doing, I was so used to flying around the place – working a minimum of 12 hour days or nights in a challenging job, and then either sleeping or trying to sustain a life on my days off that I have really enjoyed the much slower pace of life that lock-down has brought. It’s one of the things I miss about working shifts – the days off during the week would be spent out hiking alone for hours on end – it brought me much needed nothingness and peace away from the chaos of the frontline emergency services.

So back to March. The government dictated that we would be allowed outside to exercise once per day. Although we were usually quite active, since the start of the year we hadn’t done much of anything besides working on the van. And so we, like many others, began to get back outdoors. One evening we cycled down a normally very busy and fast main road on the outskirts of the village at dusk and we didn’t have a single car pass us at all. It was eerie to say the least. But we also felt lucky. Lucky to be here – in the realest sense – whilst we heard reports of hundreds of people dying every day in the UK – but also lucky to be here, in this peaceful little village, with the ability to get out for fresh air and views to lift the soul and mood. I imagined what it would have been like being locked down whilst still living in my flat in East Manchester (having relocated here in March 2019). I felt desperately sorry for those that didn’t have the benefit of outdoors space, and I felt incredibly thankful that we had that in abundance here.

We started walking around the lanes here in the village, and down to one of the nearby woods (we are extremely lucky, in that we have at least 3 separate woodlands within walking distance from where we live). We got into a routine of getting a good hour or so in before work, it gave us the chance to get more of a sense of the place where we’d been living for a year at this point.

I also started to pay attention to other houses with wisteria – were they trimming theirs back yet? How much is too much? All of these really banal things occupying my mind on our daily walks were in fact keeping the anxiety and stress that I know a lot of people have experienced during lock-down, at bay. Disclaimer: If you’d have told old me – that is, the metal-gig-attending, beer-drinking and partying me – that I’d be curious about what Margaret and John are using to fertilise their lawns, or that I’d be checking in on my elderly neighbours with freshly baked cakes I’d have laughed and then died a little inside. 2020 has a lot to answer for.

Living in such a quiet area that appears to be mostly inhabited by an older population meant that we very rarely encountered anyone else on our walks. I think in the very early days of the pandemic, people were not leaving the house due to fear. We would walk around the lanes humming the tune to Ghost Town – it seemed fitting, if a little inappropriate. But then… I like my humour like I like my metal…

It’s also the Irish national anthem…

Who doesn’t love Father Ted?

We were passed by one car every morning. The same car. A souped-up Corsa, which couldn’t seem more out of place than we ourselves do here (perhaps we’ve got this wrong, but the area has a bit of a middle-class-Tory-voting sort of feel to it, both of which we are not). But there is a noticeable sense of community here, and it’s nice to not have to worry about much at all. The village center is small, but has pretty much all you need at times like these. There is a general shop, a chip shop, a greengrocers, post office, pharmacy, a farm shop, and a delicatessen/butcher’s shop that wouldn’t be out of place the West end of Edinburgh or a hipster London borough. Everyone is friendly, and it’s commonplace to say hello to each other on the street.

Before moving here in 2019, I lived in a town East of Manchester city center for almost 15 years – the type of place where making eye contact and saying hello to strangers could get you strange looks and possibly a “what the fuck are you looking at?” – and if you were really unlucky, a confrontation with a sharp stabby object. As much as I had enjoyed the life I’d had in Ashton-under-Lyne – it was a perfect location insofar that it was not too far from work, had good motorway connections for travelling and visiting family, was 10 minutes from the City, and I had the Peak District in spitting distance. I could also see the Pennine hills from my kitchen window – it did have serious socioeconomic issues, and I eventually grew tired of being surprised outside the door of my flat in the dark at 5am when I would be leaving for work, by drug users who were using the bin area to shoot up. The nursery across the road from my flat had found used needles in the playground. I honestly feel like I am living a parallel life being here.

Everyone really seemed to pull together here. The community transport bus was operating a free delivery service from the greengrocers to those that were vulnerable and shielding. Staff from the butcher’s shop were doing drop-offs on their way home. Leaflets were dropped through the door from locals offering to help out anyone who needed it. It’s so refreshing, and we’ll really miss this place when we move.

I finally got my surgery at the end of May, and to be honest, I was very lucky that I got it when I did. It was February when I’d learned that I needed an operation; it was pre-pandemic, and I still believed that we’d be going off travelling in April. I had phoned my Consultant’s secretary countless times asking if they had any cancellation appointments because I was outta here! (Little did I know?!) The secretary soon knew me on a first name basis, probably because I was such a pain in her backside. And so in May, when some hospitals were beginning to see a drop in admissions for COVID-19, my local hospital opened up a second operating theatre for urgent surgeries, and I was scheduled for 21st May. I had to go into hospital the day before the operation, to have COVID swabs and various tests and procedures. I hated being a patient – perhaps because I’m not used to it, maybe partly because I’d worked in healthcare myself for the previous 7 years. The operation itself went well, and after spending the day strung out on morphine managing no more than 3 minutes sleep at any one time, I convinced them to discharge me home. E came and collected me that evening and I was so glad to get home and begin recovery. For the most part, the staff at the hospital were excellent and looked after me well. The cups of tea though? 02/10 – absolute shite. Would not recommend.

An abomination.

Recovery from abdominal surgery, even laparoscopic surgery, wasn’t pleasant, nor was it as quick as I’d hoped. I spent 2 weeks of record breaking temperatures and sunshine in bed, with morphine and anti-sickness medication, but The Princess Bride and Lord of The Rings got me through it. E was my hero during these times and was the best murse ever. When I’d exhausted the entire 80’s movies back catalogue I learnt to cross-stitch (yup; old me is puzzled and a little worried…)!

Skeletor approves
How I felt when they brought the tea round in hospital
I’m a Northerner. It’s always tea time.

I had a few weeks recovery and then I started my daily walks again, this time alone, as E had to return to the office. I was very fortunate that my recovery time coincided with a run of blue skies, sunshine and warmth. I got to explore a bit more of the local area. Our village and the surrounding area is mostly farmland and forestry, and as pretty as that is, it isn’t the most interesting landscape. I miss the Peak District!

Eventually, we started getting back out into the Peak District for day hikes. Restrictions on travel from the lockdown had been lifted, and we had both missed proper hiking so much. It’s certainly another thing that has quite clearly changed though – lots of people who were not necessarily ‘outdoorsy’ before, have seemed to discover a fondness for walking during lock-down, and as such, the Peak District has since become overrun with people looking to get out and about. I remember seeing a lot of articles during the time of the lock-down encouraging people to get outdoors, which makes sense. People were starting to understand the positive effects that nature has on your well-being. However, I also saw a mainstream national newspaper publish a sort of ‘How to go wild camping’ article which I thought was highly irresponsible. And lo and behold, the first time I headed back into the Peaks since lockdown was awful. There were signs plastered everywhere on gates and posts warning people not to wild camp, about how it’s illegal (true for England) and will not be tolerated. Something that was probably a bit underground and niche previously, was now mainstream, and this was causing problems. We soon discovered why – one night we had a wild camped planned for a favourite spot of ours, and as we were walking up, there was a group of young lads carrying their pop up tents and cheap sleeping bags, and boxes of beer. People are now using the outdoors as a place to party. It’s no wonder locals are angry. The rubbish I have seen in the outdoors this year is unbelievable (in Scotland it’s actually worse). I know that litter has always been a problem in this country, but the amount of discarded tents, disposable BBQs (which those of us with any sense knows is a HUGE factor in the rise of moorland fires in the Peak District), and even clothes, as well as empty beer cans etc is shocking. These sorts of people are ruining the outdoors for those of us that have been enjoying, and respecting it for years. I still get internally angry at the time I saw someone posing for a photo by SITTING on the wreckage of a plane (which is a now a memorial site). The place has become a bit of a mecca for the Instagram sorts of people. Precisely why I can’t abide that whole ‘culture’, and probably another reason why I shouldn’t be let out in public.

Some might say that it’s a good thing that people are discovering a liking for the outdoors, because not only do they get to experience what we do (and love), but also the immeasurable impact on mental health and well-being, which during this shitshow of a year is certainly much needed. Cynical me, however, just sees the hordes of irresponsible people not respecting the outdoors code, and far too many people. Selfish me wants to be alone in the wilderness, I don’t want to share; it’s an escape, away from people! (I was anti-social wayyyy before it became cool/mandatory in 2020, proof pictured below.)

It’s true!

With certainty we can say that the world has changed because of COVID-19. But will we see any changes for the better – a deeper sense of community with our neighbours perhaps? A genuine gratitude above and beyond a (well intended but not very meaningful) weekly applause for NHS and other key workers? Looking out for ourselves and each other? I hope so. We’re not through it all yet though; this was written at the end of August and whilst almost all restrictions have been lifted now, we are starting to see infections rates rise again. I’m not personally as worried as I was during the first wave, because my surgery has passed now. But, I do continue to be cautious. It isn’t just the older generation or those with pre-existing conditions that need to be careful – we can all get unwell. We also don’t know what the long term effects of this virus are. Studies done on SARS and MERS patients have shown significant long-term impacts such as reduced lung capacity and psychological problems, both of which without a doubt can impact upon your quality of life. These are still very scary times.

To be continued….

One of my next blog posts will be about a week long hike in Scotland, from which we have just returned home. Rain, sore knees, the infamous Scottish Midge and tents being flattened in the wind (although at least our tent went back up again; the same can’t be said for this house in the Highlands we passed on our walk!).

4 thoughts on “2020: Plans, Vans and Ideas Part 1

  1. A brilliant title and a brilliant read! I’m really looking forward to reading about your walk, especially the rain, the sore knees, the midges and the flattened tent! Midges (and disasters) seem to follow you wherever you go!

    Liked by 1 person

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