20 Pledges for 2020: The unexpected joys of travelling much, much closer to home

Even as lockdown restrictions ease, hyperlocal travel has its charms, says Helen Coffey

Friday 12 June 2020 08:14
Swimming in the Serpentine can feel as exotic as a trip abroad
Swimming in the Serpentine can feel as exotic as a trip abroad

t’s possible I may have become a tad institutionalised.

After 10 weeks of not straying outside my postcode, the easing of lockdown restrictions, which gives me license to go further afield, feels decadent – nay, foolhardy even.

Obviously, flying is still out of reach even if you haven’t, like me, sworn off it. Were the FCO to relax its guidelines against all non-essential travel tomorrow, the prospect of jumping on a plane, only to head back a week later and be forced to quarantine for 14 days, as the government is suggesting, is a bitter pill to swallow. And, on balance, probably not worth it for most.

Cross-channel trains and boats come with the same issue – the looming mandatory self-isolation period dampening even the most ardent traveller’s ardour.

While there’s been much talk of exploring the homegrown charms of the UK instead, for those of us without cars, there isn’t that much “exploring” to be done. As I understand it (and I may not understand it at all, given Dominic Cummings’ completely-within-the-rules jaunt to Durham), we’re still not supposed to be using public transport unless it’s “essential”. So a daytrip to the coast is out, as is aiming to ambitiously cycle or walk anywhere remotely exotic, considering that staying overnight is still strictly verboten.

My biggest trip to date since lockdown began? Travelling a whopping 5 miles from my home a fortnight ago, a journey time of around 35 minutes by bike. Back in the halcyon days of pre-Covid, this would be nothing to me – it’s less than my usual commute to work. But after more than two months confined to my own little urban pocket, it felt just as exhilarating, as adventurous, as brimming full of potential as boarding a plane to somewhere new (without the hideous early morning trip to the airport).

Of course, it helps that we had one of the most idyllic springs in living memory. Clambering aboard my trusty steed (bicycle) and soaring through the streets of London, skirting a flamboyantly verdant Regents Park, all while warmed by the early morning sun, is one of the most glorious prospects imaginable. And the city is different – gone are so many of the cars that previously slowed my pace. The bikes have taken back the roads now, albeit temporarily, creating the illusion of a be-wheeled utopia most closely resembling the Netherlands.

Wild swimming can be found on your doorstep

Where else could my legs take me on a fine spring day than the Serpentine – a 40-acre recreational lake in the middle of Zone 1 that happened to be the one place you’re allowed to swim in London? (They sadly shut up shop just days later, citing overcrowding concerns.) I’ve done the journey hundreds of times before; it’s on the way to my office. But absence really does make the heart grow fonder – or at least more appreciative. I saw it all with new eyes as I swooped into Hyde Park along cycle paths immersed in chlorophyll-green grassland. Round the corner and there she was: an arched bridge across the glinting water, the scene like something out of a Jane Austen novel (were it not for one monstrous tower block visible on the horizon).

The banks were densely packed with delicate purple blooms, the water ruffled by the stately progress of swans and Canada geese with their fluffy young in tow. So much beauty, so often ignored. In fact, in two and a half years of cycling to work across this bridge, I don’t think I ever once paused to look. I was always in too much of a damn hurry.

The Bank Holiday had brought out more people than normal, and queuing up for the lido the distancing felt a little too social. But then pure, blissful freedom – into the cool water, immersed in its vastness, full of the open sky and the sun-drenched trees and the peace that comes with being almost inside the landscape… these are the sensations we often travel thousands of miles to capture. To feel free and full-hearted. To kick out and find nothing in our way, nothing but the discovery of what it is to be alive. To look up and see beauty giving us a coy wink at every turn.

Heavy-limbed and a little dizzy at the wonder of it all, I clambered out some time later and pondered all the hours I’ve spent in joyless airport terminals, all the money I’ve spent on magazines and overpriced snacks while waiting to pile into a metal box with wings, just trying to grasp hold of the same things.

Sometimes travel can be far-flung and exotic; sometimes it can be closer to home; and sometimes, just sometimes, it can be so close to home that you’re back in time for brunch.

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