Covid pavement dancing

By Alex Russon / December 31, 2020

Stonehaven’s tumultuous year ends without the fireballs, another reminder of how our community has suffered during these traumatic months. Here’s a brief look at how the town dealt with the pandemic as a beleaguering year unfolded. Please add your comments, we’d love to know your thoughts on how you feel the town’s coped.

As the Covid virus emerged during the Spring, and began to spread, the government announced a range of social distancing protocols in an attempt to prevent further contagion, the great British public applying these instructions to somewhat varying degrees. Measures which at first appeared unequivocal, gave rise in fact to interpretation and it wasn’t long before a level of bewilderment set in. Folk were implored to stay behind closed doors with allowances made only for critical travel and occasional exercise, but in some parts of the UK, corners were soon cut. Before long five trips a day to the corner shop for chocolate and coke were deemed ‘essential journeys’ and forty minute walks were surreptitiously extended to whole afternoons in the park.

In Stonehaven, our abidance of the rules issued in a new sport to the town, that of pavement dancing. Akin to morris dancing but without the bells and whistles, it was a soft shoe shuffle adapted by townsfolk in an effort to obey social distancing etiquette. You could spend a good hour in Stonehaven, sat upon a market square bench, sniggering as folk shilly shallied on walkways, unsure whether to wander alongside fellow pedestrians, cross the road to avoid them or run screaming for cover to Dunnottar Castle. Folk attempted to portray a nonchalance, pretending they’d coolly adapted overnight to the sudden need for communal spacing, but in truth we were all treading on eggshells, inviting others to go first in an ‘after you Claude’ approach which soon permeated the town. Those who once marched down the street, scattering all before them, were now to be found tottering along apprehensively and exchanging furtive glances with bystanders who, like them, seemed frightened to say boo to a goose. There was something of a hush across the town centre as folk danced around their handbags, trying to acclimatise to this communal new world.

Everyone had an opinion on how the virus ought to be tackled and how the social distancing rules should be implemented. If you asked each member of the public to draw a line in the sand on Stonehaven beach to illustrate where their individual boundary lay in terms of virus protection, the beach would have resembled a thousand yard ladder. Most agreed that social distancing was now the accepted norm, though not all were happy with the concept, and while queues of people formed two metres apart outside retail establishments in the town, you could sense a simmering resentment in some quarters early on, but not for long. 

Initially, all shops except supermarkets were closed, but reopened a short period later with only a certain number of people allowed inside at any one time. Safety measures were introduced, eg. hand sanitising, transparent plastic screening at till counters, and opening hours were amended dependent upon the type of establishment. Many shops saw no value in opening at all however, given the paltry footfall in town, Stonehaven suffering in particular when the local council imposed controversial car parking restrictions whereby vehicles weren’t allowed on the roadside in and around the market square. The authority’s reasoning was that the pavements were narrow and pedestrians needed the ability to step onto the road to avoid one other, a gross overreaction in many people’s estimation and certainly one that decimated retail sales.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom down town though, there were plenty of establishments adopting stoically to the new world in which we lived. The grotesque street parking barriers were decorated by shopkeepers with sprigs of heather and posies of flowers and The Market Bar ensured the local population was royally entertained, perhaps I can explain …

For the uneducated, The Market Bar sits upon the market square car park beneath Stonehaven’s clock tower and can be considered something of an epicentre of the town. It’s been there for decades and is the most unassuming of boozers, as close as you’d get to an old fashioned pub, clean and tidy but without the razzmatazz of modern day hostelries, you know the sort, yet to decide if they’re wine bars or restaurants. The Market Bar’s a pub, plain and simple, attracting those who fancy nothing more than a relaxing pint, a bag of crisps and a natter. 

With the lockdown regulations being upgraded and downgraded every few weeks, it was difficult for pubs and restaurants to keep abreast of proceedings, but the Market Bar steadfastly kept in step up with the laws of the land. Customers’ contact details were recorded once they walked through the door, their temperatures taken and mask wearing was obligatory. Once seated, customers could remove their masks, a blessing given drinks needed to be negotiated down gullets, but they were to be replaced should a visit to the lavatory become necessary. But then in October, a new government measure came in, requiring customers to consume their alcoholic beverages outside the pub, and not inside. Ludicrous though this seemed, it was the government’s way of dissuading people from gathering in dense populations indoors, so we now had the spectacle of punters sitting outside, in the freezing cold, shivering in parkas, scarves and hats, clinging onto plastic pint glasses and cowering beneath parasols and umbrellas each time the heavens opened. The scene outside the Market Bar was reminiscent of an episode of Phoenix Nights, we just needed Potter to wheel himself on stage left. The market square was virtually deserted, shops’ signage declaring them ‘Closed’, but a dozen or so hardy souls could be found, smoking, drinking and laughing outside the Market Bar, as if it were a summer afternoon in Marbella. Stonehaven may have looked like a ghost town with barely a soul walking the streets, yet there perched a small enclave of revellers, sat in the cold and the gloom, without a care in the world, putting the world to rights. They used to be a real tonic to me as I shuffled my way back from a lonely walk to the harbour. Town was so quiet and I yearned for some sense of community since the virus had torpedoed it. I can’t wait till the Market Bar opens for business again. 

Other familiar views included lengthy queues outside Charles McHardy’s (the butcher), snaking around the corner and up Barclay Street towards the bus stance. This queue would be evident for the best part of Saturday mornings, and likewise, the Creel fish shop would have people queuing along the street, down to the Royal Legion. I live two doors from the Creel and would often, reluctantly, entertain an enraptured audience while attempting parallel parking. My parking leaves a lot to be desired, my banger not boasting sensors, so the pressure would be on when I returned to my Barclay Street home after collecting my children. Some of the regular fish shop punters became accustomed to my shenanigans and, given I returned at the same time every week, I’m sure timed their fish purchasing accordingly. They’d gawp in amused wonder as I attempted to manoeuvre my motor into a satisfactory position, it’d take several attempts. I’d want to wind down my window and ask them to look the other way if they didn’t want to see a grown man cry. On other occasions ,when I’d completed the job relatively satisfactorily, I’d ask my audience for marks out of ten, until a bloke commented ‘heh min, you need a taxi to the kerb’. At least my car remained relatively free of seagull excrement during the summer, with fewer scraps of food available given the paucity of shoppers in the town, the daily pebble dashing from above had been reduced to the occasional direct hit, so I wasn’t having to wash my car on a thrice weekly basis.

Once a week I, like many others, would take a trip to Asda in Portlethen for my grocery shop, a discipline permitted by Boris. (That’s not to say the entire UK general public were compelled to buy their messages from Asda in Portlethen, it was simply the most convenient location for me. Just thought I’d get that straight otherwise we’d have had folk travelling from Bournemouth to get their messages). Asda’s social distancing rules seemed to change each week, it was a job keeping pace with latest protocols.

In late February, when the virus was first reported to be reaching Europe, there’d be a sprinkling of people wearing face masks as they wandered around Asda. I would laugh up my sleeve at these herberts, walking past with their baskets of breakfast cereal and bog roll, only their eyeballs visible between chin and hairline. Little did I know that within a month I too would be one of those herberts, strapping on a face covering and looking like a dental surgeon from the neck up. What started as an oddity became the norm. Who knew Asda would soon be populated by hundreds of faceless punters, silently shoving trolleys around a one way system, reluctant to advance up an aisle until the person in front had finished selecting their tinned pilchards or some such.

Then the panic buying started, entire shelves of pasta and toilet rolls emptying within the blink of an eye. Next it’d be the chopped tomatoes, chilli powder and rice. Folk started to sense there might be a shortage of supplies so lurched into panic mode, hoovering up essentials before anyone else could get their hands on them. I had a splitting headache one day so attempted to buy Ibuprofen only to find the nearest substitute was Lemsip or a bandage, every supermarket and chemist now cleaned out of painkillers. Of course nobody admitted to panic buying, oh no, we were all innocent of such behaviour, lambasting others instead for their bare faced selfishness in depriving fellow citizens of life’s essentials. My father, for example, was apoplectic about this and I had some sympathy with him, until he confessed that while he didn’t much like pasta, he’d bought two kilograms of the stuff ‘just in case’. 

In fairground attraction parlance, supermarket shopping soon moved from being a dodgem car race to more of a unicorn carousel. Instead of rushing around with our shopping trolleys doubling as lethal weapons, we now travelled, sedately, in uniform fashion, as if on a sluggish conveyor belt. We’d journey slowly and silently around the shop, up and down the aisles in a one way system, like soldiers in a military drill falling into line with the rest of the company. There was something quite refreshing about the community spirit adopted during these times, I didn’t see many short tempered exchanges or impatient fallouts, people seemed to accept they were living in changed times and developed a patience they perhaps didn’t realise they owned. Life lessons were being learned, that’s certainly how I felt. Where before I’d be huffing and puffing if Mrs McKenzie didn’t shift her rear out the road so I could access the Pot Noodles, I was now in no rush. If she wanted to deliberate over chicken or vegetable, so be it, I could wait. We all became accustomed to a slower way of life, to waiting, to delay, to patience.

There was no better example of this than the atmosphere at the Cowie end of Stonehaven’s promenade, where the golden mile of The Bay chipper, Aunty Bettys sweet shop and Mollys Cafe Bar served the excited people of Stonehaven and beyond. The weather was good through the Summer and into the Autumn, walks along the seafront commonplace and often punctuated by the purchase of chips, ice cream or sweets. Or all three. There’d be queues of people outside these establishments, customers and staff alike remaining patient and accepting the times in which we now lived. Folk flocked to that row of outlets and they became synonymous with the town, if not the focal point of it in some respects. Indeed that stretch of shops and the atmosphere surrounding them seemed to typify the bonhomie which had developed during those long lockdown months. Hats off then to the owners and staff down there because the micro climate generated there put smiles on the faces of folk who were otherwise finding life truly testing.

And now we enter a New Year with another lockdown having been imposed, a second strain of this awful virus now revealed. Remedy has been found in the form of vaccination and this is undoubtedly a blessing, but it’ll take a wee while for these jabs to be rolled out. Meantime, Stonehaven will keep its upper lip stiffened, its pavements full of boogiers and its face masks defiantly strapped on. This pandemic will be over one day and Stonehaven will be able to look back with great pride upon the way its people dealt with it.