DD’s 52nd Woodford Diary

Some South Woodford scribbles from DD, our resident diarist, commentator and observer of all things local

Within the past week, I looked down on a world-famous tower from a dizzying height. I also climbed up into a lesser-known tower that I pass by every day. A superfast lift took me to the first viewpoint; a super-narrow spiral staircase to the second. From the astonishing Sky Garden, ‘the highest garden in London’, the Tower of London looked like a child’s favourite plaything, a toy castle within its toy walls. The reward for squeezing myself up the spiral staircase was to join the team of bell-ringers at St Mary’s Church Woodford, and to sit and listen with awe as they launched into their celebratory peal of bells.

You may wonder where this is leading. Most of the time we probably take our five senses for granted. Sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. The Covid virus produced all sorts of symptoms: a cough, sore throat, tiredness etc. But it seemed particularly outrageous that our sense of taste came under attack. Some sufferers reported not just a loss of taste; they said everything tasted horrible. The famous astronomer, Edwin Hubble, is on record as saying: “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him.” Has the pandemic forcibly reined in our exploration of our small corner of the universe?

We had not heard St Mary’s bells during lockdown conditions. Bells that were first rung in 1721. Now, those campanologists, standing in their small circle in the bell tower, are creating glorious sounds. Seriously painful has been the loss of some other precious sounds over at least a year (a quarter of a child’s life if he were four): the shouts and laughter of the children in the Churchfields Park playground. And believe it or not, after months of avoiding Tube travel, I found I quite liked hearing that nice lady telling me my train was “terminating at Epping”. Even if she told me rather too often. I suddenly didn’t mind hearing the thoughtful advice about avoiding the gap. It all seemed so comfy and normal. But I do draw the line at the ludicrous ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’ campaign. Some smart journalist has dubbed it ‘Tannoy spam’. I wish I’d thought of that first.

There are no spectacular sights in South Woodford to compare with Sky Garden. But for a long time, when our neighbours did our shopping and we deliberately took our permitted exercise in unfrequented areas, we missed the signs of routine activity, even the well-stacked supermarket aisles; clusters of shoppers stopping for a chat; the trees in George Lane keeping pace with the seasons; the world going about its business. Personally, I have missed watching the jumbo jets turning into their assigned flight paths to Heathrow on their ‘final approach’. As lockdown relaxes, our café culture is being restored, even in what are usually the coldest months: groups sharing a meal out on the pavements. Sitting late over a beer under the awnings in the forecourt of The George. ‘A sight for sore eyes’.

Giving someone the elbow meant something quite different before Covid barged in. Being deprived of our sense of touch has been shocking. Two friends well apart, sitting at the far ends of a park bench. Walkers stepping aside when passing strangers. Sons and daughters trying to bring comfort and reassurance to parents in care homes through a perspex screen. Hundreds of thousands of people, millions probably, responded to the rules. I was reminded of the examination hall: “You may now turn over your paper and begin.” Only it was, almost unbelievably – and only occasionally – “You may now hug your grandchildren.” Is this the most acutely missed of the five senses? Is the joy of its recovery the most profoundly felt? Covid has brought home to us with blazing clarity the fact that we are social animals. Arms are for hugging.

Taste was itself under direct attack from the virus. But indirectly too, when the cafés and restaurants were closed, our lavish choices were refused us. Let’s be honest, there was widespread genuine unease about eating out. Even fear. Could shoppers who routinely disinfected their supermarket trolley handles really feel safe sitting at a café table or collecting a takeaway, eating food cooked in an unknown kitchen? I met Gemma, the manager at M&S. (Gemma sparkles.) She was right on the ball when I explained my theme. She contributed this very pertinent comment: “We have not been able to secure our ‘tasting budget’ since lockdown began. You know, offering customers in the store a sample of a new product. Perhaps a special gin at Christmas or a little square of cake with a new recipe.”

What of that humblest on the list: our sense of smell? Our fish counter at Sainsbury’s with its familiar salmony scent disappeared. The deli counter too. Who knows when they will return? Passing the Indian restaurants or the Turkish or the Chinese, there were different unique aromas to enjoy when lockdown occasionally eased. And the feast of fragrant coffee bars. We do love our smells, don’t we? Recently, I had a chat with Senem at Woods Fish Bar. “Oh yes,” she said, “even if they are just passing, customers will often open the door a little and take a good sniff to savour the aroma of the frying fish.” Debbie helped me too; she has worked in Sainsbury’s for 30 years. Not infrequently found on her knees, quietly filling up gaps in the shelves. “The final baking of the bread and rolls is upstairs now,” she told me, “so you don’t get the rich aroma we had when the bakery was out the back. You really need to come shopping first thing to smell the loaves when they are still warm.”

Fortunately, South Woodford gardens are abundant with rosemary and lavender. I confess I often pluck a sprig or two if the bush is trailing over onto the pavement; I breathe in the fragrance. Covid has been powerless to deny us that.

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