It happened on a whim. Out for a walk with my toddler this morning, I noticed that Bobbies Bakehouse, the small cafe running in the signal box at the now-defunct Folkestone Harbour station, was open for takeaways. Knowing my daughter’s penchant for warm, frothy milk (or a babyccino as it’s known in the trade), I decided to treat us.
I felt a twinge of guilt as I approached the cafe. In recent years, I’ve been in the habit of carrying a keep cup to use for takeaway coffees in an attempt to avoid disposable cups. Not having had any call for it in nearly three months, I had left it in the cupboard at home.
It quickly became clear, however, that my bamboo drinkware had no role to play here: in the age of coronavirus, it seems, keep cups are more of a hazard than a help.
The cafe had been set up to minimise interpersonal contact. Instead of going inside, I was intercepted before I reached the entrance and invited to give my order to the barista in the window above.
It felt strange saying the words ‘skinny cappuccino’ and ‘babyccino’. After weeks of homemade cafetiere coffee and milk from the fridge, the terms sounded fussy and quaint. There was little time to dwell on this, though: before I knew it, a card reader had been thrust down on a selfie stick to take my contactless payment.
Directed round the corner, we found ourselves confronted with a line of five numbered boxes painted at 2m intervals on the station platform. A table bearing a bottle of hand gel stood across the steps up to the signal-box entrance. It was onto this that, a few minutes later, our drink order was placed (in, I was glad to see, environmentally sympathetic, fully recyclable paper cups).
There being several people after us in the queue, we had to find our way through the exit and across the one-way pedestrian system (introduced to support social distancing on Folkestone’s Harbour Arm) to a spot where we could enjoy our beverages without coming within 2m of anyone else or spilling our drinks – my daughter managed this admirably, although I failed on the latter point, managing to slop cappuccino down my front when the platform edge we perched on turned out to be lower than I thought.
Once I’d dabbed myself dry, it was pleasant sitting in the open air, watching visitors strolling past and seeing more customers stop to call their orders up to the barista. Still, it was odd too. As I sipped my drink, I realised something was missing. Though the coffee was perfectly good, it lacked an ingredient: the convivial atmosphere of the coffee shop, the proximity of strangers intent on spending an hour or two in a welcoming space.
The drink in my hand was only part of what I used to buy into when I paid for coffee by the cup. And this morning, instead of a taste of normality, it felt rather like a relic from a bygone age.