A few days ago, a friend in Australia sent me a message: ‘Been to the beach lately? Worrying scenes on our televisions!’
He was referring to the major incident declared when around half a million people flocked to Bournemouth on the UK’s south coast last week on one of the hottest days of the year so far.
The answer to his question was no – at least not to sunbathe or swim in the sea. Despite living 10 minutes’ walk from the coast, I – like many residents of seaside towns – have long been in the habit of avoiding the beach at peak times.
Still, as the lockdown restrictions continue to ease, I have started to venture out in other ways. Last weekend, for the first time since March, my family and I left Folkestone together and went to a pick-your-own fruit farm near Deal, a place where, wandering down rows of heavy-laden cherry trees, social distancing was no issue.
Yesterday, we went on another adventure far from the madding crowd. This time, our object was St Thomas à Becket Church in Romney Marsh (pictured above). This historic building, the foundations of which date from around 1200 CE, has survived long after the disappearance of the village it used to serve and stands alone in a marshy field. Misty and waterlogged for much of the year, the landscape makes it easy to imagine Magwitch creeping through the marshes to accost Pip at the start of Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations, which is set in these parts – indeed, the church was used as a location for the 2012 film adaptation.
In normal times, it’s possible to collect the key from the wall of a farmhouse some way down the road and let yourself in to look around. Covid-19 has put paid to that for now, but we were able to peer through the leaded windows and catch sight of the handsome box pews – perfect for socially distanced church services, as my husband pointed out.
As the wind whipped around the building, carrying the bleats of the sheep that roam freely across the grassland, it was possible to believe that we had dropped out of time. Daily life, other people, and the anxieties and stresses of the modern world seemed light years away.
Our isolation, however, was short-lived. As we picked our way back across the field, the next visitors were already letting themselves in at the gate. Another family seeking a trip out off the beaten track. Companions in the quest to be alone.