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‘It’s very quiet!” says the supermarket delivery man, approvingly, scanning the empty street. Over a summer of Treasury-sponsored jollity, he has kept a censorious eye on the trattoria over the road, the brewery and tap room next to it and the many other bars and restaurants that flank our house, commenting disapprovingly on social distancing failures and general carousing as if he was Oliver Cromwell, while bearing crates of crisps and loo roll.
He’s right: the street is quiet; York, my home town, is quiet. With curfew and tier 2 thrown over us like a deadening blanket, my sleep is only disturbed by the usual existential dread, instead of seven men singing Wonderwall and kicking a can, as previously.
There are no parties: hen, birthday or coach. Not even the Viking Centre – tied for most exciting thing to happen in York when I was growing up with the day the minster caught fire – can draw a crowd. Walking past yesterday, two masked Vikings were larking about halfheartedly, without the usual snaking queue of over-excited families inexplicably keen to discover the sights and smells of Jorvik (Viking-era York – as if a rotten melon had mated with a Yankee Candle in a hamster cage, if you’re curious). The city walls have introduced a Covid-safe one-way system, but you could do a full Busby Berkeley number there now without getting in anyone’s way. Meanwhile, the ghost tours have finally achieved the eerie feel that always eluded them, the cloaked and top hatted guide shepherding a few hardy souls through dark, silent streets.
“Your local medieval guildhall needs you!” the beautiful Merchant Adventurers hall tweeted recently. “Our usually bustling cafe and museum is unusually quiet,” it continued, posting photographs of its extraordinary beamed hall, motes of pale sun filtering through the windows, completely deserted.
By any metric, this is a disaster. York survives on selling centuries of heritage, its economy driven by sales of “Viking” drinking horns, “Roman” (faux-man?) spears and yorkshire pudding wraps explained in Mandarin signage. One in four jobs relies on tourism and 8 million tourists normally troop down the narrow Shambles – “one of the world’s most famous streets” – every day. (Sorry, every year – it just feels that way.) The MP for York Central, Rachael Maskell, has rightly warned that the city could go “off the cliff” economically without support.
The picture is the same across the UK, of course: much of our shambolic but beautiful island stays afloat by being a heritage theme park. But it’s currently closed to visitors. The most recent inbound tourism forecast from Visit Britain for 2020 suggests a 74% decline in tourists and a 79% drop in spending.
I’m sorry and sad and worried about the future. But – whisper it – there’s a truly guilty pleasure in this beautiful place being empty. We feel like the lucky beneficiaries of an after-hours museum tour, discovering familiar ancient monuments and narrow streets with fresh eyes. I have stopped wearing headphones when I walk, because the unaccustomed silence is so compelling. This morning I walked past the minster completely alone, my steps echoing; I could even hear the soft swish of pigeon wings.
I was born and grew up here, trained to roll my eyes and tut as I dodged yet another slow-moving group following an umbrella held aloft. “I’m not a tourist, I live here” read a popular badge in my teenage years. Thirty years later it has become far busier: the city became a destination for stag and hen parties in the decades that I was away. We’re no Venice, but it has become hard to handle: on normal Saturday afternoons, we skulk in the house to avoid the punchups and duelling inflatable penises (despite the council instigating a deflation patrol).
The relief at having the place to ourselves is real, but I hope it doesn’t last too long. Even I, a natural misanthrope, have started to find it melancholy. The buskers, playing on empty streets to indifferent Deliveroo riders, make me particularly sad: what is the point of playing Oasis standards when your microphone won’t be stolen by 20 stags dressed as Nora Batty? Peace is great, but a thriving city is better.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: I was relieved when the tourists left my home town. But now it feels truly melancholy | York