I’ve made a couple of trips to London in the last few weeks, and I’ve never seen it so quiet. Data shows that Londoners are the slowest in the UK at getting back to their offices following the coronavirus lockdown - and that’s obvious before you even step foot in the capital.
Where is everybody?
In normal times, my train from a Kent commuter station to central London would be packed, and I’d be lucky to get a seat. Yesterday morning, I had a whole carriage to myself.
Getting off the tube at Embankment, I passed very few people as I walked to meet my friend at the pier.
From there, we headed to Soho, via Villiers St, a narrow lane that leads up to Charing Cross railway station, where there were a few people milling around.
We also passed St Martin-in-the-Fields, a striking church with a cafe in the vaulted crypt. Again, there was barely anybody around.
Soho was like a ghost town in comparison to what it normally is. Sure, there were a few people dining outside but we were able to get a table at Barrafina, a classy tapas restaurant on Dean Street that normally has a queue outside the door, with no fuss.
August is generally a quieter time in London, but not like this. Gone were the throngs of tourists and groups of colleagues enjoying lunchtime drinks.
We spent a couple of hours (was it more?) drinking champagne and eating small plates in the sunshine, and all was well. All except that we were accosted four or five times by people (young and old) soliciting money - a reminder that not all of those who still call the capital home have it easy.
As always, the food was fantastic and Barrafina is highly recommended for lunch or dinner when you’re in London (they have three restaurants). In particular, don’t miss the delicious jamon (Spanish ham) and the croquetas (yesterday they were serving ham and cheese, and mushroom varieties).
A few hours, bottles of fizz and glasses of sherry later, we walked (stumbled) to the nearby J Sheekey seafood restaurant, where we had some fabulous, salty, plump Jersey oysters - and one more bottle of champagne (just for luck!). The perfect end to a lovely day…
But it’s not just Soho that’s quiet. A couple of weeks ago, I visited Regent Street - home to world-class shopping and usually bustling - and was staggered to see there were only a handful of people there on a Saturday afternoon. Westminster was equally deserted.
With home working showing no signs of going away soon, coronavirus threatens to bring permanent change to the UK’s capital city.
Commuters may be enjoying skipping their daily commute, and finance executives quoted in the Financial Times say some staff may never return - such has been the success of home working.
On the one hand, it was great to feel at ease in the city, with so few people around, but at the same time, the lack of activity can’t be good for an economy that’s so reliant on the hospitality and service sectors.
Perhaps it’s time to get out and start spending again, for the good of the country…