Lockdown living: ‘Stay at home’ has put neighbourly relations to the test
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Not everyone’s been following the rules of lockdown to the letter, as Richard Burton discovered.
At about the same time a Cornish acquaintance of mine was telling me a local store was refusing to sell groceries to a ‘visitor’ and a sign had appeared on the main road into the village telling non-locals to ‘go home’, two cars rolled into my street.
And at just about the time two members of my extended family with a second home on the coast decided they should diplomatically lock up and leave, the newbies pitched a tent in the garden and inflated a pool.
The people leaving the seaside terrace were owners who let their two-bed cottage for large parts of the year and were well-known and liked by neighbours. The ones arriving at the four-bed luxury detached near me were settling into a holiday let for what looked like the duration.
For the first fortnight, you couldn’t hear a pin drop. The new neighbours stayed discreetly inside, work on the newly-sold house over the road was limited to a lone roofer and the two big renovation projects in the road behind ground completely to a halt.
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As the weeks went on, the builders drifted back; a fencer here, a plumber there, shuffling sometimes self-consciously in and out. Neighbours up and down the street seemed to take turns like characters in a weather clock to appear in trainers, on bikes or with dogs on a lead. At the same time I was getting reports from Cornwall of police drones flying over Padstow to make sure no-one was out dancing in the streets on May Day.
One way or another, everyone was playing by the rules. Then things began to change. As April became May, the lone builder was joined by three others, a crane-mounted lorry turned up twice and dropped fence panels and bags of sand and a skip came and went.
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And so did the guests to the rented property. Two, sometimes three cars would roll up, the barbecue would go on and so would the music. Meanwhile, outside Sainsbury’s there were still two-metre queues, no one left the edge of their drives to clap on Thursdays, everyone crossed the road to avoid each other and the Ocado drivers were being tested every week, dropping on doorsteps and retreating.
Then, on May 10, Boris Johnson announced there would be a partial easing of the lockdown rules the following Monday. We didn’t know what it meant but the neighbours had their biggest party yet. New cars appeared in the road and on went the music again.
That bit I didn’t mind. And I wasn’t close enough to worry about bumping into anyone but this was clearly a breach of a rule that clearly had the force of law behind it and was at odds with the culture of the road. That’s right. The last time there was a house party, a twentysomething girl I’d never met dropped nice notes through our letterboxes with her mobile on them, lest it got too noisy and we wanted to let her know.
Anyway, what to do about this latest breach of the peace was a different matter.
A few times and in many locations over the years – think extensions without planning permission, fences blocking footpaths and even a giant inflatable pool cover that upset neighbours in one village – I’ve usually been the one knocking on doors for an explanation while others wrote anonymous notes or called the local council.
Okay, in most cases it was because I probably hoped there was a story in it, but I’ve never been comfortable with making a sneaky call to anyone. And in this case, I shouldn’t need to, especially as a local detective lives within earshot on one side and the owners of the house on the other.
In the event I was persuaded out of doing anything. The music stopped, the cars drove off and peace returned. The following morning during a phone call with my step-mother, she told me the same thing had happened in her street.
Hers was worse. Two neighbours were unable to work from home as someone had developed a new habit of drinking loudly in their garden with guests on several afternoons.
A group of them, a pretty assertive lot to be honest, having held executive roles on international fashion and social media brands, knocked on the door and retreated to the gate where they made their concerns known with the sort of diplomacy usually reserved for stakeholder meetings. The result: a confession of embarrassment and no more parties.
All a world away from the TV commentator who told me she’d berated a friend who boasted that he’d walked to his local police station to report his neighbour when he saw their family arrive a day or so into lockdown.
Or the retired lorry driver who risked confrontation by challenging (from two metres, he assured me) six youths ambling through a Watford estate as if joined at the hip. He too wouldn’t report anything because, having grown up in the East End in the sixties, he prefers to “tell it to yer face”.
Then there were the elderly ramblers who found themselves having to step off country footpaths near Stevenage to avoid people with no sense of distancing, or the gardener who shocked a friend in Radlett who was clipping her hedge next door when he strolled over for a chat during a break with his flask.
Stories abound. No wonder then that Herts Police were reporting at the start of the month that anti-social behaviour reports had risen in St Albans as a result of residents reporting their neighbours for rule-breaches.
County-wide the force served 243 fines in one period between March 27 and May 11. It sounds a lot but it puts us respectably mid-table in the national Lockdown League.
Tony Dolphin from St Albans Citizens Advice told me last week that reports of such issues were rare in his experience. Most people who visited his offices were those struggling with benefit applications and employment issues.
“The lockdown has meant many people who never expected to have such problems are now facing them for the first time,” he said. “This particular problem is not such a common one. The standard advice is to contact the police if you think your neighbours have broken the law - and I guess that applies here.”
On Monday 12, when the sanctions were eased, the sound of the lone builders vans tip-toeing in and out were drowned out as six trucks and vans rolled up at one of the house conversions at the back and two further down the road. Or maybe it was five and three. Anyway, there were eight in a road where for weeks there were none.
Two days later, a removals van rolled up over the road and the lockdown renovations paid dividends as a new family moved in to a fresh new home.
A mile away on the same day, a white van man with tools and a boy of about 11 in the passenger seat asked me for directions. When I told him he’d missed the turning, he had to drive more than 200 yards to turn around because one side of the road was completely blocked by nine more trade vehicles.
The National Federation of Master Builders has issued guidelines relating to building sites. They include keeping to a minimum the number of workers that they need on site at any one time, staggered work times and maintaining the two-metre social distancing.
Pity no one told the crews working behind me. I know many of them probably hadn’t seen each other for a few weeks but the male bonding was akin to the sort of stuff I see on the football terraces.
At least from what I remember...