Year in Review: Looking back on January to April

Preet Cox, who organises the St Albans Rainbow Trail, has been recognised for her community efforts

Preet Cox, who organises the St Albans Rainbow Trail, has been recognised for her community efforts with a Hero of Hertfordshire Award. Picture: Courtesy of Preet Cox - Credit: Archant

As the bells tolled in the New Year, not even the most prescient of people could have foreseen how the next 12 months would unfold, and that cases of a new virus first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan the month before would have a devastating impact on not just the St Albans district, but the entire world. 

The first Herts Ad of January was nothing extraordinary, reporting on how UK Scouting chief executive Matt Hyde, who lives in St Albans, had received an OBE in the New Year’s Honours, and that The Lea School in Harpenden had been crowned the town’s top primary school in the latest round of league tables. 

In the next edition, we focused on ‘a kick in the teeth’ 2.7 per cent fare rise for rail commuters, ironic given the fact that later in the year the majority of those travellers would be working from home, and a campaign by the grieving daughter of a woman killed in a fatal car crash for safety improvements to the Redbourn Road. 

Meanwhile Flamstead man Brian Coote was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his 71-year-old neighbour Christine Ford after he became infatuated with her, and two directors of Greek restaurant Souvlaki City were fined for dumping eight shopping trolleys full of builders’ rubble outside Morrisons supermarket. 

Reporter Laura Bill began an in-depth series of articles looking at the underworld of gang crime in the city with a story on violent assaults around the Clarence Park area, followed this up with a piece on the arrests of four young men suspected of being involved in the incidents, and interviewed Chief Inspector Lynda Coats about residents’ concerns surrounding the so-called Graft and Sack gang. 

St Albans Arc and Arc started its 175th anniversary celebrations, The Verulam Arms pledged to re-open under the new name of The Rabbit Hole (it didn’t) and the troubled St Albans Local Plan was suspended due to ”serious concerns” over legal compliance and soundness. As you might imagine, we’ll return to the plan on several more occasions over the coming months... 

February saw police celebrating a major victory in the fight against organised crime after a gang responsible for supplying drugs in St Albans was jailed, Storm Ciara brought widespread destruction across the district, and the iconic Rose & Crown pub in St Michael’s village closed its doors after a fall in revenue. 

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We revealed how the traffic camera at the junction of Watson’s Walk and London Road had snapped 1,325 cars in 2019, that a fundamentalist sex education leaflet was being distributed in the city, welcomed the return of the annual St Albans pancake race, and revealed how almost 200 children across the district were left without a secondary school place. Then the first case of coronavirus was reported at Harpenden’s Davenport House Surgery, and what had seemed like a distant threat was suddenly on our doorstep.

‘Keep calm, clean and carry on...’ was the headline on March 12, referring to plans for city centre businesses to receive donations of hand sanitiser to ensure local shopping continues in the event of a coronavirus outbreak. The county’s response to the virus began stepping up following the news that a patient receiving treatment from West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust had died, and the Bishop of St Albans offered his own four golden rules to consider alongside official public health advice. 

Things still seemed pretty normal, despite these concerns, and the Herts Ad’s leisure pages were packed with forthcoming events. Even the next edition, published on March 19, only referred to an “escalation of contingency measures” as the threat of an outbreak began to take effect, although most of the Herts Ad staff had already begun working from home as a precursor to any tighter restrictions.

Oaklands College axed its annual lambing weekend, The Odyssey cinema suspended its programming, and May’s council elections were cancelled. After Boris Johnson advised people not to go to pubs, local boozers were hit with a 90 per cent drop in revenues, and launched the Stick One In! initiative to help them keep afloat through the crisis. 

That was the last paper edition of the Herts Ad received in our French Row offices.

On March 23, the Prime Minister announced a complete lockdown of the UK, and nothing would be the same again. After 165 years, our weekly delivery of the newspaper came suddenly, shockingly, to a halt, and the offices were abandoned for the duration of the crisis. After some initial hiccups in adjusting to the new working practices, copies of the Herts Ad continued to be distributed across the district, a lifeline for those people in self-isolation who were cut off from the rest of the world.

The March 26 edition of the paper focused on efforts to support the vulnerable and needy during the crisis, put the focus on mental health challenges through the It’s OK To Say charity, looked at the impact on retailers forced to close unexpectedly, and we launched our over-arching #ThereWithYou campaign to highlight the newspaper’s efforts as a means of vital communication in lockdown. It was a paper quite unlike anything we have witnessed since the dark days of World War II, with coronavirus an umbrella “theme” permeating throughout every story.

Uncertainty over how long the lockdown would last started to take its toll in April, with the annual St Albans Sustainability Festival cancelled, charities suddenly reached breaking point as fundraising initiatives dried up, and Whipsnade Zoo found itself having to shoulder the cost of feeding and caring for its animals without any obvious means of revenue. We paid tribute to much-loved gardening contractor John O’Connor, whose name can be seen on lorries and trucks across Herts, after he sadly succumbed to the virus.

Yet there was still positivity in our photos of schoolchildren adjusting to lockdown, the reports on remarkable community initiatives like Harpenden Cares and the ongoing St Albans Rainbow Trail, and stories about how colleges, schools and businesses had stepped up to provide vital PPE to the NHS.

The winners of the 2020 Mayor’s Pride Awards were some of the first to be announced virtually, a pattern which would continue for similar awards throughout the year, and we published remarkable pictures of deserted streets, parks and motorways as residents heeded the message to stay at home.

By the end of April, people had started to adjust to the “new normal” with remarkable flair and vision, and although coronavirus still cast a shadow over what was happening locally, it no longer became the focus of every news story. We remembered the man who fitted shoes for Harpenden children for 42 years, as Victor Keshishian passed away, and looked at how runners coped with the cancellation of the London Marathon by embarking on the 2.6 Challenge.

Government inspectors highlighted “serious concerns” over the St Albans Local Plan, particularly the decision to earmark the site of the proposed Radlett strategic rail freight interchange for housing, a design for the City Centre Opportunity Site South was selected following a public consultation, and we caught up with some of the businesses and retailers who have been closed over lockdown to find out how they’ve been spending their time.