“She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats,” – from ‘Mariana’, Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Whenever I used to return to my family home in rural Lincolnshire, my mind would often drift to the poem ‘Mariana’ – Alfred Lord Tennyson’s bleak homage to Shakespeare’s ‘Mariana in the Moated Grange’, from Measure for Measure. With its dismal depiction of hopelessness, decay, and flat desolation, ‘Mariana’, for me, was Lincolnshire all over – Tennyson was from the county too, and I often wondered whether he had it in mind when he was writing the poem.
A few months ago, I would have sworn by this gloomy portrayal of my childhood region. But, as with much we once took for granted, life under COVID-19 offers a different perspective to Tennyson’s words. It is only with something as cataclysmic as a global pandemic that one can re-evaluate the beauty of living somewhere so forgotten and forsaken.
Lockdown takes on a unique quality in somewhere as isolated as Lincolnshire. I fled back to my countryside hometown from London in early March, when a severe outbreak of coronavirus in the UK began to appear inevitable. A couple of weeks later came the lockdown itself, when a grave-looking Boris Johnson appeared on television screens ordering the near complete cessation of British life, and newspapers screamed of his restrictions of “a kind that we have never seen before in peace or war”.
Except, in Lincolnshire, nothing really changed.
In this moated grange, far from motorways and airports, and train stations – even, I sometimes felt, far from civilisation – life went on almost as normal. The lockdown effectively meant that everyone in the UK was now pressing the pause button on life – but this was a pause button of the type Lincolnshire has, to a certain extent, always faced. When I was a child, I yearned to leave the inert country world, with its everlasting lack of opportunity, and which seemed to sap life and hope from you by the barrelful – but with the universal lockdown, those concerns were suddenly made invalid. Everyone in the country had immediately been placed into their own moated grange, in one way or another: the societal upheaval that COVID-19 wrought upon us splintered us all into single home units.
Quite simply, it then became impossible for any Mariana-esque, forever Lincolnshire ‘fear of missing out’ to exist at all.
Under lockdown, Lincolnshire doesn’t seem so bad after all. Where I once used to hope for an escape to better fortunes elsewhere, the deserted nature of the place now seems to provide a needed barrier against the virus, physically and mentally.
Like probably every community across the world, my hometown is still saturated by fear – but the countryside has always been a tight-knit kind of place which, strengthened under the pandemic conditions, has made living here at the time of COVID-19 a little easier. It has almost been with relief that I have bumped – at two metres away – into old friends and acquaintances on the street; people from my past and future, who have all been drawn magnetically back to this little oasis of stillness. I’ve spotted fellow students I hadn’t seen since primary school helping out in supermarkets, or going on walks with their families, as if we’d all never left to have our own lives. Everyone has come back home.
In the local shops, the friendliness even extends to strangers: holding vegetables with the tips of our fingers, we smile apologetically as we duck and sway out of each other’s way like we’re performing some frightening waltz – the Danse Macabre made real. But still, there’s that northern, rural friendliness, those broad-grinned ‘Hellos!’ yawped across the aisles that seems to say: ‘We’re already accustomed to some isolation here – what’s the difference of a few feet?’
I’ve come to appreciate this small-scale world like never before, finally understanding the hope and light that can be found here. I was so used to expecting silence that, on the very first night of the 8pm Thursday night applause for the NHS, the roll and roar of clapping which resonated from the houses far beyond our cul-de-sac seemed almost magical.
Of course, this begs the questions as to why I – and so many other people of my age – have come to loathe Lincolnshire in the first place. Has it really taken a global pandemic to change our minds?
Not really – if life returned to ‘normal’, I doubt many of its charges would suddenly decide to stick around. Lincolnshire – as with, sadly, much of the countryside – is still not the best place for a future career, or any life opportunities.
What’s changed is how the place can be seen in the here and now.
With everything and everyone locked down, my comparisons between somewhere like Lincolnshire and somewhere bigger and brighter – like London – have reverted back to zero; right now, we’re all on a level-playing field, and Lincolnshire, quite frankly, is coming up trumps. The quiet that I used to loathe has become that of a bucolic paradise; the people I meet are fashioning value from the very bricks of our toy-town community; even the endless, unbroken flats are providing a much-needed space to escape from four walls for a while. I’m also now coming to appreciate the importance of switching off, on occasion, from the humdrum of modern, raucous, city-like life.
For now, at least, Lincolnshire has become a valuable tonic to cope with a surprisingly even madder world outside its boundaries. Therein, finally, lies its beauty.
Teaser photo credit; By MOTORAL1987 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0