From David Maughan Brown in York: The Crown and Cushion

September 21st

It has been an exquisite early autumn day: perfectly cloudless; the temperature in the low twenties (Centigrade); a light wind, with just the faintest edge of a hint that we had better make the most of the sun as it will not be anywhere near as welcoming for much longer.  Probably not beyond tomorrow, in fact, as another cold front is due to arrive on Wednesday.  Definitely a day to be celebrated by an escape into the North Yorkshire countryside, particularly as the cold front seems likely to arrive in the unwelcome company of another tightening of the lockdown screw.  Our Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser were due to perform a pas de deux in Downing Street, warning us about the exponential rise in Covid-19 infections, this time without the encumbrance of our scruffily inept Prime Minister but, even so, well worth avoiding. This can only mean that the latter is, once again, taking pre-emptive precautions to ensure that someone else can be blamed for what is about to go wrong

But why worry about that on such a beautiful day?  So we head for The Crown and Cushion at Welburn, near Castle Howard, an ‘award-winning’ pub where we can book an outside table, a scenic and leisurely 40 minute drive from our house. Provided, that is, one can avoid the perpetually coagulating stream of traffic along the A64 ‘main road’ by going through Strensall, Sheriff Hutton, and Bulmer.  But we are turned back by a pair of police people on the main street in Strensall, which is swarming with police cars and ambulances responding to an accident of some sort, and we have to go across Strensall common – feeling relieved that the military operations that prominent notices are warning us about appear not to be taking place – and join the A64 after all.  It occurs to me that the army may well be somewhere in the city being trained on how to police the lockdown, a possibility currently being leaked to the media.   As we drive, I find myself wondering aloud, as I probably do every year, what it is that determines the order in which the trees decide that it is time for their leaves to ‘turn’ and take on their autumn colours – horse-chestnuts first, then oaks, and so on.  The trees, once again, don’t divulge their secret.

The pub lunch lived up to its ‘award-winning’ standing in suitably leisurely fashion.  Leisurely for those doing the eating and drinking, that is; anything but leisurely for the three members of staff doing the serving.   The pub’s already extensive outdoor seating area has been extended further by cannibalising the corner of the car-park nearest to the back door.  For lunch-time on a Monday, with the weather as perfect as it was, there was no shortage of customers, most of whom appeared, like us, to be retired.   It was a good fifty yards from the back door to the furthest occupied table and I commented to the member of staff who was serving us that she must be keeping very fit.  She told me that last Friday her Fitbit had recorded more than 20,000 steps between the kitchen, bar and tables.   After traditional pub fare of beer-battered fish with chunky chips and mushy peas, for me, and steak and ale pie for Susan, we were intrigued by the names of the (inevitably ‘award-winning’) cheeses on the cheese-board – Stottie Goat’s cheese, Swaledale, The Duke of Wellington, Ewe Beauty, and Flatcapper Northern Brie – and decided that (with the possible exception of the worthy Duke) they would be more appropriate to a Yorkshire pub lunch than our usual ‘affogatos’, which were also on the menu.  

The lunch was excellent, the release from the endless news about our increasingly dysfunctional Test and Trace system was almost palpable, and I only found myself on one brief occasion wondering fleetingly how many of our fellow customers – only two of whom I saw wearing the face-masks we dutifully put on when we went into the building – would still be with us by next Spring if the dire warnings about the second spike are proved accurate.  When it came to paying the bill, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that The Crown and Cushion has extended its ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ £10 discount per person, scheduled to end at the end of August, all the way through September.  It seemed the least I could do to split the unexpected windfall with the staff by way of a compensation for the wear and tear on their footwear.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Exceedingly Testing

August 18th

There is a school of thought that holds that you aren’t in any position to criticise, and can’t write really authentically about, anything that you haven’t experienced yourself.  It isn’t a position I have a lot of time for – apart from anything else it would rather limit the scope of the writers of crime and thriller novels – but after months of irregular diary entries about coronavirus testing, I am in the privileged position of now being able to reassure members of that school that I am in a position to write from personal experience about the joys of being tested.  Pace Boris it wasn’t a world-beating experience.

Sunday saw the high-point of a two-week self-isolation build-up towards a pain-blocking epidural for my progressively degenerative spondylolisthesis, scheduled for this afternoon.  For anyone wondering why I bother to accord it the dignity of its full tongue-twister name, the answer is that getting my head and my keyboard around its name is the only means I have of asserting any kind of control over it when the analgesics stop working.  On Sunday I was not merely allowed out of strict lockdown, but actually, by way of enjoying my freedom, required to take a spin through the Yorkshire countryside for a test.   

‘Countryside’?  Those of you who know I live in York may be inclined to ask.  Isn’t there a testing site in York?  Yes, there is, there’s one in Poppleton, a village on the outskirts of York four miles the other side of the city from where we live, and, as it happens, two and a half miles from the York Hospital clinic I need to go to.  But I have been told to go to Malton for my test, 20 miles down the A64 towards Scarborough.   So I phone the relevant number and ask whether I can’t have my test at the Poppleton Testing Centre instead.  No, I can’t.  Why not?  “Because the centre at Poppleton isn’t connected to the hospital in York.”  So the centre a couple of miles from the hospital isn’t ‘connected to’ the hospital, but the one twenty miles away is?  “That’s right.”  So who gets to go to the one at Poppleton then? I ask.  “People who have phoned 119”, comes the answer.  “Ah”, I say, light dawning, brilliant idea arriving, “can’t I just phone 119 and go to Poppleton instead?”  No, comes the answer (they have thought of that wizard wheeze), you can’t, because if you do we won’t get the results in time.  Silly me.  48 hours is obviously not nearly long enough to get the results across the gaping two and a half mile distance from the testing ground to the hospital in a world-beating system.  The swabs must have to go to Birmingham or somewhere properly centralised to be processed.

So we are sent off down the A64 towards Malton for a scheduled appointment at 11.30 on a Sunday morning in the middle of August.   For those unfamiliar with the geography of the North of England, the A64 is the main route from Leeds, the third largest city in England, to the seaside.  For those unfamiliar with what is referred to as the North-South divide in UK, the road from Leeds to the seaside just happens to be single carriageway for a good part of the way.   The nearest equivalent in the South is probably the road from London to Brighton, which just happens to be a motorway.   For those unfamiliar with the seasonal cycle in UK, a Sunday in August is guaranteed to be peak traffic-jam time for everyone heading for the beach during the school holidays.  It happened to be raining, so I naively thought I might just try the A64, but when did a mere spot of rain deter the hardy citizens of Yorkshire from heading for the beach? As soon as we got to the first single-carriageway stretch just beyond  the York ring road the traffic was a bumper-to-bumper crawl, we weren’t going to get to the appointment in time so I ducked off the main road as soon as I could to go the far more scenic but round-about route through Sheriff Hutton.   To cut a very long story short the expedition involved a stressful two-hour, 53 mile, environmentally unfriendly round trip, all in aid of a highly efficient, less than 90 second, testing procedure.  And all the while the lucky 119 callers were being tested in Poppleton.

As I write, an SMS has just appeared on my mobile phone from the York Hospital Out-patients Department asking me to tell them about my Sunday experience.  I think I might just do that.