The one about Covid-19

I’m now a month in to the (first?) Covid-19 lockdown, and maybe it’s time to think a bit about the future, specifically the future of travel. So many questions, so many unknown variables… but it won’t be how it was, that’s certain.

 The most important factor is that even when we move away from lockdown, as some countries are beginning to do, this pandemic won’t be finished until we have a vaccine (or some other treatment) available to just about everybody in the world, and that is going to take a couple of years.

 And I personally feel that even when we can reliably test and treat people, it will still be asking for trouble to get on a plane – as someone who usually picks up at least a sniffle whenever I fly, I’ll be happy to confine my travels to the UK and Europe for a few years at least. At the moment it looks as if the new coronavirus is liable to mutate significantly, and that being infected does not necessarily produce antibodies and lead to immunity – we don’t yet know, but the signs are not great. And it doesn’t just kill by choking the lungs with pus, but attacks other organs too in ways we don’t yet understand. 

 The most current research, published in Science by a team of Harvard epidemiologists and immunologists, suggests we’ll still be social-distancing in some form or other until 2022, and can expect to see new outbreaks of Covid-19 for many years to come. Likewise, the WHO’s special envoy for Covid-19, Dr David Nabarro, has just said the coronavirus is not going to go away and we will have to learn to live and work with regular flare-ups of Covid-19. We will want to get out of our homes as soon as possible, but I imagine most trips will initially be to catch up with family and friends around the country.

 Even so, there are billions of dollars worth of planes on the ground doing nothing and there will be huge pressure to get them back to work. Similarly, there are billions of dollars worth of idle cruise ships, but they are even more likely to turn into seething pits of infection so it’s hard to see the cruise industry getting back to what it was. And there are billions of dollars worth of hotels standing empty. With about 10% of global employment in the travel and tourism industry, it’s vital for the world economy to find a way back.

 The era of travelling freely, with no visas required or with visas on arrival for many countries, won’t be coming back in a hurry, and we’ll doubtless need to carry medical certificates and to accept being sent home if our temperature is too high when we reach a new country. We will travel with a new awareness of our own mortality – obviously we’ll shy away from hotspots like Iran, but travel to Asia and Africa as a whole will be greatly reduced, I’m sure – heck, even London (epicentre of the pandemic in the UK) will be seeing less of me, I dare say.

A background of misgovernment

It has to be said that we always knew there would be another pandemic – I thought it would be more like the bubonic plague or Ebola fever, and this is actually perhaps less awful than it might have been. But the point is that we, that is all the countries of the world, should have been better prepared. Not just me, Bill Gates was also telling world leaders to prepare from 2015. Even when it was obvious what was coming our way from China our governments did very little – in the UK, the prime minister didn’t attend any of the first five COBRA meetings (from 24 January), and throughout February the government failed to organise supplies for testing or ventilators. They asked people not to go out, but didn’t actually close the pubs and restaurants for several days (not to mention the Cheltenham Festival and other huge sporting events). It took over three weeks from Sage, the scientific advisory group on emergencies, recommending a lockdown at the end of February to it actually happening. When the government finally had to act, after it was obvious that the Italian health system was being overwhelmed, they flirted with a ‘herd immunity’ strategy that would effectively cull the weakest and oldest part of the population, before finally buckling down to creating new intensive care wards and testing facilities – although without the follow-up contact tracing which was so crucial in allowing Taiwan and South Korea to keep their death toll so low. The UK government wasn’t even testing people coming out of hospital and going into social care until mid-February, so it’s no surprise that elderly people in care homes were soon dying like flies.

 When there was a chance to join the EU’s schemes for procuring ventilators and protective equipment the British government refused to have anything to do with it, on purely ideological anti-European grounds, choosing instead to make up stories about missed emails and to lie about ordering equipment both from British companies and countries such as Turkey and China. And when every sane voice was saying that the transition period for Britain to finally leave the EU had to be extended beyond the end of 2020, they continued to say this was inconceivable – well, we’ll see how that plays out, but a no-deal departure from the EU will be absolutely terrible for an economy already knocked sideways by Covid-19. The fact that British supermarkets are still out of flour a month after the lockdown began does not bode well for a no-deal Brexit – I know the problem is with the packaging lines, not the supermarkets themselves, but it’s all part of the much-vaunted supply chain.

 As for the USA… President Trump also missed his opportunities to act and then consistently treated the new coronavirus as an opportunity to find new countries and people to blame. Both countries have handled the pandemic particularly badly, but there’s no point my going on about it. Still, there’s a strong sense that just when the world should be acting together, the countries that should be taking the lead are undermining this, most notably Trump’s withholding funds from the World Health Organisation and the UK’s refusing to work with Europe. This applies equally to the global climate crisis, which has been put to one side for the duration of the pandemic – although of course the planet is breathing a little more easily with so few cars, planes and factories belching forth their fumes. Will we return to business as before, or will people want to keep their clean air?

 Obviously co-ordinated global action is also needed on the climate crisis, for instance to levy a worldwide tax on aviation fuel (at the moment no country will act because airlines just say we’ll buy our fuel elsewhere and you’ll lose out) – let’s be clear, air fares were, until the pandemic, at historically low levels and while this is great in terms of seeing the rellies in Australia every year it is totally unsustainable in terms of its environmental impact. Adding a major tax just when businesses are trying to recover from the lockdown is unlikely to get much support, but at least the Covid-19 crisis has shown that the world can pull together to take global action when it needs to.

As for guidebooks

The guidebook industry is perhaps in even worse straits than the airline and hospitality businesses which do, at least, have capital assets such as planes and hotels as backing; travel publishers, however, are paying to store guidebooks that are rapidly going out of date. I work for the Rough Guides and for Bradt Travel Guides, neither of which is able to pay royalties (Bradt had the decency to ask first, Rough Guides just failed to pay) and both may indeed go out of business soon. Lonely Planet has just closed two of its four offices, including its spiritual home in Melbourne, and is also in trouble. I’m working on updating guides to Wales and Georgia (and soon Transylvania), but who knows if I’ll ever be paid? Still, it’s a lockdown, so what else should I be doing? No, don’t answer that.

If you want to support Bradt, and to have some exciting reading to prepare for future travels, please click on this link and enter code DREAM50. I don’t know when this half-price offer will end, but don’t leave it too long!

PS I also meant to say something about hostels – sleeping in a dorm with unknown companions is going to seem a lot more unattractive in the future.  The big trend in independent hostels recently has been a growth in the number of private rooms (ensuite or not), but for the next few years this is probably going to be the mainstay of their business and they should probably get on with subdividing dorms as fast as they can. Even so, shared washing facilities are going to be a concern and lots of cleaning products will have to be on hand at all times.

Return to Oxford

I’m in lock-down in Cambridge at the moment, but a few months ago I did make a flying visit to the other place, Oxford, where I studied many years ago.

 From the cultural tourism point of view, the most notable developments in Oxford recently have been the reopening of the Ashmolean Museum (in 2009) and of the Weston Library (in 2015). The Ashmolean, of course, is Britain’s oldest museum, founded in 1683 to house the cabinet of curiosities given to the University of Oxford in 1677 by Elias Ashmole, treasures acquired by him from the gardeners, travellers, and collectors John Tradescant the Elder and the Younger. It’s housed in the Cockerell Building (opened in 1845), one wing of which is occupied by the Taylor Institution, the university’s modern languages faculty, where I spent a certain amount of time as a student (as an undergraduate and in my glorious two-term research career). The £61 million revamp by Rick Mather dropped a huge concrete-and-glass box into the courtyard behind the original museum, creating a spectacular lightwell/staircase that provides easy connections to every floor and gallery, plus of course a new rooftop restaurant. The display space has also been doubled in size, allowing bigger and better temporary exhibitions – I’m very keen to see the current Young Rembrandt show, but of course it’s closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

  I didn’t spend much time in the New Bodleian Library as a student, and just saw it as a drab pile that I had to pass frequently – built in 1937-40 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Wikipedia sniffily notes that it’s ‘not generally considered his finest work’, although it is listed as a Grade II historic building. It too has been hollowed out behind the original façade in an £80 million pound project to provide improved storage facilities for rare and fragile material and better facilities for readers, including a digital media centre and 2.5km of open-access bookshelves. It also welcomes outside visitors for the first time; a new entrance from Broad St leads to a shop and café and spaces for free temporary exhibitions, which I strongly recommend. Journalists crowed that ‘the dreary old New Bod has become the Mod Bod’, but it is in fact now called the Weston Library.

 I’ve just seen that the University Museum of Natural History is next in line for a major revamp; in 2014-6 it was closed to fix its leaking roof (comprising over 2,500 Victorian glass tiles), and in 2020 the displays in the main court are being moved out in shifts (allowing the museum to stay open throughout) and reinstalled in new high-tech conservation cabinets. The new displays will, they say, ’address the importance and fragility of biodiversity and human impact on the environment’.

 Not all of Oxford’s museums are doing so well – just last month three paintings by Anthony Van Dyck, Annibale Carracci and Salvator Rosa were stolen from the Christ Church Picture Gallery. Christ Church itself had recently been in the news because cases of fine Burgundy and Pouilly Fumé had been disappearing from the cellar. Hmmmm, I wonder if there could be a connection.

 Architecture old and new

In fact though, every time one returns to Oxford after a few years away, there are plenty of new and converted buildings to catch the attention. At my alma mater, New College, the stylish new Clore Music Studios were completed in January 2019 and the Kimbel Wing (fantastic accommodation for the disabled in the original Morris Garage, where the first Bullnose Morris cars were assembled in 1912) was opened in March 2019 (I’d love to see my nephew living there one day, but that’s another story). More recently, the plans for the new Gradel Quadrangles, which received planning permission in June 2018, were greeted with general approval and even excitement – crammed in behind Savile House, where I lived in my final year, they’ll allow New College to provide rooms for all its students.

 In the future I’d like to wander north of the centre, where there’s all sorts of interesting new architecture, starting with the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, in and around the old Radcliffe Infirmary between the Woodstock Road and Walton Street. The Observatory itself is now the focal point of Green Templeton College, a new graduate college founded in 2008. The former St Luke’s Chapel (built in 1865) is a venue for events, and not to be confused with the Freud café in the former St Paul’s Church on Walton St, built in 1836. There’s new accommodation for Somerville College here, and the Jericho Health Centre and the University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, the Mathematical Institute and the Blavatnik School of Government (by Herzog & de Meuron) have also opened; the new Humanities Building was granted planning permission in 2010 but has been delayed by funding issues, with construction now expected to begin in 2021 (leaving aside any Covid-19-related complications). I love good modern architecture (and thankfully Oxford and Cambridge can both afford to pay for it), and I especially enjoy projects that fit in new buildings among historic sites like this. A little further north, colleges such as St Anne’s also have similarly striking new buildings to be examined.

 Other small projects caught my eye too, for instance the McCall MacBain Graduate Centre (part of Wadham College), opened in 2012 in the former Blackwell’s Music Shop at the rear of the King’s Arms (I’ll get to pubs later, don’t worry, but the KA is also owned by Wadham). I have no idea what the Oxford Ice Factory building was when I was a student (1978-82) but it now houses the Oxford Foundry, an entrepreneurship centre opened in 2017 by the Saïd Business School, aiming to build a new generation of ethical entrepreneurs to leave society and the planet in a better state. It too has a nice café, naturally. And just a couple of blocks west, at the corner of Hollybush Row and the new Frideswide Square, the Jam Factory, opened in 2006, is a restaurant-bar-arts centre in the building where the famous ‘Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade was produced from 1903 to 1958. Immediately to the east. ie slightly nearer the city centre, I wandered around what used to be an area of breweries and other industries straddling various side-channels of the Isis (Thames) – not an area I’d ever known before, but there are still traces of the former Lion (Morrell’s) and Eagle Steam Breweries, now incorporated in fairly pricey residential developments. Immediately to the east again, Oxford Castle and the old prison are well known as a fairly upmarket regeneration area, with posh hotels and restaurants.

 Just a few pubs

And so to the pubs – I headed first to the Turf Tavern, which was my local for some years. It’s expanded, now stretching almost all the way back to New College tower, and has got more touristy, with more emphasis on food. It’s still hard to find and still has skull-bashingly low beams though. They claim that both Bob Hawke’s Guinness World Record for consuming a yard glass of ale in 11 seconds and Bill Clinton’s ‘not inhaling’ marijuana both took place here in the 1960s; they may be right about Bob Hawke (he was later Australia’s most charismatic prime minister ever), but I’ve met people who knew Clinton at Oxford and the ‘not inhaling’ seemed to take place at private parties. They also make much of the fact that the Harry Potter crew hung out here after filming, which is probably true – some scenes were shot in New College and, for what it’s worth, Emma Watson’s father was a student there with me.

New College cloister – as in some Harry Potter film or other





New College Great Quad – as in some Harry Potter film or other









The KA (see above) is largely unchanged except for the addition of an attractive room with leather sofas next to the back bar (which lost its male-only status just five years before I came up); I found that it’s been a Youngs pub since 1991 – I have no idea what it was in my student days but would be happy to hear any ideas. The White Horse was closed for a mini-refurb over New Year but is probably not greatly changed (there’s not room to do anything much with it); and the Welsh Pony (famously basic when I was there, with amazingly cheap fry-ups) closed as a pub about twenty years ago and is now a generic seedy bar. The Bird and Baby (Eagle and Child) and Flamb and Lag (Lamb and Flag) are still there but both indelibly linked to Tolkien and CS Lewis and thus of no interest to me.

 I was intrigued to see that the local Wetherspoons (I wouldn’t drink there either, due to the founder Tim Martin being a berserk Brexiteer who made himself even more unpopular by his reaction to the new coronavirus) is called  The Four Candles – I wasn’t sure why, until someone told me that Ronnie Barker was a pupil at the Oxford High School for Boys, and the pub is now in that building (which was the History Faculty in my day). Or is it the Fork Handles…? If you don’t know the sketch you should look it up at once.

 I didn’t get there, but I was delighted to learn that the Gardener’s Arms on Plantation Road, which was my own secret pub in my final year, is now fully vegetarian – no idea what the beer is like, but I look forward to visiting as soon as possible. And we used to love going out to rural pubs such as the Plough in Noke (now closed, I believe), the Boat by the canal in Thrupp (great for bar billiards) and the Abingdon Arms in Beckley, which a friend visited fairly recently – it’s now community-owned, with good local beers, good-value meals, and a plaque stating that Evelyn Waugh ‘wrote, drank and loved here’  – which I hadn’t known. Apparently Waugh stayed here regularly with a male lover, and then honeymooned there with his first wife (who was also called Evelyn, confusingly; she left him for another man, and I can’t blame her), before spending time here to write books including Vile Bodies.

 From Oxford to Adlestrop

And finally – I’ve just read Oxford by Edward Thomas (of Adlestrop fame), which I can’t particularly recommend, it’s stuffed full of quotations and allusions to show how well educated he was (Hertford College, don’t you know) and the footnotes (in the 2005 Signal edition) don’t explain them all. The introduction stresses his Welshness, even though he’s known as a writer specifically about English countryside and nature, which is of some interest as I’m updating the Rough Guide to Wales at the moment. In fact he writes about a visit by Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis, now remembered mainly as a train), who ‘for three days read aloud his glorious book to large audiences’. My last blog post was largely about Jan Morris, whose Oxford is a definitive account and a  wonderful read. Thomas does mention pubs and taverns quite a lot, and cycling, and also bonfires, which were very common in the college quads in his day but must have been extinguished quite soon after. In his opinion, the major change in his day from historic times was the advent of organised sport (especially rowing) – fives was the exception, which had been popular but had died out by his time – but it has now been revived, of course. Long country walks, not necessarily to pubs in Noke and Beckley, were also popular.

 Adlestrop, incidentally, where his train stopped unexpectedly on an Edwardian summer’s day, is north of Oxford near Stow-on-the-Wold (which I visit from time to time), in a location now best known for the Daylesford Organic Farm. But my next objective is to finally read Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (published in 1911), another classic Oxford tale which I think will be more fun than Edward Thomas.