28 May 2022

LIFE IN LOCKDOWN: Shoots of hope in Limavady

The town is showing some signs of recovery from Covid's assault on businesses.

LIFE IN LOCKDOWN: Shoots of hope in Limavady

Shutters are down on many businesses in the pedestrianised zone.

It's a grim road between Coleraine and Limavady on a day like this. The mountains are decapitated by low-lying cloud and mizzly rain makes it hard even to see the bottom half.

The town hit the headlines last week after a sectarian attack on St Mary's Church. There was quick condemnation all round, the graffiti was cleaned and life moved on.

Parking on Catherine Street, you would be forgiven at first glance for thinking it was a case of business as usual in the town centre.

Neon lighting announces the Lights and Phone Cover Zone is open for business. Despite the bleak financial climate, they are not alone.

Traffic zips around the one-way system and there are pedestrians dotted up and down the street as Friday's lunch hour begins to kick into gear.

The closure of this business has been dated for posterity.

The sign above the door of a building on the corner of Catherine Street has been totally cleared, the windows smudged and an A4 sheet taped to the inside of the window is all that remains.

'We are closed,' it proclaims. The date gives it a macabre feel. September 9, 2020. Covid has turned so much of the business landscape across the world into a graveyard.

There are queues outside all the banks, a nod to the continued closure of the more rural branches perhaps. A lorry parked outside Ulster Bank is selling potatoes and flowers to passers-by.

The piercing whine of a car alarm causes those walking up and down the street to turn their heads. A man fumbles at his keys and finally silences the din.

Limavady is a town gritting its teeth and clinging to normality by the fingertips, but on the pedestrianised Market Street, my footsteps echo against shuttered buildings.

Passers-by can only dream of entering Harkin's Bar.

Four smartly dressed mannequins stare down in judgement from the upper window of a clothes shop. The benches on which shoppers can normally rest are covered in undisturbed rain droplets.

A queue has formed outside Hunter's Bakery, and socially distanced customers shuffle their chilled feet and pull scarves more tightly around their necks. There is little chit chat.

Where people do stop to chat, they take an awkward step back, worried they may be within the dreaded two metre zone.

There are quite a few pubs in Limavady, and I make a mental note to put it on the list for a future visit, but by the time that is possible, the shortlist may be even shorter.

A pelican on the front of Harkin's shoots passers-by a hopeful smile. A lovely day for a Guinness, indeed.

Fake shop fronts have been painted on buildings across the north over the last ten years, but on the corner opposite the courthouse, artificial office workers guffaw over a laptop.

It's a nostalgic look at a time when working from home was the exception rather than the norm.

Artificial office workers in Limavady.

Next door though, is a symbol of hope. Where so many businesses are falling victim to the pandemic, one Limavady duo are hoping to buck the trend.

Route 66 Limavegas, an ice-cream parlour with a distinct American theme, has been in business for all of ten minutes when I call in.

Owners Sean McGuigan and Cathal McCrudden are philosophical about launching a business mid-pandemic.

“Sean had an ice cream van and he always had an idea of opening an ice cream shop in Limavady,” explains Cathal.

“He lived in America for 32 years and wanted to bring back the American theme to his home town of Limavady.

“I notice the town has quietened a lot during lockdown. There isn't as much traffic or people about. You can see that car park spaces are empty, which tells you people are not about.”

Cathal and Sean have opened a new business amid the latest lockdown.

Sean ran a popular ice cream van in the town for a number of years since returning from America, and says that although the town has been hit by the pandemic, the community is strong.

“This is a community town. Everybody knows everyone and it's a real tight-knit community,” he says.

“It's not only affected Limavady, it's affected all over, but we just have to do what we can to get through it. With the ice cream van, we were allowed to trade during the initial lockdown as a take-away service.

“People said even the sound of the chimes from the ice cream van brought back a feeling of normality. The kids got out and had an ice cream, so it gave everybody a bit of hope we were moving forward.

“Limavady is growing too, so there will be a lot more people in town. There are so many empty buildings, so it's nice to see places opening up and bringing a bit of life back into the town.”

Their location opposite the courthouse has the pair mulling over a bold marketing strategy.

“We were going to do a slogan; 'if you're over in court, and you're looking at time, stop on in and get a ninety-nine,” grins Sean.

A blast of colour from the Stendhal mural.

Suitably entertained, I make my way down the road past the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre, where a brilliant pink mural defies the grey of early February.

It portrays a festival goer, clad in novelty sunglasses and a green tutu. Her arms are around an apparently smiling goat, who is wearing a colourful curly wig.

The thought of a music festival seems as remote in the past as it does in the future. Lyrics to the famous song, 'Danny Boy', are etched into a sculpture at the door to the centre. The summer's gone.

Across the street, an exasperated delivery driver loads a package back into his van, raising an apologetic arm to the motorists weaving their way around him.

Two women are sheltered amid the brightly coloured pillars outside the Arts Centre, coffees in their hands and animated in conversation.

The lyrics to 'Danny Boy' inscribed on the sculpture outside Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre.

They'll need shelter against the incessant drizzle. The weather has been a factor in this lockdown, driving people indoors and keeping them there.

No one is posting exaggerated 5K times to Instagram any more. There are no passive aggressive banana bread competitions, no back garden barbecues.

Social distancing has gone beyond a hashtag novelty and is now ingrained everywhere, an automatic instinct. In the damp of a February afternoon, things feel a bit grey.

The return journey along the Coleraine Road brings little relief from the morning run's dreary monotony, each picnic area looking more forlorn than the next. Longing for summer.

Route 66 it ain't.

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