18 May 2022

LIFE IN LOCKDOWN: People missing their social hub in Castledawson

The reduced footfall has taken its toll on the town's social scene.

LIFE IN LOCKDOWN: People missing their social hub in Castledawson

The clouds signalled a warning all the way from Bellaghy. I arrive just before the rain, in time to hear the pre-emptive slaps of water on tarmac before the deluge commences.

Traffic slows to a crawl as visibility reduces. Shoppers linger under the canopy of the Spar shop, hoisting their collars before making the dash to their cars.

A tractor rolls through the town, towing a trailer heaped high with soil, leading a convoy of rain-soaked vehicles, wipers working furiously to clear the windscreens.

Horns toot through the blur as passing motorists recognise each other. A toddler wisely clad in wellies is ushered into a car.

It feels like every time I enter BT45, it buckets down. Last week, the Magherafelt postcode shook off its unwanted place at the top of Derry's Covid count for the first time since January 19.

Blue sky appears on the horizon, above the distant Castledawson roundabout, and eventually, the rain eases, a rainbow breaking through as the sun reasserts itself.

Tyres cut through surface water as the mid-morning traffic continues through the town, the water gurgling into the drains along the roadside.

REST A WHILE: The pandemic has seen many people realise the benefit of taking a break.

The wind swirls down Main Street as nature does its best to cram all four seasons into a 20-minute period. It settles, however, on Spring.

On Boyne Row, flowers in their freshly painted boxes are beginning to bloom. A flash of yellow is tentatively peeking from a ring of daffodils that surrounds a nearby tree.

In its shadow sits a bench, its back angled for relaxation, where someone might spend better days people-watching.

We are now into the second Spring of Covid-19, and a wearied public are balancing restrictions with rationale.

Children's excited shouts can be heard from the town's school yards, a welcome sound after so many weeks of silence. P1 to P3 pupils returned to school last Monday, another step towards normality.

The Moyola river flows at speed towards Lough Neagh as I head down Bridge Street, while the grounds of Moyola Park FC peep furtively through the trees.

It continues the patient wait to welcome players back through its gates.

Moyola Park FC's pitch peeking tentatively through the bushes at the bottom of Bridge Street.

Back on Main Street, a steady flow of customers stand in a queue outside Jackson's Fruit and Veg. The looming deadline of Mothers' Day is focusing minds.

Further up the street is Ditty's Bakery. Its sit-in area lies in darkness. Like everyone else, takeaway is king at present.

Helen Ditty, Pamela Calderwood and Donna Mellon are in philosophical mood.

“It's busier,” says Donna.

“In the first lockdown, there were a lot of places closed and that was it, but now there are more offices open and people are maybe going into work a couple of days a week.

“With key workers and weans going into school, they can get out for a couple of days. It's been busier.

This one has taken more out of people than the whole lot of them. I think it's because of the winter too.

“During the first lockdown, the weather kept everybody out, but the older ones aren't coming out now, but the longer evenings and the better weather is starting to hopefully bring them out.”

Pamela Calderwood, Helen Ditty and Donna Mellon full of chat at Ditty's Bakery.

In the middle of the town, Ditty's is a focal point for the town's elderly residents, those who live within walking distance, for whom the bakery is a social hub.

“The older ones are missing the sit-in,” says Pamela Calderwood.

“A lot of our customers would be elderly and local residents from Castledawson that can walk here. They feel safer in here than maybe the bigger grocery shops.

“Some would have come in by themselves and sat in the hope somebody they knew would have come in and sat beside them. That can't happen now.

“It's basically just been us and the fruit shop and that's about the height of it. Everything is closed down and it's left the town very, very quiet.

“Since the schools opened, there have been slightly more people about, but until then it was dead, because no one had any reason to leave the house. A lot of people are getting deliveries instead.”

Castledawson is feeling the social effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite the sit-in being closed, local people, starved of interaction and feeling a bit low, continue to find a welcome at Ditty's.

“Some of them come in for a paper and stand for maybe 15 minutes having a chat. Some of them order their food first but a lot would hang around for the company,” says Donna.

“You would miss them if they hadn't been in for a couple of days. You ask after them, it's like that in here.”

“We wouldn't have that many unusual people in, it's usually the same customers. Even the more upbeat people, I've noticed them going down and down,” adds Pamela.

While many have grand plans for what they are going to do in a post-Covid freedom binge, Donna has more modest ambitions.

“We just want some kind of normality, so you don't have to worry about where you're going,” she says.

“I had to isolate and I haven't seen my daddy in nearly three weeks. Even though I'm over it, I'm scared to go in. He keeps asking why I'm not calling in. He can't understand why you're not just calling in.”

Heading back to the car, I notice Wilma's Chippy has just opened for the afternoon. The woman I speak to inside tells me lockdown has had a tangible effect on people coming in.

“People have got fairly ignorant at times,” she tells me.

“Sometimes three or four would come in and they have to be asked to go out, and they don't like it. They're ratty, and normally you wouldn't have got any of that. They don't want to wait.”

Flowers blooming on Boyne Row are a reminder that the pandemic is now entering its second Spring, but an end is in sight.

She delivers the line with a smile, as well she might after the news she'd received that morning.

“I actually got the phone call from the doctor this morning to say I'm getting the first jab,” she says.

“I can't wait to get the second one and get out of here. I can't wait to get away on holiday.

“It's draining, mentally, it really is.”

Despite that mental drain, optimism is growing. There is a feeling that the return of pupils to school marks a significant step towards normality's return.

At the weekend, the Department of Health announced zero Covid deaths for the first time in 2021. Last week, the number of cases identified in County Derry fell below 100. Vaccines continue.

People are allowing themselves to dream cautiously of a life after Coronavirus, a time when pandemic is once again a historical term.

As I turn onto the Hillhead Road, the heavens reopen with a vengeance. Hailstones this time.

Sometimes you have to take the hint.

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