23 May 2022

LIFE IN LOCKDOWN: Talking Covid, rates and the new bypass in Dungiven

Residents are hoping the bypass will encourage people to shop local.

LIFE IN LOCKDOWN: Talking Covid, rates and the new bypass in Dungiven

The sky is a sea of pale blue as I park on the roadside at the bottom of Dungiven's Main Street. There are smiles on the faces of the few people who are moving up and down the pavements.

Approaching midday, the sun, if not quite splitting the stones, is definitely causing them some discomfort.

Traffic is almost constant. It comes through at a steady pace, the roar of passing lorries reverberating off Dungiven's roadside shops and houses.

A green and white ice cream van emblazoned with 'Super Mario' rolls through the town. I can almost hear the theme tune in my head.

Dungiven Main Street curving down the hill.

As I make my way up the hill, there is construction work going on in a few of the estates off Main Street. One man carefully removes paving stones in front of a set of flats. Further on, McReynold's Bar sits in forlorn darkness, mourning the loss of another sunny day in the beer garden. The town's other Covid-abandoned pubs would no doubt concur.

The ornate gates of Gaelcholáiste Dhoire are closed for Easter, but the sun illuminates the castle like a scene from a postcard.

Across the street, the Kevin Lynch memorial has been spruced up, with Easter just around the corner. Political posters adorn street corners as parties jostle at the starting line ahead of next year's Assembly election.

At the top of the town, traffic grinds to a halt, stifled by road works that have created a narrow corridor of cones and warning signs.

Heading back towards the town, I spot two people on a narrow laneway, seemingly in heated discussion.

Both have puffy coats and woolly hats on, despite the strong sun, and there is a lot of finger-pointing. I decide to give them a wide berth.

Passing through the town again, I notice the door to Inner Beauty is open. A glance in on the way past reveals a woman sitting cross-legged on the floor, with products strewn around her.

I have to go back.

Road works at the top of the town are currently causing disruption.

Claire McGill, who runs the skincare specialist salon, tells me she is preparing goodie bags to leave outside the salon for local children in place of their usual Easter celebrations.

“Every Easter Saturday, we usually do an Easter egg hunt through the town, but I've been closed since Christmas Eve,” she explains.

“My customers are really running out of products now. I've been doing deliveries, but to be honest, there is no profit in it, between time, effort and road works.

“I did a delivery yesterday that was just to the top of the town and it took me over an hour. I only spoke to her for about two seconds at her front door too. It's a nightmare.

“My phone hasn't stopped with people asking if I'm open today, because I've had the shutter up doing this.”

Claire says the latest period of lockdown has been a 'hard pull'. Forced to seek the help of a local councillor in accessing government grant support, it still took a number of months.

“I didn't get any grants because I don't have a rates bill in my name, so he got it all sorted. It took months, I only got my first one there in the middle of February, from October. ” she says.

“I know everybody thinks getting £800 a week when closed is fantastic, but firstly, it's all taxable, so it's only £640 a week.

“I have girls furloughed, so there's nothing left. My landlord is so decent, which is just as well, otherwise we'd all be closed by now.

“We're very lucky in the town that we're in that everybody is very close,” she adds.

Karen Groogan is looking forward to welcoming customers back in store.

In an example of that close-knit community, Claire sends me across the street to meet Karen Groogan.

Karen runs Groogan's, a boutique clothes and fashion shop on the town's Main Street, and agrees with Claire that community support has been vital during this time.

“In the run-up to Christmas, this year more than any other year, the town really got behind shopping local and it was brilliant,” she says.

“I've found this one has been harder for several different reasons. The weather has been a real downer and regarding shopping, I think people have been better prepared this year.

“Last time I was able to help them out and diversify, selling things I wouldn't normally sell, whereas this time round, they've had a houseful of stuff for their kids already.”

Finvola keeps a watchful eye on Dungiven's Main Street.

As well as the difficulties associated with Covid, Karen is in two minds about the effect the new bypass will have on trade in the town.

“I really don't know how it's going to affect us. A lot of locals think it's going to be a great thing for the town and encourage people to shop local,” she tells me.

“I hope that's the way, but is there enough for them to shop local? We could really do with a good bakery, a good fruit and veg shop, but all those shops have closed because of the high rates.

“Now we're going to make the road to Derry even shorter. There is a feeling that when the town quietens down it will make people shop local, and I really hope that's true.

“I do really well from passing trade though; professional women going between Derry and Belfast for their work. They don't have the time to go shopping at the weekend and nor do they want to.

“Whenever they come here, they know they're going to get what they want. The girls that have come over the past four years know I'm here, but it's going to be hard to get any more girls like that.

“That's what I really worry about; losing the passing trade. I really enjoy the company of them as well, so I'm on the fence about whether or not it will be a good thing for the town.”

Karen's online trade has been good, but it doesn't replace the rapport she builds with her customers.

“We do have a website, but I prefer to be open and able to sell things to people,” he says.

“My shop is the kind of shop that you come in for one thing and you come out with more. It's a treasure trove.

“It's got all sorts of different things; school wear, home wear, children's and ladies' clothes, whereas it can be a bit limiting online.”

The Roe sparkling in the March sun.

Moving past the empty shop fronts at the bottom half of the town, your reward is the sight of the sun shimmering on the clear waters of the Roe.

A young couple appear along its banks, returning from a ramble in the nearby fields. Throughout lockdown, people have rediscovered the beauty of their immediate surroundings.

While the fine weather intensifies dreams of normality's return, many will be hoping ambivalence to local nature spots will not return with it.

In Dungiven, the community has pulled together, and they will look to harness that spirit of regeneration after Covid's bitter chapter is finally drawn to a close.

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