Updated: May 18
By Emma Liu
Covid-19 Tales from Bath, England
A couple of years ago, my husband Pete and I moved to Bath, a charming city renowned for honey-coloured stone[i]Georgian architecture and its ancient Roman Baths.
With its UNESCO status, Bath is always full of tourists, served by numerous guest houses, fancy restaurants, fast food outlets, shops, and supermarkets, as well as museums, cinemas, and theatres. Even in the notoriously grim English winters, the city is warmed by two weeks of vibrant Christmas markets, filling with folks from all over the West Country[ii] busy shopping and enjoying themselves. Not to mention during the beautiful summer season when it is flooded with visitors from all over the world, and the famous Jane Austen Festival every September when people dress up in splendid costumes, wearing magnificent hats walking around the streets, creating an illusion that you have time-travelled to two hundred years ago. How fancy is that!
Well well, I admit: Bath is not London. Yet, whatever the season, one couldn’t get bored with Bath.
Bath has been Londoners’ pleasure garden for the last couple of hundred years. Wealthy people were pulled by its famous Roman Baths and their supposed health benefits. Soon it became a leisure hotspot where fashionable people came to enjoy the society life: to see and to be seen. The novelist Jane Austen and the artist Thomas Gainsborough lived here, creating their masterpieces. No reference, no stage, no showoff, then no fun - a typical upper-middle-class way of life demands theatres and audience, attention, and competition. Even today, Bath is one of the favourite places for Londoners to set up their weekend homes. It has a peculiar kind of magic touch which makes you feel that you are leading a dream life - a paradise for daydreaming, perhaps.
It was a jolly Christmas and New Year festive period for us: gatherings and parties among friends and family. With the Brexit drama’s ending in sight, things were looking up: unemployment at a historical low, people were optimistic, and shops and restaurants were celebrating record sales - Bath was in a good mood. Before the university term started, Pete and I decided to put down the second payment for an 8-day package tour to Jordan during Easter.
It was quite surreal when the news of Covid-19 emerged from China in mid-January - how could it have anything to do with idyllic Bath? Yet, with the Wuhan lockdown (23rd Jan) and more and more news headlines about China’s fight against coronavirus, Chinese people in the UK, like myself, started to realise the seriousness of the epidemic and fear a SARS-like coronavirus storm was gathering pace and coming our way. Planning ahead, I bought a few boxes of surgical masks from Amazon. They arrived after a few days, waiting in a drawer for the call of duty. I sent some to Tom, our son. Still, everything appeared to be in order, and life went on as usual.
No one at the time could imagine a nation-wide lockdown was looming, global travel would collapse and our long-awaited Easter holiday would not happen - our dreams of wandering about in the magnificent monuments and ruins of ancient Petra and relaxing in the Dead Sea, along with our money, were flushed down the drain. Gone.
January 31, Brexit day, a historical event for the UK leaving the EU. The news headlines, however, were overshadowed as the first cases in the UK were reported - a Chinese student at the University of York and a relative tested positive for the virus before being admitted into the hospital. An evacuation flight for British nationals from Wuhan landed in the UK and all passengers started their two-week quarantine in a designated hotel.
As a professor at the University on the hilltop campus, Pete would meet a lot of people from all over the world. Handshaking is a social norm, although some Chinese and other Far Eastern[iii] colleagues and students started to avoid it, worrying about the virus. But not for Englishman Pete: “Come on, shake hands - this is England! How are you, good to see you!” especially when he was meeting foreigners who had recently returned from overseas.
Even after my warning, Pete would still carry on handshaking with great enthusiasm no matter who he was meeting. Sometimes, the effect was comical. Xin, a young lecturer returned from a holiday in Beijing on his first day back on campus, was a little uneasy when other Chinese colleagues were avoiding seeing him. He was shocked by Pete’s welcoming gesture: “Are you sure? Really?” then he let go of his hand, smiling with relief.
Indeed, Bath is a welcoming city. During the first two months of 2020, I was doing a lot of house viewing and never once did an estate agent not extend a hand to me to say hello when every day the news headlines were overwhelmed by Covid-19 reports from China, Korea, and Japan, then later from Italy and Spain. This lasted until the beginning of March when the UK government issued its advice on handwashing and avoiding human contact socially, to reduce virus transmission risk. People just switched to using hand waving gestures or elbow touching to greet each other. This was exactly what happened when I went to my doctor’s appointment. He was very apologetic when he extended his hand, only to be stopped by me - we waved at each other at close range instead.
That was seven weeks ago. So many things have happened since: some people have died ahead of their time and most of us have stayed indoors, watching life being held back and freedom of movement being locked.
The virus has changed everything, and social distancing is still dominating our ways of being. Still, we know, despite all the odds, “we will meet again,” as the Queen said, quoting a WWII song in closing her special speech to the public back in March.
[i] Georgian architecture is the name given in most English-speaking countries to the set of architectural styles current between 1714 and 1830. It is eponymous for the first four British monarchs of the House of Hanover—George I, George II, George III, and George IV—who reigned in continuous succession from August 1714 to June 1830. [ii] South West of England [iii] People from Japan, Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand, etc..
Emma Liu was born in Nanchang, China. She studied engineering and management at universities in China and the UK. She moved between careers and cities in different countries before settling down in England in 2003.