Silent streets but stronger in spirit: Buxton businesses reflect on anniversary of first Covid lockdown

As Buxton marks the anniversary of the first national Covid lockdown this week, thoughts will turn to the experiences of the past year and the legacy it will leave behind.

By Ed Dingwall
Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 2:26 pm

In many respects, the impact will be incalculable. Those who have lost loved ones or suffered in other immediate ways from the public health restrictions will need time to heal.

But as lockdown restrictions are eased in the coming weeks and months, hopefully for the final time, the town as whole will have to pick up the pieces and rebuild its ideas of normal life.

Matthew Nuttall, chair of the Buxton Town Team and manager of clothing shop Potters, said: “In some sense it is too soon to tell what the lasting impact will be. It has probably accelerated changes in the local economy by five years, and that won't be reversed.

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Only time will tell when people will return to the streets of Buxton again.

“While local residents really do value Buxton's high street, it is also very visitor driven and until those visitors return it is difficult to know how things will stabilise.”

He added: “Even now, people are out and about much more than they were a year ago but it feels like a ghost town. Some shops have already gone, others will never reopen. I think the retail scene will have changed forever.”

Just like many businesses, the town team has been forced to freeze a lot of its usual work, but Matt believes the sense of civic responsibility will be much more widespread on the other side of the pandemic.

He said: “I think part of the legacy will be in the community spirit. It's always been strong, but I think it's been made even stronger by this year.

Caitlin Bisknell says the town's community spirit has been key to its survival over the past 12 months.

“I hope people will continue to look out for their neighbours, talk to each other in the street more, and appreciate the green spaces and everything else we have here.”

One of the earliest indications of that spirit was the Street by Street support network which sprang up in the very early days of the pandemic.

Caitlin Bisknell has been one of those coordinating the mutual aid efforts throughout the past year.

She said: “We grew to around 1,500 members within a couple of weeks and now have 2,700. The pandemic has thrown many things into sharp focus, not least how much voluntary organisations are needed.

The Cafe at the Green Pavilion has been quiet for much of the year, but its owners have never stopped working.

"They were the ones able to react within hours. By the time the Government had tried to organise community responders, we were already meeting people's needs.”

Members of the group have taken on all sorts of tasks over the year, from running errands and walking dogs for self-isolating residents, to delivering food parcels for struggling families in the school holidays.

Caitlin said: “The response from the whole town has been remarkable and I hope that continues into supporting local businesses after the lockdown. I think it will.”

“I'm also a director of Buxton market, and ironically it's been one of the best years we've ever had. It's stayed open throughout, seen huge numbers of shoppers, and lots of new traders have come forward.”

She added: "We owe it to those businesses to support them on the other side of all this. They've innovated and worked so hard to keep going, but they can't do it all by themselves.

“I think the virus will be with us for a while yet, so we're just going to need people to take sensible precautions and adapt to new ways of living.”

Responding well to change has been the key lesson of the pandemic for many local business owners.

Jo Connolly, who runs the Café at the Green Pavilion with husband Simon, said: “It's been a rollercoaster of year - up and down, opening, closing, adapting, and worrying. As well as the business there are all the other aspects of Covid, like having the children at home. It's been really challenging.

“When it was first announced that people should stop meeting in cafés we were really concerned about what would happen. Our landlord has expected the rent to be paid throughout. We're only a small business and, until the furlough scheme, it looked like all our staff would lose their jobs.

“From first setting up our delivery service, then doing takeaway, a really busy month in August with Eat Out to Help Out, then a major drop in demand during the winter – we've had to constantly adapt to survive."

She added: "On the other hand, it's been really nice to connect with customers in a way we haven't before. It sounds silly, we're just a café, but it's lovely to see how much people have missed coming in.

"I hope people will continue to see the value of small businesses, shopping local, and how hard we work to stay afloat.

The challenges are not over yet, as Jo and Simon make cautious plans to reopen.

Jo said: "We've got to be very careful in terms of what we can offer and preparing our staff. Outdoor eating and takeaways are so weather dependent that it's difficult as a café built on fresh food.

"I think there will be huge demand. People are desperate to get out and about again, and a lot more will be travelling to the Peak District if they can't go abroad. It could be quite chaotic.”

She added: “The one thing we don't want is to open and then immediately shut again. That would be heartbreaking.”

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