t is a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon, with hardly any sunlight breaking through the thick cloud cover, and yet Alton Public Gardens is teeming with human life. Every corner of this small park is occupied by people in long parkas or colourful down jackets, topped off with woolly hats and scarves. All the age groups are represented: young people drink takeaway cappuccinos, elderly friends share a bench, couples walk their dogs, mothers and fathers chat with other parents while their children play on the swings and climbing frames, and teenagers stand in clusters on the lawn and in the bandstand, bantering, laughing. Normally the park would be almost empty at this time of year, especially in weather this unappealing. And there is something else odd about this scene – everybody is standing just a little further apart than is natural, and the interactions feel stilted. But this isn’t your average gloomy, frigid midwinter’s day. It is January 2021 and much of Europe is in lockdown as new, aggressive strains of Covid-19 rage out of control.
Most winters, these people would be socialising in pubs, restaurants, libraries, community centres and cafes. But with all those currently shuttered, and with people instinctively craving company, an alternative is required. And it seems that this green space has now become the epicentre of the social scene in Alton, a north Hampshire market town with a population of 18,000. The public gardens are the new hub for what little human interaction is currently permitted. Bring your own coffee and maybe a mask, and come well wrapped up and prepared to keep your distance, for this is how we socialise in year two of the coronavirus.
Clearly, there is a degree of rule flouting – and even illegality – to all this. But if people are going to ignore the guidelines in order to socialise, and many do, this way feels like it will cause the least amount of harm. For the advantage of being outside in a park during the pandemic is twofold: you are less likely to catch Covid while spending some socially distanced time in the company of a couple of friends than if you were to do the same indoors; and you are less likely to lose your mind.