Saturday, 8 August 2020

What makes a happy neighbourhood?

 This morning I half heard a radio discussion about happy neighbourhoods. One interviewee found it hard to move off his concern about defining the term ‘happy’ but I quickly tuned into ‘features of a happy neighbourhood’ being put forward by another.

These features included:

  • The area has lots of trees. 
  • You can move around in it without a car.
  • You can find essentials nearby. 
  • It is a safe area ie the crime rate is low or non-existent.
  • It offers easy access to medical care. 
  • It offers a variety of housing types. 
  • It looks appealing.

As he rattled off the list I pricked up my ears. It sounded like our neighbourhood. ‘We’ ticked all the boxes. Smug? Moi?

During the early weeks of lockdown we came to appreciate the friendliness and helpfulness of our neighbours, big time. Suddenly our small corner shop closed. I panicked (well maybe panic is far too active a verb in my case). I really did get concerned about our daily milk, though. I always have enough strong flour and yeast for bread baking. But fresh milk is a basic necessity. With our supermarkets unable to deliver to us more than once a month fresh produce like milk needed to be bought more frequently than that. Neither my husband or I are drivers at the moment. Our nearest mini market and farmers’ market is down a hill. That’s not the issue. It’s the image of pushing the loaded trolley back uphill with vats of milk that became troublesome to me. Something had to be done. The prospect of black tea was more than just an added lockdown inconvenience. It was adaptive behaviour taken far too far.

I remember so clearly that a couple of days after lockdown was posited by our PM a local WhatsApp group was set up for people to request and offer support. I dived in. 

By March 20th I had two neighbours shopping for me. One was an unknown until I contacted the WhatsApp support group and the other were neighbours who asked if I wanted anything from the supermarket when I was chatting to them in the road. The first night my WhatsApp shopper delivered my groceries she was wearing a long Barbour mac and stood under a man-sized black umbrella about 4 metres away from our front door. It was evening, dark and wet. We hadn’t yet changed our clocks to summer time. 

That first night of relying on others seems an age ago but as I write we are still in lockdown, we still need grocery deliveries, we are still not using our car and the country has the worst death rate from coronavirus per million population by a very long chalk. Yet we live in a very supportive neighbourhood. And I came to appreciate that support even more as that first black, wet March night turned into long, hot April afternoons. Especially when our new WhatsApp friend brought us homemade ice cream and lots of lovely goodies. Another neighbour left a cream tea on our doorstep and others brought veg, milk... yes milk, and meats.

The permitted hourly walks people took past our front garden meant there was always someone to chat to, provided I stood behind my plague-resist gate. When I did go for walks the roads were quiet, the sky sizzled in the heat and it felt like being on an Easter holiday in Cyprus.

Then we came to May. Neighbourliness got even more interesting when I put out plants and books, on our front wall, with the necessary hand sanitisers, for charity sales. I got glowing feedback, made significant amounts of money for worthy causes, and I felt I’d given something back to the community of which I truly felt part. I enjoyed doing it and all the time I stayed behind my plague-resist gate.

But I was getting tired. Every night I had to cover the items I was selling and every morning ensure everything was sanitised. I washed the money that was dropped into the honesty box, some coins lost forever down the plughole! and I was collecting tomato plants from other neighbours whom I’d never met and transporting them to neighbours who were in strict lockdown through medical necessity. It was busy, busy,busy. I was also hardening off my French beans, my courgette plants and watering and feeding the veggie plot at the far end of our long garden.  But it was a productive life and a friend helped me by getting in garden gravel, compost in bags and huge amounts of bark. He also put my raised beds on legs so that I didn’t have to bend to weed and water them. 

Once all my vegetables were established outside and the charity sales came to their natural end I began to relax. Supermarket deliveries became more frequent. A close neighbour automatically added my fresh produce needs to her shopping list and the immediate issues from the start of lockdown dissipated. I took to reading The New Yorker while lounging around on my mother’s old but well-preserved deckchair in the middle of our lawn. Life seemed sweet indeed.

I certainly felt we were very lucky to live in such a lovely area, with long gardens and plenty of space. And the weather was fantastic. We surely met the criteria for a happy neighbourhood!

Another list of features of a good neighbourhood, from Bonava, a residential building company in Northern Europe, a development of the Swedish construction company NCC AB, includes:

  • Has common places where you can enjoy spending time (eg a pub, a park, a cafe with outdoor seating during lockdown)
  • You are close to friends and family.(Neighbours become good friends.)

  • Provides easy access to culture and other leisure activities ( in our case a walk down a hill to reach the culture)
  • The area and its buildings has an attractive appearance and architecture (That’s certainly true of the city of Bath)
  • Facilitates a healthy lifestyle, with easy access to sports and excercise activities ( plenty of lovely walks near our house) 
  • It supports an environmentally sustainable lifestyle ( new allotments have just been created with great concern taken over local inhabitants-human, animal and plant)
  • It has a good reputation. (Erm. Ask the estate agents.)
  • Neighbours and other people in the area have good relationships. (See above!)
  • Is conveniently located to health care and other public service ( a library and community hall are available outside lockdown )
  • Has good accessibility to own parking.Tick - at least by our houses.
  • Is close to parks and green areas.Tick
  • It has a good vibe and atmosphere.Yes.I think so 
  • Is pedestrian and bike-friendly.Tick. 
  • Is close to public transport ( yes - if we wear masks - we have a really good, safe bus service)
  • It feels safe to be in for you and your close ones.Tick.

Again our neighbourhood ticked all the boxes. We truly were collectively happy.

But by June the temperatures dropped. Fewer people were walking past. The rains came. The covers went on. And we retreated indoors. I was still busy but my time was spent on Zoom pub quizzes and book group discussions. I was cooking hearty meals from scratch. And I needed slug prevention aids. But I still couldn’t get to the garden centres...And I was meeting friends in our garden - at a safe distance - but the change in weather meant I got a cold from too much sitting about in cool, near-drizzle conditions. And, of course, the grass grew.

And then my spirits lifted. Early in July warm, dry days were interspersed with showery cooler ones. Some showers were very heavy. I rarely used the garden hose but my vegetables and patio plants grew loud and long. But ... best of all...our little corner shop reopened. They provided hand sanitisers, a screen between themselves at the till, and us, the customers, and never again did I have to worry about running out of fresh milk. We truly did fit all the criteria for a happy neighbourhood with ...

‘Is conveniently located nearby grocery stores

However I’d put on 4 pounds during lockdown so I neglected the garden for over a fortnight, stopped baking bread and cakes and for almost three weeks I went out for an hour’s walk a day. And it worked. My bathroom scales showed a better result. 

But to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The garden just went mad. Both rose arches weighed down their cast iron supports, wretched bindweed grew everywhere and engulfed everything. The grass was so long it looked as if we’d been out of the country for six weeks. Operation garden reconstruct began. 

With a friend’s help we now have two respectable rose arches, a trim forsythia shrub, a lopped, slender laburnum tree, the stump of a dead weedy, unwanted dog rose, a trimmed cherry tree and a very neat laurel hedge. And because we live in a happy neighbourhood, no-one complained about the bonfire we had in order to shift the garden waste. And my lovely neighbour lent us her green garden waste bin for the surplus twigs, leaves, branches and clippings. 

We began August with a much neater, pruned, light garden. Tomorrow I will be back on the deck chair with The Observer or The New Yorker. That is, if, now I’ve injured myself with too much ‘slash & burn’ gardening, I can actually get up the garden steps to lounge around on the lawn. 

Today has been hot. The garden is splendid. But I could barely walk and another kindly neighbour brought me round a packet of his co codamol as my knee was causing me some grief. 

Thankfully Richard was well enough to get to the pharmacy on foot and the chemist finally got my script right. I’d waited a week for the co codamol that I need on prescription for a trapped nerve. For some reason my knee has been extremely painful for the past three days and it’s no fun when you can’t actually walk well enough to get to the pharmacy to pick up the much-needed painkillers. 

Having got over the rationing of milk at the start of lockdown, in late March when the nights were long and wet, I’m now rationing my painkillers. The nights are short, the weather warm, the garden’s looking good and we have had improvements to the house made by chaps who wore masks and were socially distant. But I can barely walk! Having spent all these months acting as a carer and cook-housekeeper-gardener I can barely get up the stairs to use the loo or go for a lie down!!

Thank goodness we live in a happy neighbourhood where people help when you just can’t manage. As the writer Fay Weldon once said to me, regarding a character in my fledgling short story she was critiquing for me, ‘Everyone needs help at some time. Put that in the dialogue, Nina.’ 

(With heartfelt thanks to the Social Raglan WhatsApp group who have proved we live in a happy neighbourhood.)

1 comment:

  1. As a fellow member of the same WhatsApp group of Ragland Lane, I can add that, besides all the joys that Nina mentions in her blog, we had the life-saving addition of Drink at My Garden Gate on Friday evenings during lockdown. Our neighbours are interesting and friendly! I hadn't any interfacing, and of course the whole city was closed, so the scrubs I was making for my doctor d-in-law were incomplete, until I put out a message on our WhatsApp group and got two offers in twenty minutes! We've got a village within the city!