Published: 06:00, 12 April 2021
| Updated: 20:45, 12 April 2021
Huge queues and beer and breakfast on the beach, Kent's three-month lockdown has lifted.
As the second stage of the government's 'roadmap' to freedom came into force crowds flocked to shops, salons and the pub, with many getting there before opening to ensure a seat or their pick of the best deals.
For the first time in months, hairdressers, all shops, pub gardens, libraries and outdoor attractions, such as animal parks, can open their doors.
While the third lockdown came in at the start of January Kent has been essentially enduring the toughest restrictions since November.
The Primark factor
Despite the chilly start, eager shoppers waited outside branches of Primark across the county.
First in line in Canterbury were Danielle Collier and Tammy and Madi Furner, who were keen to spend vouchers received at Christmas. "We got here at about 6.30am," said Tammy.
It was a similar story at Westwood Cross, in Broadstairs, where bargain hunters were backed up round the car park underneath the giant Primark signs.
As was the case when restrictions eased last year the cut-price clothing behemoth seemed the main draw in many towns across the county.
At Bluewater the demand was predicted to be so great the store was on of several to extend its opening hours until 11pm.
At the Greenhithe shopping village customers arrived to a car park which by 9am was already packed only to wait patiently in a line which would eventually wrap back on itself.
Ryan Mitchell, from Chatham, formed part of the long line outside Primark.
Asked what he was most looking forward to the 25-year-old said: "Its just the freedom to get out really. We just thought we'd come and check out a few shops."
Digital marketing agency North analysed Google data around Primark reopening.
In the past 24 hours search traffic for the Lakeside store was up 180%, while Bromley was up 110%.
"More generally, there has been a 2,100% increase in searches for ‘Primark queues today’ and 1,450% rise in ‘Primark queues’, suggesting that shoppers are checking how busy the stores are before they visit," the firm added.
Tk Maxx also proved popular, the Bexleyheath and Lakeside stores receiving 250% more search traffic in the past 24 hours than normal.
So the size of the queue at Bouverie Place in Folkestone was perhaps predictable, given the fact the centre is blessed with both.
Ashford Outlet Centre has neither - but that didn't dissuade those in need of a dose of retail therapy.
The complex was heaving ahead of doors opening at 10am.
'Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!'
That was the rallying call that greeted shoppers in Herne Bay as the town crier encouraged them to buy local.
And his words seemed to be heeded across Kent, as many did flock back to their favourite pubs and independent traders.
On the Isle of Sheppey some of the most popular businesses reopening were charity shops.
Margaret Gorrie and her friend Raymond Shimmin, both 85, were in town to see what Oxfam had and weren't disappointed.
Margaret said: "I popped in for a cover to keep my legs warm while on the mobility scooter and I was very pleased. I bought this wonderful orange and black blanket and also fell in love with a troll."
Back on the mainland Catherine Osbourne, lead bookseller at Waterstones in Maidstone, said regulars of 15 years were among some of this morning's shoppers.
She said: "We had one little girl, she ran into the door this morning she was so excited to go in. Her mum said it was the only shop she wanted to come to.
"We have had a lot of families, what with it being half term, a lot of people looking to get their children back into books.
"Children are very tactile, they want to be able to pick a book up before buying it."
Catherine and her colleague Sarah have also enjoyed giving book recommendations and speaking to customers after many months.
"We have been so excited, it's been such a long wait," she said.
Traders in historic Rochester High Street greeted the reopening of businesses with cautious optimism.
With temperatures barely above freezing, shopkeepers braved the elements to clean tables and open the doors.
Some really pushed the boat out, like bridal shop Kiss the Bride, which adorned the outside with a pretty blossom display as staff spring back into action.
Owner Joanna Hughes said: "We wanted to breathe new life into the high street and make people feel good again after this difficult year."
Joanna is expecting "lots of alterations".
"Also the gown they may have chosen two or three years ago may not now suit the venue. They may have been planning a big wedding abroad, which can't happen. And styles have changed during lockdown," she said.
She added: "Some have taken advantage of the restrictions. They don't have all the fuss of a big do, it's cheaper and they don't have to invite Auntie Flo who they have not seen for years."
Godfrey George, who runs Baggins bookshop, is confident his business will pick up.
He said: "After the last lockdown, about 75 to 80 % returned. People do buy books online, but they still like to browse the shelves in a bookshop."
However, Sanjay Raval, licensee of the City Wall Wine Bar, was less optimistic.
He said: "It won't be the same social atmosphere people expect when they come out.
"We feel more like school teachers telling people to stay seated and wear a mask. And there's immense pressure on staff taking details down of everyone.
"It doesn't help that landlords are still charging the same rent when it's garden use only."
Hairstylist Rachael Mitchell, who works in Hair Chemistry, had her first appointment at 7am and was expecting to work a long shift.
She said: "I've seen lots of roots and I'm sure there will be some horror stories by the end of the day where clients have taken their hair into their own hands."
Pub manager Fernando Dasilva was preparing to open up the George Vaults at 9am.
He said: "It's been so long. I'm excited and a little bit nervous."
Guests must book a slot in the outdoor courtyard in advance.
Mr Dasilva said they had 315 covers for today and are fully booked on Friday and Saturday.
Waitresses were scrubbing down furniture and putting up umbrellas to shield from the rain rather than the sun outside The Cheese Room Botanicals.
Manager Julie Small said: "The problem is the unpredictable weather. We are not taking bookings. Who wants to eat outside at 8pm in April?"
Holly Thompson, who has been working part-time at the nearby Cheese Room delicatessen, said it was a "huge relief to be getting back to work".
The 22-year-old said: "I rent a flat and have bills to pay. It's just nice to be back."
'It's almost like the last year never happened...'
It is table service only in beer gardens, where drinks can be served without the need to order a 'substantial meal'. Restaurants are also allowed to serve people outdoors.
And two women looking to take full advantage of that were Sue Bell and Pippa Ingram who got to the UK's biggest Wetherspoon early.
The pair, along with Gary Gearing and Lee Cooper, grabbed breakfast and a pint with a sea view at Ramsgate's Royal Pavilion.
Down the coast in Whitstable at The Peter Cushing students Oscar Roundtree, 19, Evie Gunnell, 19, Sebastian Verdoire, 19, Amaam Chaudry, 20, and Martina Jagiello, 18, headed for "breakfast and booze".
Martina said: “We haven’t been doing anything so it is good to get out.”
Oscar added: “There is no booking in advance for Spoons so we thought just in case it’s heaving if we get here early there is no way we can be turned away.”
They said they will stay “as long as we can stand each other”.
In Sittingbourne Michael Rudderford had ventured out for his first pub poured pint in more than a year.
He was at the Red Lion when doors opened as his normal watering hole cannot open due to not having a garden.
He joined 20 others in the tent covered courtyard.
He said: “It’s great to have them back open and get a drink as it’s been more than a year now, but they never should have shut in the first place. It’s the pubs that can’t reopen I feel sorry for, it’s so harsh in them.
"Boris Johnson doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’ve been shielding since March so it’s nice to get out for a few drinks. I was planning on getting my haircut as well, but there’s such a rush this morning I thought if I’ve waited a year I can wait a few more days. Hopefully the rush will die down but it’s been so busy this morning there’s no point waiting out in the cold.”
Aly and Nick Burke from The Bulls Head in Margate said: "We opened at 8am and had our regulars here at 8.10am... the Monday club.
"I don't know if it will last as the weather isn't good. Hopefully it will get better. This time last year I got sunburnt.
"We've been serving a lot of brandy coffees instead of the usual drinks to warm people up.
"Most of our customers are older people and quite lonely so this is more about the company for them than the drinking.
"We're happy to see them back."
Queues were forming at the Brenchley in Maidstone before its midday opening.
Paramedic Chris Land, 67, said her pint of Moretti tasted "fabulous".
She was sat with her daughter Terri, 49, and granddaughter Tegan.
Speaking about being in the pub, Terri said: "It does feel so nice, it's almost like last year hasn't existed, you can almost forget, but then you're reminded when you see the one way system or the masks."
Chris, who lives on her own, said for the past year she has had "no social life," but has met her family in the park, and before, she and her daughter would sit in their separate cars, parked up, and chat.
Even the diet coke tastes different at the pub, Terri says.
"Having a draft just tasted so nice, familiar."
Further into the freehouse's sprawling decked garden was Eddie Haywood who had taken the day off work and was visiting with his son, also called Eddie, 26.
Mr Haywood, 49, a competitive darts player, said: "I thought I am going to come back and support our pubs."
Speaking about the atmosphere, his son said: "You can hear all the laughter, apart from the masks it's a bit of normality."
The pair have booked a table at The Coach House pub, formerly The Queen Anne, later on.
Mr Haywood said: "You can forget about work, it's a bit of normality, have a few jokes, it's what you want."
Friends of 18 years Carl Butler, 46, Otis Fellows, 45 and James Sandison, 36, have all taken the day off work for a pub crawl around Maidstone, starting at the The Brenchley.
Carl said the pub trip was "emotional... because of the camaraderie" they share.
Otis added: "We have missed it so much".
Waiting in the queue Joe Berwick said he was looking forward to ordering a pint of Motorhead IPA.
Explaining why, he said: "It's nostalgia, it's just this beer they have at the Thirsty Pig, my favourite pub, it's nice to be back."
A year of trading turmoil
The past year has been exceptionally difficult for business owners, a fact reflected by Sue Beal, owner of Bootie Bling in Margate.
She said: "We've got no money, it's been a horrendous year.
"Places like Tesco, M&S and Poundland are allowed to be open. They've got all those customers.
"I can only get two or three in mine.
"It's just worrying and I don't know how it will go from here.
"The first lockdown wasn't so bad, everyone was happy to be at home. But this one has been awful.
"I'm hoping things will pick up, if it doesn't I don't know how long the shop will survive."
Rob and Jane Barfoot, owners of Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe in Margate said: "This lockdown has been the hardest.
"We had to throw a lot of stock away or donate it.
"We literally found out just before Christmas that we would be shutting the next day. So we lost that run up to Christmas and that last week is normally our busiest.
"I think we've got to be hopeful that things will pick up.
"Hopefully with staycations this year Margate will be busy and once the pubs are open the town will come back to life.
"Hopefully we will get over this and things will get back to normal."
Investing in the future
But market trader Jeb Hughes struck an optimistic tone as he unpacked his stall amid early morning crowds in Canterbury.
Despite being able to trade during lockdown he switched to home delivery in the absence of city centre footfall.
"I genuinely think this could be the start of a really, really good year for us... I think there's a few quid about!" he said.
Shoppers pounds aren't the only money that has been spent.
Over in Deal James Stiles is happy to reopen the Port Arms.
He and dad Graham, of the neighbouring King's Head, have taken over and spent £50,000 doing it up.
Ian Dunkerley has splashed out even more, spending £80,000 on his hotel.
June Tovey became his first customer, having called yesterday to check when the bar opened for morning coffee.
She was welcomed with a steaming cup from Dunkerleys' new machine.
Mr Dunkerley has ordered branded brollies so customers can stay dry if they aren't under the canopy.
He said: "We put something on Facebook yesterday telling people to dress appropriately for the British spring.
"We're ready for anything! We've been through a lot in the last year has been such a challenge for everyone. We hope the sun shines and gives us a smile."
'We're hoping to be millionhairs!'
Barbers, salons and beauty bars were also inundated with customers in need of a pamper.
And it was outside Hair Profile in Victory Street, Sheerness that Richard Miller, 47, from Minster and Edward Cullum, 94, from Berridge Road, Sheerness, waited.
Richard said: "I went up the other end of the high street and its rammo up there. I'm just hoping this one will open today."
Luckily for him the shop opened minutes later.
Over at Capelli Hair Salon Colin Bastable was already on his third customer of the day.
He said: "My first text message for a haircut was half-past six this morning just as I was getting out of bed. I have a twelve-and-a-half hour day booked. It's like that all week. I'm going to do six days straight. I'm just trying to fit in the world and his dog.We have all our bottle water and are ready for the onslaught. At the end of it we're hoping to be millionhairs."
His customer, retired engineer Eddie Azulay, 68, said: "I've been waiting three months for this. I normally get it cut every five or six weeks because I'm not a hippy any more."
Ray Featherstone, 76, was killing time waiting for his haircut.
He said: "I went into one shop and was told their next vacancy was April 22. So I walked up the high street and found another which has slotted me in for 11am. In the meantime I'm going to have breakfast at the Belle and Lion Wetherspoons pub as it's open again."
Already in there were roofer John Pagett, 34, and his friend Ricki O'Brien.
John said: "It was perfect timing. We were just walking past when they opened the door. It happens to be Ricki's birthday, he's 34 today, so we came in to celebrate with a beer and breakfast. Boris has done us a favour."
Steve Spencer needed a trim in Whitstable.
The 48-year-old was shocked he was sixth in the queue for a haircut at The Barber Chop in Whitstable - despite arriving 20 minutes before they opened.
“I really, really need a haircut as I wouldn’t trust my wife to do it because I’ve seen my boy’s haircut,” he said.
“I will be back in the office tomorrow so it is nice to sort it out.
“We are hoping to get down to the Neptune to have a beer on the beach, but not sure about going to a restaurant yet.
“My wife wants to do some shopping and I’ll go to a toy shop with my boy, so that’ll be nice.”
In Tunbridge Wells the queue for Buzz Barbers was trailing past several shops.
Steve Lavery of Mr Dapper Master Barber of Deal is snipping his way through a fully booked list of returning customers.
For Simon Routledge in the barber's chair it marks an end to his wife's coiffuring efforts from the past four months.
Mr Lavery says his enforced rest made him realise how much work takes him from his family life.
He'll use his booking system to the full to make sure he serves as many customers as possible but still sees the family.
He says pre booking works better for customers, some of whom would wait an hour on the waiting room at busy times. He said: "Time is money for everyone so avoiding the queues works for them."
Anh Doan, owner of Little Haven nail salon in Broadstairs, said: "We're very excited to be open.
"We're crazy busy and booked up for this first week. We'll be busy for a while
"Were positive about things. We're moving on to the next chapter.
"It has been a difficult and long four months."
It was a family day out for Gravesend Riverside-based mum Hannah Swanson, 35, and husband Guy, 38, who brought out sons Jenson, 4, and Austin, 2, for a trip to The Nuthouse Barbers in Parrock Street.
Hannah said: "They last had their hair cut on the Saturday before the lockdown. Everyone was busy and they said 'oh no Boris has closed everywhere'"
The couple were squeezed in as a walk-in and son Jenson sat patiently and pulled a cheeky grin as the barber set about taming his overgrown lockdown locks.
But Hannah quipped her other son Austin is less enthusiastic and will "need to be bribed with watching Fortnite" to get him to sit still in the barber's chair.
Also long overdue a haircut was fellow Riverside resident John Martin.
The 72-year-old last had a haircut in December.
"I have been trimming it and cutting the sides myself but the top has got too long, " he said. "It hasn't been that long since I was in my teens."
Barber Callum Rich, 25, said he had carried out about six cuts within the first two hours of opening.
"This week and next is going to be a real test of time keeping and managing appointments but hopefully after that we will get a nice flow."
The Rochester resident who became a dad shortly before the first lockdown last year added: "I'm just happy to be here doing what I enjoy doing."
But not everyone was pleased by the sudden influx of shoppers.
Kay Gilham, 39, of Chilton Avenue, Sittingbourne, was annoyed at people’s selfishness.
She uses a mobility scooter and was visiting the town with her son, she said: “Today has been an absolute nightmare.
“I’ve come in to do my weekly shop as usual and it’s been a logistical nightmare trying to get past people in shops or navigate around people queueing outside hairdressers on the pathway.
"People don’t seem to care about others who and are all in a rush to get their hair done or just do things for themselves. I saw one person in a wheelchair waiting outside the hairdressers and nobody offered for him to go in front.
"It’s tough at the best of times for people in wheelchairs or mobility scooters but it’s been even worse today with people rushing past or leaning over me. In some cases people are even tutting at me for being in the way when I can’t move anywhere. It’s been horrible.”
Two pints of lager and a packet of... monkey nuts?
Over at The Fenn Bell Inn in Hoo lockdown lifting can be marked with a much-needed pint... at a zoo.
For The Fenn Bell Conservation Project lockdown has been a rocky road.
First, owner Andy Cowell faced a race against time to raise the £24,000 needed to keep the project afloat and then the entire site faced going under in a different sense when flooding hit.
But this morning Mr Cowell was finally able to throw open the doors and welcome back the crowds.
He said: "I’m really glad to be open today. Obviously we’ve been under a lot of pressure and it’s been an extremely hard lockdown but we’re just glad we can open and welcome the people back. Although it is restricted it’s a start and hopefully it’s the way out of this terrible lockdown situation we’ve been through.”
Crowds welcomed back to The Fenn Bell
Sarah Stuckey, mum of two from Gravesend said: “My son was desperate to see animals again, we’ve been here before and we booked five days ago, we’re really excited to be here. It’s nice for everything to be open again.”
While 35-year-old, mum of two, Agnes Kovacs from All Hallows added: “I’ve been here a couple of times and recommended it to my friend. It’s crazy that everything is back to normal and I’ve been looking forwarding to meeting up and see the zoo."
Her friend and fellow mum, Anna Salmi, 40 from Charlton, said: “I’ve not been here before but we wanted to come the first day the Fenn Bell are reopening to support the zoo and check it out. It’s amazing everything is open again, it’s been hard not organising family meetings.”
Both Port Lympne and Howletts are expecting 1,000 visitors today.
Emily and Kyle brought their two-year-old daughter Esamae for her birthday.
Emily, from Dover, said: “we wanted to come out for the day to celebrate her birthday. And this is the biggest animal park around.
“It’s good for children. It is easy to social distance too. We’re looking forward to seeing the gorillas.”
Cara and Ben, from Maidstone, were visiting with their niece.
Cara said: “It is nice to be out again. We used to come regularly. Somewhere like this is actually more open than some of the parks, which have been open the whole time.
“We thought it would be busier, but it could be the weather.”
Paul and Sarah were on a family day out with their sons.
Paul said: “it is nice to get outside for some exercise and fresh air.”
Sarah said she was also looking forward to hairdressers reopening.
What else has changed?
Anyone desperate to get away from it all can take a holiday from today - but only in England, to somewhere that's self-contained with no shared facilities.
Options for what to do on days out are now more plentiful, with the return of attractions such as animal parks.
Gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools are also now allowed to accept visitors, as are libraries and community centres.
It will also be possible to have a driving lesson with a professional instructor, although patience will be required for anyone ready to take a test, as they return on April 22.
The number of people who can be at a wedding increases as of today, rising from six to 15.
However, there are still limits on where ceremonies can take place and the majority of wedding venues will remain closed.
Funerals can be attended by 30 people but now 15 can go to the wake, up from six.
The number of visitors who can go into care homes has doubled, to two per resident, dependant on a negative Covid test result.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) must be worn but babies and children are not counted in the limit, so can also see relatives.
While a lot changes from today, social distancing rules still apply, so businesses have had to work hard to make sure they are Covid secure.
The rule-of-six or two households limit for meeting outdoors also remains in place.
It was last week that Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed the second part of the 'roadmap to freedom' could be followed as planned.
The start of stage two means four tests set by the government were being met. They are:
Meanwhile, the third stage of the easing of lockdown will not happen before May 17.
That's when most restrictions on meeting outdoors will be lifted - although gatherings of more than 30 people will still be illegal. Indoors, the rule of six or two households will apply.
An update on social distancing between family and friends, including hugging, is expected no later than May 17.
Hospitality will reopen indoors but the table service rule will remain in place.
Other indoor locations opening up after May 17 at the earliest include entertainment venues such as cinemas, theatres and children’s play areas, hotels, hostels and B&Bs and sporting facilities for adult group sports and exercise classes.
Performances and large events will be able to resume but with limits on audience numbers.
Up to 30 people will be able to attend weddings, receptions and wakes, as well as funerals.
The fourth stage of lifting lockdown is not due to start until June 21 but before that a review of social distancing measures will be carried out.
It will be used to help decide what to do about rules such as keeping one metre-plus apart and wearing face masks. There will also be guidance on whether people need to continue working from home.
If all goes to plan, but not before June 21, legal limitations on socialising could be lifted.
The results of pilot events held in the spring, where testing will be trialled, will guide decisions on lifting limits applied to larger events and performances, where audience numbers had previously been limited, and weddings.