Published: 16:41, 02 December 2020
| Updated: 08:01, 03 December 2020
Some predicted a 'Wild Wednesday' of sales as high street shops reopened today after a month-long coronavirus lockdown.
In many towns, people were up with the lark queuing to snap up early Christmas bargains.
But in Sheerness, the commercial heart of the Isle of Sheppey which is slap in the middle of England's number one Covid hotspot, things were a little more laid back. The Christmas lights were up but it was difficult to see if anyone was home.
Apart from a few customers politely standing in line outside the NatWest Bank there were just three queues of note - and one of those was a stream of cars waiting for the coronavirus testing station on the seafront to open at 10.30am.
In the High Street, the longest queue was curiously outside the Card Factory. "It's just lovely to be able to come out again," said Karen Stockwell, 60. But not all were happy to stand in line.
One angry man stormed off down the street loudly complaining into his mobile phone: "I'm not going to wait outside Card Factory for a ******* birthday card!"
Other customers like veteran cyclists Ian and Lynn Wheatley were happy to take advantage of the hospitality of Greggs and its neighbour Boyce's Bakery for sustenance on the move.
The couple, both 73 and from Rainham, had ventured onto Sheppey with two friends.
Lynn said: "You can't beat a coffee and cake after a long bike ride."
Ian admitted he hadn't been on the Island for many years but said: "As we come from Medway we have the same problems with the virus. We just do our bit and stay out of people's way."
He added: "It's nice to see the shops open again. It looks fine. And having the road closed to traffic is a bonus for us."
The road closure is a sore point. The emergency six-day-a-week pedestrianisation orchestrated by Swale council under the auspices of Kent County Council on government safety advice has split the town in two.
Shoppers, for the most part, welcome the vehicle-free environment with a lack of buses belching out fumes onto the pavements. But shop owners complain they have seen their incomes plummet.
Sarah Segrove who runs Montgomery's burger bar stormed: "The road closure has completely killed the high street.
"It’s busy before 10am and then after 4pm when the barriers are removed. We have small independent traders. We are not a shopping centre, people come to get one or two things, not park and stay all day. The high street needs to be reopened and soon before all the small businesses go bust.
"It’s very sad to see the high street struggling and the road closure alone is the reason. I have spoken to many older and disabled people who previously parked in the high street to get the few bits they need. Now they can’t and so they shop elsewhere. They don’t want to but they have to."
Jackie Constable whose husband Mick manages the Oxfam charity shop said: "Oxfam's takings have gone down since the high street has closed. People used to arrive on buses and pop in. That's not happening now. We used to get some lovely donations from generous people. It's such a shame."
But they say every cloud has a silver lining.
Rob Feaver who founded Rob's Traditional Greengrocers and runs it with his son Lewis was rushed off his feet during the first lockdown as customers tried to buy up the shop's entire contents.
Rob recalled: "There were days when people were buying bags of potatoes from the back of my van the instant I parked outside to unload."
Lewis enlisted the help of his wife Stacey and the couple discovered new home delivery customers using social media. Rob said: "We have invested everything back into the business and managed to buy a new van. I think coronavirus came at just the right time for us. Our old van was on the way out."
Also trying to beat the doom and gloom is new start-up Tan Up which opened on September 30 and then had to close for the second lockdown after just four weeks of trading.
Manager Kim Cheeney, 61, who runs the shop with her daughter Danielle, 31, said: "It is a huge relief to be allowed to reopen. People may not think tanning is an essential service but nine minutes on a sun bed when it is freezing cold outside really perks you up."
Other shops keeping busy were barbers, hairdressers and the ubiquitous nail bars.
Colin Bastable, 41, who runs the Capelli Salon and has just joined the Sheerness Town Council, said: "I am glad to reopen. I just hope I can stay open and not be forced to close again before Christmas but safety comes first."
He added: "According to the government we are now classed as personal care workers. I've never been called that before. Personally, I'd like to see pubs and restaurants allowed to reopen. If the government insists schools are so important to keep open then why not put a bar in a school? That would be the best of both worlds!"
His first customer of the day Ian Hardley pricked up his ears at the thought of that and suggested: "You could go one better than that and have a bar here."
Alas, hairdressers can't even administer a cup of tea or coffee these days.
Celebrating shops reopening was Kayleigh Tritton, 21, who was pacing the pavement outside Tammy's Nails.
"It's been a month since I've had them done," she complained.
"I normally get them done every three weeks. As soon as I realised the shop was opening I phoned up straight away for an appointment."
A few feet away was former motorcycle stuntman William Wallace, 73, who was having a coffee at the clock tower. He said with a beam: "I'm going to buy some shoes. I couldn't do that yesterday!"
The canny Scot, who also had a clown car routine and ran a mobile disco, has lived on Sheppey since 1974.
"I've never seen any reason to return to Glasgow," he said. "I like it here."
Was he concerned about living in Covid central?
"Of course not," he replied in his still distinctive Scottish brogue. "My mum told me never to worry about anything you can't change, so I don't. If I'd worried about being killed every time I got on my stunt bike I would never have done anything."
Swale, along with Thanet and Medway, may have helped plunged the whole of Kent into Tier 3 but most people in Sheerness were wearing masks and social distancing. There was even a gorilla wearing a mask in the shop window of Gemini's Jewellers which was doing a roaring trade presumably in Christmas gifts.
The really sad thing is that pubs such as The Goat Inn remained closed. The Old House at Home, at the other end of the High Street, has already shut permanently.
And cafes such as Rio's and Beano, which are normally packed, stayed locked and empty except for Rumour and the Arizona Diner which continued with a takeaway service.
Wild Wednesday it was not.