Published: 11:12, 12 April 2021
| Updated: 16:50, 12 April 2021
All shops, outdoor pubs and restaurants, hairdressers and more can finally reopen in Sittingbourne today as Covid rules are eased across the country.
From today, retailers whose businesses were deemed 'non-essential' can welcome back customers and staff for the first time in months, as can beauty salons, gyms, libraries and outdoor attractions such as animal parks.
Despite the chilly start, punters sat outside in converted pub gardens to have their first pint in months.
Sittingbourne resident Michael Rudderford was at The Red Lion, in the High Street, when doors opened after his normal watering hole The Bunters didn’t open due to not having a garden.
He sat close to 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 on them.
"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.”
People were also queuing outside Front Row Barbers, in the High Street, this morning to finally get their locks chopped.
Anthony Wood, of Church Road, Sittingbourne, said: “It’s an absolute dream to be able to get back into town and get my hair sorted out. It’s been too long and was starting to get out of control."
The 36-year-old added: I’m glad to see the town so busy as well and seeing lots of people coming out to support small businesses as I’m sure it’s been an absolute nightmare for them. I’ll be having a look round and trying to get a pint in at a reasonable time if I can find a pub with some spare seats.
“This whole year has been tough on everyone so these little extra bits of freedom we get back are really important, especially for people who have been struggling with it all. Everyone I’ve seen has a face mask on as well, so people are definitely taking things seriously this time around.”
Lisa Albany, 48, from Murston, said: “Ever since it was announced that shops would reopen I’ve been planning my visit. It’s not just about coming down to enjoy myself or with family but it’s so important to get back out onto the streets and get a bit of normality in our lives all while helping out the businesses which have been closed for the majority of the year.
"I was up and ready to go at 8am and got onto the High Street at bang on 9am. The weather isn’t the best but it’s already quite busy and I think it’s going to get a lot more people coming in as the day goes on.”
Derek Sorrell, 56, a delivery driver from Murston said: “It’s good to see the streets full and shops reopen but it really depends on people following rules and guidelines like trying to walk in one direction and wearing your masks in shops.
"I’ve seen some already who haven’t worn any. It’s really down to us to keep ourselves and others safe. I’m not too fussed about the pubs opening as I don’t drink but I’m looking forward to getting in the barbers as and when. Like I said there’s no need to rush and ruin everything that’s been done for this to happen.”
Sittingbourne town crier Richard Spooner, 59, was looking to spread some positivity on people’s return to the High Street.
The Murston man said: “This is the first time in more than a year the town crier has been out. It’s really nice to see people back on the streets and back to normality a bit.
“I think many people will wait until the end of the week to get things done as they’ll expect it’s too busy at the beginning of the week.
“Everyone I’ve spoke to is feeling very positive about the shop and pubs reopening, and we all need that positivity because it’s key to getting things back to normal. The children have loved it, but they keep thinking I’m a pirate.”
Donna and James Hartridge, owners of Donna's Ale House in Sittingbourne were ecstatic to welcome back punters after being shut since November.
As their outside eating area was full to the brim of happy drinkers, the pair explained how during the winter months they lost around 95% of their sales.
"It has hit us hard," the pair said.
"But thankfully are regulars and being able to adapt to do takeaway pints, gins and food has helped us massively.
"It's been a steady first day back. We're never usually too busy during the day but we're fully booked up this evening.
"We've made a lot of changes to our outdoor seating so we are able to open, as well as changing some of the lighting and inside, but the trouble is until we fully open we won't know how beneficial that's all been."
The pub, which is directly opposite Whetherspoons, has been open for 3 years and is run by the couple, who sometimes bring in the help of their daughter.
Donna added: "We're hoping it gets busier as the week goes on, but a lot of people are still quite hesitant. We didn't think we'd open again until it was all confirmed. Our next plans are for May 17, we still don't know if that will definitely happen, but we are hopeful."
Punters outside said they were "relieved" to be back in the pub with a pint after months of waiting.
Nearby family run dry cleaners Barries, in West Street, Sittingbourne, was glad to see more people on the streets and coming into store.
Front of shop Saman Zand, 16, said: "There's definitely been an increase in the amount of people coming in the shop or just walking past, and it's been great to see, but we'll have to see how long that continues.
"It's been great to see so many people excited about being in the town and going into small businesses.
"We've luckily been able to stay open this whole time but I'm glad to see so many other businesses around us opening up again after a long time closed."
High Street micropub The Yellow Stock opened its doors in September 2018, when couple Sara and Paul Seabridge took over and has been closed since before Christmas, but owner Sara was just as excited to see familiar faces than she was about bringing in some income again.
The 55-year-old, of Ufton Lane, Sittingbourne, said: "I'm a social animal, so it's been so good seeing people's faces and having people through the door and into the garden to catch up with them.
"It seemed as though winter went on forever, it wasn't nice at all, but opening has been a breath of fresh air.
"We made a lot of changes to our garden area to get people in and enjoying it - including making a stage for musicians to perform when we can and sorting our seating out.
"I'm hoping it continues to get busier as restrictions are eased, but people are understandably hesitant, but we've had our regulars in which has been good to see.
"I feel for the places who aren't able to open now as it must be really hard for them, but we chose this place on purpose a couple years ago because of its outdoor space and it's paid off. We're really grateful we're allowed to open up and welcome people back.
Neighbouring coffee shop and sandwich bar Bailey's hasn't been open since January and was forced to furlough all of it's staff until reopening.
On a busy reopening day the station were manned by owner Sally Reeve and long-standing staff member Mary Marsh.
Sally said: "It's really nice to be back and get to things. It was a bit like riding a bike at first, you're worried you might have forgotten how to do things but it comes back to you naturally.
"The best part has been seeing some of our regulars who you do start to worry about during lockdown as the months go on.
"It's thanks to the council we were able to survive as their grants really helped us, but now we're looking forward to getting more customers this week. We've done everything we can to protect ourselves and others, so we hope it pays off."
Staff member Mary Marsh added: "I've been surprised how busy it's been, and how many of our regulars have come in. It's quite nice to see everyone again."
Jack James, 20, who was waiting in line outside Jagged Edge Barber Shop, said: “All the queues for barbers walking up the street have been manic. There’s at least seven or eight in each one.
"I think everyone’s just trying to get rid of that lockdown hair - like me - and we’ve all come at once. But it’s good to see people out and at these places which have been forced to shut for so long. If that means waiting an extra 20 minutes longer than usual I don’t mind.”