n the space of a week, I have arranged three walks with friends, all hinged on the promise of a steaming hot beverage. When I messaged one to suggest we meet for a stroll, it was met with consternation. “I can’t bear another walk,” came his reply. “Shall we get a coffee and have a wander instead?” A colleague who lives locally also pitched a work meeting on-foot: “Let’s meet and grab a cuppa.” Then came a message from an old school friend who asked if we could meet for a stroll and… you guessed it, a coffee.
After 10 months of penduluming between lockdown and release, we have largely managed to adapt to monumental changes in our natural behaviour, shifting our habits and our entire lifestyles in ways previously unimaginable. We stand two metres apart, an invisible forcefield preventing us from hugging the friend who reveals she is pregnant after a year of trying, or grabbing the hand of a loved one as they weep at a funeral. We keep little squares of fabric tucked in our pockets to slip over our nose and mouth before stepping into shops: robotic, automatic – apocalyptic.
But there’s one thing we seem unable to compute: the notion of walking for walking’s sake. Apparently, a walk without a destination is unthinkable. Every wander requires and end-point or at the very least a pitstop.
Back in spring, our daily constitutionals felt like snatched pieces of time, rare opportunities to gaze wholesomely upon golden daffs that sprouted up at every corner, breathe in the Wisteria-scented air and appreciate the abundance of blossom that we usually only noticed when it was slushed on the pavements, causing us to slip as we rushed for the Tube. Was it still raining? We hadn’t noticed, early lockdown us was too busy loving the outdoors.
But, like most trilogies, lockdown three has left us wanting. Our mindful promenades have metamorphosed into chores. I tried cramming a walk into a lunch break this week, but the laborious layering, lacing up and arming myself with a contingency umbrella felt futile. What benefit was 20 minutes when I could instead tackle my mounting inbox?
A coffee though, a coffee suddenly lends a walk purpose. It has become a destination, the hottest venue in town. When nothing is open, the coffee shop is the final vestige of the Old Times. Much like the clubs and pubs we once frequented, it’s so sought-after you can’t even get inside (you aren’t even allowed inside – truly thrilling). And if there’s one thing us Brits simply cannot resist and it’s joining a queue.
We know this, because in those Old Times many up-and-coming restaurants used to manufacture queues to up the ante, build the hype. Sure, there are only three people inside, but a queue of 100: I must join the end. On recent circuits around South London’s green spaces, I have observed socially-distanced queues for coffee huts stretch increasingly around the paths of Greenwich Park and snake across the plains of Richmond Park as stags look inquisitively on.
This week, the value a cup of to-go tea has added to our new normal was exposed when two women from Derby (“Justice for the Derby Duo!”) were surrounded by police and fined £200 each on the spot for breaching Covid guidelines. Officers had determined that the addition of takeaway cups on their socially distanced (and government-mandated) walk so altered it, that it was undoubtedly now “classed as a picnic”.
A picnic?! Clearly, these two coppers have never had a picnic before, so unfamiliar were they with the set up. No plaid blanket or wicker basket was mentioned in the news reports. Nonetheless, the plight of the Derby Two meant that the importance of a coffee on our daily walks was writ large for the nation to see.
In truth, socialising has become a little… awkward since the pandemic. Trying to catch up with a friend without saying Covid, quarantine or AstraZeneca is like playing the most unexciting game of Articulate ever.
But a hot drink unites you, creating an invisible umbilical of connection. We cannot squeeze each other on the arm or nudge our companion in jest, we cannot reach out and feel the soft weft of their new scarf, but we can clutch our respective coffees, warm in our palm against the January bite. A coffee, like a cigarette or a handbag, offers something to do with idle hands.
Dr Helen Coulthard, a reader in lifespan eating behaviour at De MontFort University, tells me that, as walking has become the only form of socialisation permitted, “a hot drink may act as a lure, taking us from the warmth inside to the outside.” Those who adopt adaptive coping strategies, she explains, “make the most of environmental adversity and find new ways of coping that are activity driven and positive.” Therefore, perhaps the addition of a coffee to a walk is a sign that we are adapting, in ways however small.
“The purchase of coffee makes a walk not only a special occasion,” she says, “but also has physiological properties that aid this new type of socialisation.”
Of course, there is a practical element to the addition of a hot vessel in our hands. It keeps our body temperature up, allowing us to maximise our time outside. And with the addition of caffeine, we are spurred on to continue. “In this way, a take-out coffee is a route to maximise socialisation within the current rules of the lockdown,” Dr Coulthard adds.
And it is – at least for the moment – permitted within lockdown restrictions. Derbyshire police eventually reviewed their position, quashed the fines and apologised to the women.
It’s possible that a cup of Joe or a hot chocolate to-go is an evolutionary way of coping, or a psychological way of keeping social anxieties at bay. Perhaps. But perhaps it’s also just a small goblet of positivity from which we can sup as we while away the time until we retreat back indoors.