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Paris during Lockdown Two

Ile St Louis during lockdown
Ile St Louis from the Left Bank

I spent the three months of the first lockdown with my family in the Oxfordshire countryside, so had no experience of lockdown in Paris. I felt rather like that generation of young men born just too late to fight in the First World War who spent the 1930s feeling less than heroic. So when Lockdown Two was announced I decided to stay put and see if I could survive alone in my walk-up studio on the fifth floor on the Ile St Louis.

The veterans of the first lockdown in Paris all agree that this second version is nothing like the first. The schools are open, some people are still going to work and the streets are not sad and deserted. Most important for me, walking along the quays of the Seine has not been banned, as it was before. The biggest challenge was to get used to filling in the permission form every time I wanted to leave the house. But now I have it down to a fine art. I fill in the form online and save a screenshot to my phone. I tick the box saying I am buying essential supplies (usually bread) and always carry a shopping bag. The limit of one km from home for a maximum of an hour only applies if you tick the exercise box. Aha!

All museums, cinemas, restaurants and cafés are closed and all non-essential shops. My dance class has been suspended and my local swimming pool is closed. But I am carrying on with my gymnastique douce (gentle exercise) and sophrologie (relaxation through breathing and meditation) classes on Zoom, as well as with my university class in literary theory. The Barthes-influenced reading list for this class, called ‘Penser l’objet’, is nearly killing me, but lockdown has already had some good effects. It’s easier for me to speak up in French when I can see everyone’s face, and that is better on Zoom than in the classroom, where French students have a tendency to sit in rows. I have been forced to read extracts from Proust and have overcome a lifelong reluctance to even open  A la recherche du temps perdu. And on being invited to write and read out a Proustian description of an object, set as optional homework, I rediscovered parts of my brain that I haven’t used since ‘A’ level. Unlike the literary theory, that exercise took no time at all and it was fun. Now that I and the class know that I can write creatively in French, even though I speak it with an English accent, I feel much less like a foreigner.

As for my beginners’ class in modern Greek, I have never met the other students or the teacher. We correspond by email and are sent audio clips. My homework is returned promptly every week with detailed encouraging comments. I haven’t had this level of teacher attention since leaving university and I am thriving on having a simple but challenging set task to accomplish every week, translating from French to Greek.

But by far the best immediate result of lockdown has been that I go for at least an hour’s walk along the Seine every day. Pre-confinement, I sometimes spent the entire day in my studio working but I haven’t done this once since lockdown started and think I will never return to my bad old ways.  I am appreciating the play of light over the river in a way I never did before, when I would give the sky a passing glance on my way home. Now I notice how the clouds and the light change with each passing moment, especially at sunset, in a way which seems to be in harmony with the rhythm of my walking and the other strollers I pass en route.

Pont Neuf during lockdown
The Pont Neuf

It was on one of these walks along the river that I saw a young man skipping. He gave me a sheepish smile and I smiled back. But when I saw another young man skipping on a different walk I began to think that there might be something in it and bought myself a child’s skipping rope. It’s strenuous exercise and I have to limit it because my arthritic feet complain if I do too much. I also get out of breath in a way I never did as a child. But unlike other strenuous exercise I have tried that is supposed to be good for you I find it is such a pleasure that I am continuing to do it.

Skipping during lockdown, Place des Vosges
Annabel skipping in the Place des Vosges

I was a little concerned that I would wilt from the lack of live human contact. Then I discovered a new oyster bar round the corner from where I live that does takeaway. I’ve taken to inviting a friend or a neighbour round every Friday to come and share a candle-lit shellfish supper in my studio, with home-made aioli for the whelks and prawns and a bottle of Muscadet. It’s cheap and it’s fun. It’s technically illegal as we are not supposed to be mixing but I feel that it is a calculated risk and people can always say no. So far no one has.

Takeaway oysters

I’m also continuing my Sunday walks during lockdown with a friend who feels the same as me about the need to get out for a proper walk at least once a week. We wear masks and keep our distance and so far no one has stopped us. Both of us are appreciating details we have never noticed before. Here is a view from the Promenade Plantée, a disused overhead railway line near the Bastille. It’s a walk I have done before but never noticed this astonishing statue

Promenade Plantée
View from the Promenade Plantée

And this is the sky last week where we parted at Bastille, after a walk that began in wind and rain and ended in yet another glorious sunset

Walk from Bastille
Place de la Bastille

The other day I rushed out to the post office at Hotel de Ville and it was only when I saw a group of gendarmes that I realised I had forgotten to fill in the permission form on my phone, for the first time. Then to my horror I saw that I had left the phone at home. One of them noticed the dismay on my face, so I thought I had better explain. Hearing my accent he switched to (quite good) English. Humbly I offered to go home and get the form, adding that it was up five flights of stairs. On hearing that, he looked even more sympathetic and let me off.  I thanked him profusely, complimented him on his English and beat a hasty retreat. The fine is 135€ so I felt rather relieved.

And cheered to be spending my second experience of lockdown in Paris.





















Wild swimming during Covid-19

The wild versus the tame: swimming in the Thames and the Seine during Covid-19

In recent years I have been dismayed to find what I think of as real swimming – in ponds, lakes, rivers and the sea –  referred to as ‘wild swimming’.  But on reflection perhaps it is a revealingly apt term. The opposite would be, after all, ‘tame swimming’ in chlorinated heated water in an indoor pool with artificial lighting. This is now the norm.

The tendency towards a tame risk-free existence has been exacerbated by the effects of Covid-19 and now seems irreversible. In our new virtual world, who would want to get their feet tired or dirty and experience the shock of icy water running between their toes?

Well, I take heart from the fact that an atavistic, almost anarchic tendency has also emerged from the pandemic: a longing for the real versus the artificial, for the wild versus the tame.

I spent the three months of lockdown with my family deep in the English countryside, with a few days in London towards the end of June and I’m now back in my Paris studio. My London and Paris friends all tell me how much they came to value their neighbours and their garden or balcony during confinement, how magical it was to live in a city without traffic or tourists, and to hear birdsong.

For me the stand-out experience of lockdown was the joy of discovering several bathing spots in the rural Thames, a mile away from our house in Oxfordshire. My favourite river beach was nearly always occupied by a few other people, but as a solitary swimmer in unfamiliar waters I found their presence reassuring. On my first visit I was slightly irritated by the music coming from a little group of adolescents but after a while they turned it off and surrendered to the warmth of the sun and the deep seductive peace of the river and the water meadows. I overheard one youth suddenly say to his mates as they prepared to cycle home, ‘It’s so beautiful here.’  It was.

Wild swimming in the Thames, Oxfordshire
Swimming in the Thames, Oxfordshire, May














In mid-June I spent four hours rambling with a friend on Hampstead Heath in north London. My favourite ‘wild swimming’ spot, the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, was closed, but our wanderings took us to the Viaduct Pond, a stretch of water I had never seen before. The sight of such a peaceful place in a city of nearly nine million people just emerging from lockdown felt deeply reassuring. It was as if the water possessed magical healing properties.

The Viaduct Pond, Hampstead, June
The Viaduct Pond, Hampstead, June









When I returned to Paris a few days later, a heatwave struck and I spent as many hours as I could in my favourite spot by the Seine, overlooking the Left Bank. To my annoyance my privacy was invaded by two young men who took possession of the bench behind me. Then I saw that they were stripping off to reveal bathing trunks and sent them an amused glance. We started laughing and chatting and they offered me a beer.

They turned out to be Algerian, which might have explained their ignorance of the Seine’s reputation for pollution. But they said they didn’t care, they were so desperate to swim after three months of lockdown. In fact, because of the prolonged absence of river traffic the water was clear enough to reveal the stones on the riverbed for the first time. They gingerly picked their way over these and then launched themselves into a brief but joyous swim. Full of envious admiration, I gave them my paper handkerchiefs to dry off with.

Wild swimming from the Quai d'Orléans, Ile St Louis, JuneOrléans
Swimming from the Quai d’Orléans, Ile St Louis, June














On a sunny Friday evening in July I strolled with a friend along the Right Bank of the Seine which was packed with young people picnicking by the water’s edge. Near the Bastille we came across the unexpected sight of an older couple who had set up a table in a quiet spot overlooking the water, complete with a tablecloth, wineglasses and candles. They were clearly expecting company, as the table was laid for four. We could not imagine what the gendarmes, who were patrolling the riverbank and telling people off for bringing their own alcohol, would say to them when they got there, but I did not envy them that task.

Dining by the Seine near the Bastille, July
Dining by the Seine near the Bastille, July













What these experiences have highlighted for me is the importance of spontaneous social contact and of the natural world to people’s well-being.  And especially the value of human contact IN the natural world.

The sudden spike in the demand for flats with gardens or balconies in both London and Paris reveals a heightened awareness of this fundamental need, exacerbated by confinement in the virtual world. It seems that ordinary people, as well as the environmentalists, are appreciating  the healing power of an unpolluted natural world more than ever before.  If, among other things, that will mean cleaner rivers in which to swim, Covid-19 will have had at least one beneficial effect.

Notre Dame a year after the fire

Just a year after the fire that nearly destroyed Notre Dame, the cathedral is once again at the heart of a far bigger worldwide disaster. What can we learn about life after the Covid19 pandemic from the fire that almost destroyed it – but didn’t?

I live on the Ile St Louis, the little island connected by the Pont St Louis to the tip of the bigger Ile de la Cité on which Notre Dame is built. From this footbridge there is an excellent view of the Seine, dominated by the lovely apse of the cathedral. It is a favoured backdrop for films set in Paris, for wedding photographers and for tourists, with rival musicians and street performers often occupying both ends at weekends.

Notre Dame with the Pont St Louis leading to the Ile St Louis, right
Notre Dame with the Pont St Louis leading to the Ile St Louis, right. Attila Terbos, Wikimedia Commons








Of the four bridges connecting the Ile St Louis to the mainland,  the Pont St Louis is the one closest to my studio, so I pass Notre Dame almost every day. In 28 years I think I have been inside the cathedral itself only four times. But every day I have leaned out  from the seclusion of my top floor window to see the tip of its spire, which is at the same height. In fact, when I first moved there I actually thought the spire was a tv aerial, as the rest of the cathedral is completely hidden by houses. Once I realised what it was, it became a personal landmark.

Sunset view from my window, spire of Notre Dame far right
Sunset view from my window, spire of Notre Dame far right










At 7.15 pm on 15 April last year  a neighbour phoned to tell me that Notre Dame was on fire. I didn’t believe her, but went to the window to check. I saw a poisonous yellow-grey pillar of smoke belching rapidly upwards into the blue sky of that spring evening, with the spire  – my spire – briefly outlined by flames.

View of the spire fro my window, 15 April 2019
View of the spire from my window, 15 April 2019









I gaped in disbelief and frantically took a series of photos. Then the spire was hidden by smoke and when the smoke cleared not long afterwards it had gone forever. I felt exactly as if I had lost a friend.

Over the next few days access to the Pont St Louis was barred. I asked the policeman on duty when it would re-open and then to my horror realised that I was about to cry. He said, ‘On a tous la même réaction’ and patted my arm.  Two nights later I joined a crowd of silent Parisians on the Ile St Louis listening to a choir singing hymns opposite the burned out wreck. But at least the towers were still standing. Unsolicited, I made the largest donation I have ever made in my life to the fund set up to restore Notre Dame.

Although full access from the footbridge to the Ile de la Cité was only reopened in January 2020 and the damaged building itself was soon surrounded by a temporary perimeter wall, the crowds, if anything, were bigger than usual. People gazed in silence, and took pictures to reassure themselves that it was still there. I neither overheard nor exchanged any comments on the disaster with my neighbours, not even to talk about the dangers of lead poisoning. It seemed fatuous to comment on such a shocking and unexpected disaster which had touched people all over the world. Notre Dame looked very sad and sorry for itself, ‘as if it were wearing crutches and a mac’ according to my sister, to whom I sent this photograph

Notre Dame from the Pont St Louis, 29 April 2019
Notre Dame from the Pont St Louis, 29 April 2019










And now, almost exactly a year later, Notre Dame is once again surrounded by empty streets and at the heart of a much bigger worldwide disaster. It reopened briefly on Good Friday for a service in the burned-out nave, with just seven people allowed inside, to broadcast a worldwide Easter message of mourning, comfort and hope.

The global effect of the COVID 19 pandemic on daily life, especially in cities, is beyond anything we could have imagined.  It is clear that when it is over nothing will ever be quite the same again.

But the story of the disaster which befell Notre Dame last year is also a story of human ingenuity, co-operation and resilience. By November everyone had got used to the scaffolding surrounding Notre Dame and the Pont St Louis was once again filled with people enjoying the view and the silver and gold Christmas lights strung in the trees overlooking the Seine (too subtle to be seen in this photograph unless you zoom)

Christmas lights on Ile St Louis, scaffolding around Notre Dame, right
Christmas lights on the Ile St Louis, scaffolding around Notre Dame, right










By January 2020 the perimeter wall surrounding the cathedral had been cleverly used to display an exhibition of huge photographs showing the extent of the disaster and the scale of the restoration work, with explanatory text in French and English. The reopening of the cathedral is planned for 2024. Until the lockdown emptied the streets of Paris on 17 March, I saw passersby, both tourists and locals, slowing down to read it and I felt uplifted to think that Notre Dame will rise again.

It will do so, and so will we.

London launch of Half An Hour From Paris on 10 May 2018

London launch of Half An Hour From Paris at Word on the Water


Readers, friends and visitors are cordially invited to the launch of

Half An Hour From Paris 

at  Word on the Water, the floating bookshop behind St Pancras International station, London

on Thursday 10 May from 6.30-8.30 pm

Annabel will give a short presentation at 7 pm before signing copies.

Word on the Water, Regent’s Canal towpath, London N1C 4LW
Go past The Lighterman pub to Granary Square and continue down the ramp to the waterside

Third edition of An Hour From Paris out now!

third edition an hour from paris I’m delighted to announce that the fully revised and updated third edition of An Hour From Paris is out now as a Kindle book (with a clickable Index) from, and

The print edition will be released in April 2017 and can be pre-ordered now from

View the first few pages and a sample chapter here.

I’ve re-organised the chapters by station of departure instead of alphabetically and listed the daytrips in descending order of journey time. So, for example, the quickest journeys from the Gare de Lyon are shown first.  I’ve also added an optional walk and map to the Ile du Martin Pêcheur chapter and completely re-written the Getting around the Ile de France chapter, as so much has changed. One of the best changes is the extension of the Navigo zone for Paris to cover the entire Ile de France, seven days a week, for the same price as the old Paris pass.

Happy exploring!


Rally for the Republic, 11 January 2015

I have never experienced a march quite like this one. The sheer number of people massed in the streets around the Place de la République made it impossible to move after a certain point. I gave up trying to reach my group of English journalists at the planned rendezvous and stayed motionless for nearly two hours, packed shoulder to shoulder with another group of journalists who had come by coach from Belgium and were bound for the same meeting point 200 metres away.

Apart from the Belgians, I seemed to be the only non-French person there. But the French around me came in all colours, sizes, religions and age groups. Most had placards saying ‘Je suis Charlie’ and some read ‘Je suis flic (cop), je suis juif, je suis la République’. Many had tricolours, ready to be waved, and larger flags hung from the balconies and windows over our heads, whose occupants were leaning out. The mood was good-humoured and, above all, expectant.

From time to time a rumour would sweep the crowd that we were finally about to move and applause rang out, only to die down as it became obvious that we weren’t going anywhere. One of the Belgians gallantly held a placard over my head during a brief shower. Looking up, I noticed a police sniper on the roof of the building opposite and a man who had wrapped himself around a traffic light acted as a lookout for all of us, but with nothing to report. Finally, we were reduced to watching tv coverage of François Hollande and other leaders in the Place on another man’s Iphone, which he held up to be seen by the people pressed around him.

Police sniper, Boulevard Voltaire
Police sniper, Boulevard Voltaire

Continue reading Rally for the Republic, 11 January 2015