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As lockdown restrictions ease, a changed London awaits the return of foreign tourists

The London Eye viewed from Horse Guards building in central London in June. The delta variant appears to have dashed hopes of an imminent return for foreign tourists. (John Walton/PA Images/Getty Images)
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Berkeley Square is unusually quiet. At 10 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday morning in early June, the place is as sleepy as a village green. There’s little to no traffic, and from the sidewalk on its eastern side, I can see just seven people: a personal trainer and his charge, a middle-aged man in boxing gloves; four women sitting in two groups in front of a coffee shop; and a young man in a white shirt inside a high-end car dealership, his eyes fixed on a computer screen. As I glance toward him, he checks his mobile phone.

In the direct aftermath of covid-19, London is not quite London. The strictest lockdowns are over, it seems, but the city is still shaking off its slumber as it awaits July 19, the next key date in the U.K. government’s coronavirus “roadmap,” when all restrictions are set to be removed in England. The green algae that grew on the yard at Shakespeare’s Globe during lockdown has been power-hosed into oblivion. The London Eye is spinning again. West End theaters are open, albeit full of gaping holes, with at least 50 percent of seats removed to allow socially distanced spectating.

The rising tide of the latest coronavirus variant, delta, appears to have dashed hopes of an imminent return for foreign tourists to a city that welcomes 20 million each year, nearly 3 million of them Americans, despite optimistic noises about a U.K.-U.S. travel corridor and a largely successful vaccination program. But it’s not just tourists that are missing. Offices are largely empty, and thousands of people have left London, seeking a quieter existence elsewhere. It seems inconceivable that London won’t change as a result of the pandemic; the question is how.

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Around the corner from Berkeley Square, in Bruton Place, I find Oisín Rogers, just returned from his morning run. Part pub maestro, part unruly dark brown mop of hair, Rogers presides over the Guinea Grill, where time-honored trappings — wood-paneled rooms, tartan carpets, boundless bonhomie — have made it popular with American visitors since the Second World War, when the U.S. Embassy was nearby and the Guinea Grill served the best steaks in town. (Plenty would say it still does.)

Distancing regulations have cut seating by half, but the Guinea’s landlords have allowed it to expand into the former Pizza Express restaurant opposite, so the same number can be served. “In a normal year, 20 to 30 percent of our customers would be tourists,” Rogers says. “They’ve been replaced by couples and families, coming for special occasions, from all over Britain — and people are spending a little bit more.”

Like many of London’s best publicans, Rogers is Irish. He arrived from Dublin in 1989 in pursuit of a girl who had already gone back to Ireland, and he decided to stay. Having devoted much of his life to London pubs, it’s no surprise he is optimistic about their future.

“We’re still in the pandemic, but we’re nearly out of it,” says Rogers, 53 this year. “I think people just want to go back to normal. Pubs have been a normal thing in our society forever, in Ireland and in England — and nowhere else, by the way. Punters want that back.”

I can vouch for that — London without pubs is like fish without chips — but not all aspects of lockdown have been so hard to stomach. After chatting with Rogers, I walk north toward Oxford Street, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare, a place I have learned to avoid because of its dense human traffic. Today, shady and crowdless, it’s a delight. In Shaftesbury Avenue, the heart of Theatreland, I’m struck by a sudden moment of near-silence as a red light brings what meager traffic there is to a halt.

It is only when I reach Lincoln’s Inn Fields that I find more life. Office workers are eating lunch spread out across grass and wooden benches; the crisp thwack-thwack of tennis balls from a trio of tarmac courts makes it seem more like a holiday resort than the heart of Western Europe’s biggest city. Around the corner, in the Seven Stars, a slim pub popular with lawyers from the adjacent Royal Courts of Justice, I stop for refreshment, listening in to a conversation about celebrity cooks. There is a brief disagreement over Nigella Lawson — one participant is a fan, the other less so.

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Modern Londoners have a lot of opinions on food. Chefs are big news, and none more so than Asma Khan, whose restaurant, Darjeeling Express, is beloved as much for its philosophy as its superb food: Her kitchen is staffed by South Asian women, and everyone is paid the same wage.

I have arranged to meet her at the restaurant on the corner of Garrick and King streets in Covent Garden. Outside, two young fans are taking selfies in front of the restaurant’s elegant pale-blue awnings; inside, Khan, 52 this month, is preparing dishes to be photographed the next morning for her second cookbook. (The restaurant is currently shut on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays.) “I didn’t want to have to do this at 5 a.m. tomorrow,” she tells me with a chuckle.

Lockdown was busier for Khan than most: Having outgrown her original site just off Carnaby Street, she moved here in late 2020, although not before an infuriating run-in with London’s real estate world, and $5,500 sunk into plans for a site that she lost at the last minute.

The restaurant stayed open for takeaway food during the longest lockdown, from before Christmas until April this year. “December was heartbreaking,” she says. “The shops were closed but still full of Christmas decorations. I walked [around Covent Garden], and all I saw was my shadow. It was really, really difficult.”

For some people, lockdown has changed too much; for Khan, who arrived in the U.K. from India in 1991 and has lived in London since 1996, there is still much that needs to change. London’s hospitality world is desperately short of staff, a situation, she says, of its own making. “Very few people want to work in hospitality,” she says, “not because they are lazy, but because hospitality did not treat its staff properly. We deserve this. They have no reason to come back. We need to sell ourselves.”

I agree with her. The past 30 years have seen London grow fat on the back of young people from around the world. Without them, there would have been no restaurant revolution. If they can’t be tempted back, the city will inevitably change for the worse, for locals and tourists alike.

It’s a sobering thought, especially for those like me, secure in my middle-class world. I have been able to enjoy the past year. Last summer, prevented from going on holiday by the pandemic, my wife and I took our kids on a tour of major London tourist attractions. We scooted around an empty St. Paul’s Cathedral and a slightly less empty Science Museum, soared on the London Eye and took a trip out to distant Acton to see the London Transport Museum Depot’s collection of trams, buses and tube trains (that was mainly for me, I’ll admit).

Best of all was the Tower of London, where we spent half an hour admiring the Crown Jewels, courtesy of almost sole usage of the normally packed travelator that hurries you past them. The Tower has struggled for visitors over the past year: It’s getting about 2,000 a day at the moment, compared with up to 13,000 in normal times, of which 70 percent come from overseas.

On Wednesday morning, I head back there to meet Chief Yeoman Warder (a.k.a. Head Beefeater) Pete McGowran. “Lockdown was probably the oddest experience in my life,” says McGowran, who spent nearly 26 years in the Royal Air Force before becoming a yeoman warder. “The first couple of weeks were novel, but then you say, ‘Hang on, why do I do this job?’ We want to offer a great experience. That’s what gives me a buzz.”

What was particularly odd during lockdown, he says, was the silence, although it wasn’t complete. For the third year in a row, 2021 saw two ravens — Edgar and Branwen — born in the Tower, the result of a breeding program. As we speak, I can hear one of the Tower’s nine ravens squawking shrilly at a group eating lunch on a nearby bench. “They prefer having people here,” the 63-year-old McGowran says. “They like getting food from visitors, even though we feed them well. That’s why they don’t leave the Tower — they get better steaks than I do!”

In modern London, it all comes back to food. Things are changing — perhaps a little, maybe a lot — but a visit to the Tower of London is a reminder that the city has survived worse. London may or may not change, but it will survive.

It’s a point Rogers made the day before. He was talking about the Guinea Grill, where there has been an inn for 600 years, but it might equally apply to London. “When tourists return, we’re going to be here,” he told me. “They’ll be able to walk in and say, ‘It’s just the same’ — or maybe they’ll find it’s even a bit better.”

Hawkes is a writer based in London. His website is Find him on Twitter: @will_hawkes.

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