As it’s now July 2021, life is almost back to normal.
Many of us are now returning to town and city centres to shop, eat and drink.
Social activities have moved on from the Zoom quiz and back to the pub, and plenty of us are out as much as we’ve ever been.
And according to the Government, it’s a one-way trip back to normality.
They say that because of the vaccine program, which many of us in Essex have already taken part in, it’s hoped we won’t be going back into lockdown.
This is it.
I’ve always been a social person and during lockdown I increasingly craved being out and about with people.
Not just being able to see my friends either, I was looking forward to rubbing shoulders and hugging strangers in crowds at gigs and football matches.
I would tell everyone I spoke to on the phone how much I missed that spontaneous human experience, and how being cooped up indoors was running me down.
Sign up to the EssexLive newsletter below for the latest news straight to your inbox:
If you’re looking for a way to stay up-to-date with the latest breaking news from around Essex, the EssexLive newsletter is a good place to start.
The twice-daily update will deliver the top news and features to your inbox every morning and evening.
We choose the most important stories of the day to include in the newsletter, including crime, court news, long reads, traffic and travel, food and drink articles and more.
Signing up to the newsletter is simple. All you have to do is to click here and type in your email address.
It’s one of the many ways that you can read the news that matters to you from EssexLive.
Naturally I was spending more time online, and with the current fractured discourse impacting the country, I wasn’t in the best headspace.
So of course, as soon as the pubs reopened, I was seeing my friends.
I was going into town centres and nightspots; I was in crowds with people; I was back out there.
But I didn’t feel at ease.
It’s completely understandable that after a traumatic worldwide pandemic where people like me worked continuously to stay aware of the horrific situation impacting Essex and beyond, that I wouldn’t be able to forget that and have a good time.
But on top of that, I found myself extra anxious and uneasy around strangers.
Even though I’m a social person, I’ve been diagnosed with social anxiety, and in recent years I’ve undertaken therapy to try and make living in the real world as easy as possible.
For the latest updates in your area, type your postcode below:
I frequently have panic attacks when meeting new people and when I’m put in stressful scenarios, so it’s not a brilliant condition for a journalist to suffer from, but I’ve made do.
However, I’d be lying if I said that being isolated from regular social interaction during lockdown didn’t put me out of practise.
It worried me, but I wasn’t on my own.
Searches for “reopening anxiety” have skyrocketed in recent months.
People are simply afraid to get back to normal, and resuming a busy social life might not be the smartest thing for us to do, even if we based our personality around it.
We’ve spent months apart, and it seems that some of us may need months to get back to where we were.
I was too eager, and instantly after a few social meet-ups in town I was completely worn out.
But a big fix for me came from an unlikely place.
A rural woodland close to Stock, Essex.
My friendship circle meets up every year for a meal and a night out around Christmas.
Obviously, that wasn’t possible in December 2020, so instead we vowed that as soon as it was, we would book a restaurant and anyone able to come along would do so, and we’d celebrate everyone’s birthdays for the last year.
Unfortunately, we weren’t the only people with this idea, and as soon as it was possible, restaurants and pubs became completely booked.
To be able to get a table for a large group of us on a day we could all make was impossible, so instead, one of my friends pitched an idea.
“If we can’t meet up in a restaurant, why don’t we go camping.”
Now, I’m not an outdoorsy person; the last time I went camping was at Reading Festival in 2016.
And I doubt Frank Turner was going to be opening the weekend at little camp in Essex.
I like being near charging points, toilets and a Greggs for some home comfort.
I’m terrified of being offline – I’m a journalist, I need to know what’s going on!
But it was a smart idea, and we managed to book a night at a site a few miles east of the village of Stock, close to Hanningfield Reservoir in south Essex.
It wasn’t completely away from civilisation, but we were a mile from any artificial lighting and major roads, which in a densely populated area like south Essex is quite a feat.
It was called Stuarts Wood, and was situated in a woodland area surrounded by fields full of crops.
Enter your postcode below for the latest weather forecast in your area:
12 of us pitched up camp, and enjoyed the shade from the trees above, which sheltered us from the blazing sunshine of the recent heatwave.
I can’t tell you how quickly my background anxiety went away.
Being so far away from my regular busy Essex life, where you can barely walk for five minutes without seeing people, instantly put me more at ease.
Exploring the dense woods and surrounding farmland felt like I was on holiday, even though I was only a few miles from my home.
Once camp had been set up, we went for a long walk throughout the surrounding fields and ended up playing some frisbee.
There were no cars to be heard, no people to be seen, and nothing to remind me of the stressful world we lived in.
I completely forgot about infection rates, lockdown statistics, Government failings, horrifying loss of life, impacts of long Covid, political upheaval elsewhere around the globe and everything else which had cluttered my mind for the past year of so.
As the sun set, the sky was littered with bright stars I wouldn’t normally be able to see because of light pollution.
It was so peaceful.
Later that evening, we shared birthday presents, lit a fire, listened to music and enjoyed each other’s company in ways I don’t think we’d be able to in a busy town or city setting.
I don’t think I checked Twitter once.
Why it’s so important
So I had a good time in a wood with my friends.
That’s not necessarily representative of the headline of this piece.
But the experience got me thinking of what I think about when I think about Essex.
I’ve grown up in Basildon, and most of my life has been spent in the towns of Basildon, Southend-on-Sea, South Benfleet and Rayleigh.
All four of these towns are densely populated areas of south east Essex, an area which in itself is incredibly densely populated.
You only have to look at a satellite image of south east Essex to see how built up it is.
Even if I travelled to a nearby green space or country park, I would still be able to hear the rumble from cars on the A127 and A13.
In south Essex, you can’t be that far away from society.
It built and grew because of industry and close links to London.
Being ‘away from everything’ simply isn’t possible.
For someone increasingly worried about the state of the world and more importantly the county around me, being in the thick of it is a constant reminder of all the problems there are.
For those suffering with reopening anxiety, we’re being pressured into returning to our towns and cities and seeing people in busy areas that are simply bad for our mental health.
And with such a densely populated area like Essex, it’s so difficult to get away from that.
But I managed to.
The little pockets of true countryside we have in Essex are worth their weight in gold, especially in south Essex.
The team at EssexLive are committed to bringing our readers breaking news, in-depth features, and exclusive content from the four corners of Essex.
Whether it’s the latest from court trials, traffic updates on the roads, or breaking news incidents from where you are – we have the county covered.
From Colchester to Chelmsford, Grays to Great Dunmow, we bring you the news that matters most to you.
To keep updated with what is happening across the county, download the new EssexLive app now on the Apple Store.
They’re more valuable than the vast plains of countryside that cover other areas of the country, because they’re an escape from the Essex life.
I love the Essex life; it’s fast paced, uniquely culturally inspiring, varied and ultimately exciting.
But at the same time it’s very overwhelming.
With the housing targets placed for Essex as high as ever, more and more of our countryside will be squashed until they’re no longer escape areas.
So we really need to treasure the important areas of solitude that in reality aren’t that far away, but in a bubble might as well be on another planet.
The day after I left the campsite, I went to watch an England match in Chelmsford (Remember the Euros? Remember the optimism?)
I was surrounded by plenty of people, and whilst I enjoyed the win (and the brilliant choruses of Three Lions after it) I could feel the anxiety sneak back in.
But at least now I know that there’s a way out not too far away.
Are there any spots in Essex that you go to for an escape? Sign up here and let us know in the comments below.