Peace and quiet

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2005, 12:00am

Paris empties every August for the annual holidays. Walk around the French capital and you'll never meet a Parisian, save those selling day-old baguettes, overpriced cafe au lait or T-shirts saying: 'I queued all day at the Louvre and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.'

Romans, too, vanish. It's too hot for La Dolce Vita. Forget pennies in the Treve fountain, most want to jump in it (they can't, because swimming is banned, and besides, it's not good for tourism).

Most European cities shrink in August, especially the southern catchments, where city life is too hot and sweaty. Better to head down to Greece, the Cote D'Azur or the Spanish Costas and sweat to death on a lilo by the beach or pool than in the streets of Paris, Rome or Madrid.

Such southern countries are helped by tradition - the annual holidays, when they shut down en masse.

Northern-European London has never had such luxuries. It's never too hot to stop work - although last Friday's 32 degrees Celsius prompted a few 'sickies', long lunches and unofficial long weekends.

But while London doesn't shut down, it does go slow. On the morning Tube commute, there's sometimes room to sit, or at least grab a strap-hangar without identifying someone's deodorant (if they're wearing any).

Drivers, too, feel more relaxed. Traffic levels are down by 10 to 15 per cent - not a hefty drop, but enough to change the usual hellish journey into an light stroll, as mothers on school runs disappear on holiday with the family.

This summer seems more relaxed than normal. Possibly a byproduct of the recent bombings, although no one will admit as much. Rush hour is quieter, and so is the after-work happy hour, with newspapers reporting how central London pub and club takings are down as many Londoners eschew the West End to eat and drink locally.

Why not? Talk-of-the-town restaurants, trendy, taste-shaping 'gastropubs' and clubs are opening in Zone 2, not Zone 1 - that is, away from the tourists.

Whether this is down to the bombs, the summer or a general move away from the West End towards more spicy echelons further east, south, north and west, back to the old villages from which London grew, remains to be seen.

This year though, post-bombings, August in London is quieter. Many more Londoners are taking advantage of those cheap last-minute package holidays, a week in the country, camping, or going to the flood of music and club festivals that now seem to choke August, the first being that most London of weekends away, the Big Chill, held in the grounds of a stately home near the wilds of the Welsh borders.