We’ve only been in 2021 for two weeks and already we’ve had Brexit, border controls gone berserk, the economy approaching another double-dip recession, the poorest schoolchildren not being fed anywhere near enough once again, plus countless other events that would normally make the front pages, and that’s just in the UK.
Putting all that aside for the sake of distraction and positivity, I’m instead going to write a review of the only indoor place I have visited since lockdown 2021: the Coronavirus Rapid-response Asymptomatic Testing Centre Headquarters, or—for the purposes of this column—CRATCH.
The building, formerly the Ramsgate Port office, is not the most visually pleasing, standing as a squat block amidst high metal fencing, however it does blend in well with the industrial wasteland of Military Road. Flanked by high chalk cliffs on one side and the brute force of the sea on the other, it does posit itself as an answer to a dilemma: this is where you go if you are stuck between a rock and the ocean.
Access to the site renders a sense of theatre in itself, especially as there are only two ways to reach it. The more common route from more populated areas used involves going through Ramsgate Marina, which is always a pleasant experience. The other means driving through a mile-long and usually empty tunnel which slowly descends until it opens upon the sea. There the road follows the edge of the water, which at high tide is particularly dramatic.
There is a car park on site, with a rare treat from Thanet District Council of free parking. The ground is not particularly even, however the post-apocalyptic feel of the environment is very in-keeping with the surrounding décor. The entranceway is marked by large boulders alongside the metal fencing, adding to the aesthetics, and capped with yellow signs that stand rusting from the salt-laced air.
I was first greeted from a distance outside by a tall and broad-shouldered security guard who, like the other staff, was masked and gloved, with a face-shield and PPE. He was polite and professional—as everyone was throughout my visit—and once he had checked I was in the right place, he passed me on to another member of staff nearer to the door. There I verbally confirmed my booking and was shown gracefully inside.
At this point, I must commend CRATCH on their interior layout. In stark contrast to the grey concrete and black glass exterior, the inside is bright with white walls and bold strip-lighting that appears clean and almost clinical. It reminded me of a similar juxtaposition used in Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the outside of the spaceships were dull grey in the cold expanse of space, yet within they had a certain je ne sais quoi which CRATCH certainly shares.
At the front desk I was handed my barcode slips, and then sent to a most cheerful and upbeat concierge (of sorts) who talked me through the frankly over-long Government website booking confirmation system. If I had one complaint about the experience it would be this process, but the positive patter and polite presentation of my perfectly pleasant porter proved to be an appropriate palate-cleanser.
Next, a jovial security official pointed me in the direction of my eventual host, and introduced him as “The Amazing Matthew,” which was a name he lived up to. Up until this point, everyone had been surprisingly friendly and welcoming, but the Amazing Matthew outshone them all. His witty and approachable (though not closer than two metres) demeanour left me in no doubt that he genuinely cares about people and strives to deliver the best service to his customers, no matter the circumstances. As CRATCH is only a temporary installation, I suspect the Amazing Matthew will move on upon its closure, and he will be an incredible asset for any customer-facing organisation, as frankly would any of the staff I met upon my visit.
The Amazing Matthew led me to my final destination: a small booth with a mirror and a plastic wall, where I was passed a swab through a letterbox by a masked individual on the other side of a window. At this point, I realised that not once had I been asked the same question twice; every person I spoke to sought different information. It was quick and efficient with a professional production-line quality.
The main rival to CRATCH, of course, is the Manston Covid Drive-Through Testing Centre—or MC Drive-Through, perhaps—which offers a different experience. Last time I went there I was greeted by security officials holding up cards like that scene in Love Actually which told me to phone a number, and suddenly it felt more like Taken. I was disappointed by the absence of Liam Neeson, though the person I spoke to did state they had a particular set of (testing) skills.
As a site, MC Drive-Through was more like a Hollywood movie set, with the white tents and outdoor floodlights and barricades and such. CRATCH, by comparison, is friendlier and more personable, though the proximity of staff and ability for them to speak to you instead of pointing and gesturing through car windows may account for the distinctly different feel.
Once I had completed my swab at CRATCH, the Amazing Matthew politely asked me to leave, as they had more bookings, but I did not feel rushed out. Frankly, other than the awkward website and the discomfort of the swab, it was a wonderfully pleasant experience I would wholeheartedly recommend. Five stars.