Free Weekend? Contemplate A Park Bench

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35Shares Like many addicts, it started with a single line. Except, in my case, it was on a bench, a …

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Like many addicts, it started with a single line. Except, in my case, it was on a bench, a little way off the main path on Hampstead Heath.

I suppose I’d dabbled before, often glancing at a name – an Ethel Campbell or a Dorothy Rather – and spending a moment creating a backstory. Sometimes it was easy, with Ethel, for example, being a “vegetarian, socialist, pacifist”. Sometimes it was hard: Dorothy Rather may have “fed the birds”, but was that her life, I’d wonder; was that it?

One morning in May several years ago I had a stronger hit. Dragged across the Heath’s dense network of paths by the mutt, I stumbled across the king of memorial benches. It said, in upper case: “‘THEY COULD DO WITH A BENCH HERE’, LEWIS GREIFER 1915 – 2003”.

I was hooked: seven stark words conveying character, humour – and utility. It was almost a haiku.

I spent the rest of that day scouring the Heath for benches, taking pictures. In their reduction of a life to a line, the dedications were funny, touching, aspirational, literary. Many were a Greek chorus expressing sentiments previously unspoken: “Take one day, rest a while, and pretend the world is just for you”, “Live life as a monument to your soul”. Others offered transcendence: “May this bench bring peace to all who rest on it.” And humour was sometimes light – “I don’t do walks, please be seated”…

…and sometimes dark. There’s a particular inscription that lies deep within the sylvan swathes of what Hampstead-dwellers fancifully term Middle Heath. Shielded by a prehistoric oak with claw-like roots, it’s fingered by moss and dirt: ‘For Mr Jo and His Dogs. Dead Gloriously Dead.’

Who calls themselves ‘Mr Jo’, for a start? And what about the dogs? Did they all pop their clogs together? Maybe his death was a release, its benign nature resounding across the heavens. Or were he and his canine companions actually hated? Dead, gloriously dead, indeed..

I spent a couple of years writing about these quiet stories, including a weekly column, Bench Marks, in Time Out magazine, and curating a pop-up gallery. Over the coming months you’ll be able to read these tales again.

But for a most inspiring Free Weekend, head to the Heath, or Regent’s Park, or along the South Bank, and contemplate a handful of the millions of other lives that have filled the ‘Smoke. And if you want to know more about Lewis Greifer, his story is here.

Words & pictures: Stephen Emms

A version of this article first appeared in The Times Saturday Magazine.

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  • Show Comments

  • Andrew Boxer

    you can enjoy Ben Garfields film inspired by the original article at

    • Kentishtowner

      Or you can look at the feature we did on the film last year here.

  • Gabby

    Wonderful article! My favourite thing to do on the the Heath is to makeup the history of the people written on the benches- nice to know I’m not the only one! 🙂