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 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, even didactic. 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: “For Mr Jo and His Dogs. Dead, Gloriously Dead!”
Professions (particularly actors and pilots) were popular, most spectacularly the multi-tasking “artist, dancer, potter, traveller, analyst and lover of trees.” And sadly, more than a handful were dedicated to children: “A very special child, who played and walked on the heath during her short life, missed and loved by many, 1981 – 87.”
Single names intrigued me most. They seemed to combine a breathy intimacy with cold impersonality: who on earth was Marianne? Who the devil were Tom and Lee?
I’d probably never know so, deciding to broaden my investigation, looked to the coast for inspiration. In Deal, Kent (where our third tale is set) I discovered that many of the benches along the seafront had corresponding maritime themes: there was the woman remembered against the “ever changing sea and sky”, and the man who, rather bleakly, “turned on his side and slowly drowned.” Further afield, in Wales, just by the castle of Llanstephan in Camarthen, one says: “He loved the sea, and it claimed him.”
You might think this a very British tradition, but, over the pond – from Boston in New England to Edmonton, California – benches are big business too, although one suspects that our taste for humour, subversion and wood may have been replaced by recycled plastic numbers (at $250!) with prosaic inscripted plaques – not quite the snapshots of life they are here. And the practice hasn’t spread as far as Japan: a journalist from Tokyo recently filed a story from Deal on this curious phenomenon.
So can anyone get a bench? It depends where you are. Whilst even speaking to the right department of the councils in Newcastle and Birmingham is nigh impossible, in Bristol or Manchester it’s an easy acquisition, with a choice of locations, whereas down in Deal there are just a couple of locations free (up towards Walmer, if you’re interested), with prices generally around £1000 (although in Caerphilly, Wales it’s a snip at £612).
And spare a thought for the eighty souls in purgatorial wait for remembrance on the Heath, all hoping that one of its 475 benches will (happily?) be available soon. “Dozens will be freed up at the end of next year,” says an official, “following a ten year cycle that was introduced in 1997 to cope with demand.” A decade’s lease may not seem much, but at least it includes maintenance, compared with the two meagre years offered by Dover District Council in Deal.
And when did it all start? The oldest “top rail” on Hampstead Heath, now archived, dates back to just 1944. According to English Heritage’s Jenifer White, however, there are benches in existence in Patterdale (Lake District) that celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee (1897), and even one dating as far back as 1881 in the Isle Of Wight: “This shows that the idea in itself was at least current then,” she says, “and post-first world war cemetery aesthetics as well as the development of remembrance gardens must have stimulated ideas for other forms of memorialisation.”
My father, a historian, believes they could even date back as far as the Great Exhibition (1851), or at least the open air movement, led by the National Trust in the late 19th century, which saved open spaces for the public. He adds: “The outdoor memorial as a secular retreat from churches may have been adopted by the free thinkers of the day such as Darwin and Huxley – and much later, George Bernard Shaw.”
This would also explain why now, in our secular times, the cult of the memorial bench is at its zenith. It could be said that, like the laying of flowers, it is simply another example of the popularity explosion of public statements of private grief, the legacy of Diana’s death. But the combination of emotive ellipsis with the utilitarian and aesthetic qualities of the wood creates a quiet poetry: the opposite of today’s throwaway culture.
It’s certainly a subject that continues to arouse discussion, particularly in Scotland. “It’s so inappropriate”, says one blogger, “it’s another one of those fads. Death is not in itself an achievement. I say keep mountains clutter-free.” But isolated benches, such as the McElligots’ (their story is on page 3), carved to blend in with their environment, provide both a literal and metaphorical platform for us to consider our own mortality – which, as any late Eighteenth century poet would tell you, was the reason for the popularity of the mountains in the first place.
In their celebration, then, of life and transience, dedications in fact reflect the subtle colours of enduring happiness, within all our reach, perhaps nearer than we thought. And if we are all striving for happiness, a memorial bench, when we’re gone – which is always too early – is like a bus stop en route.
A version of this feature was published in the Times Saturday Magazine, December 2006. Stephen Emms talks about the subject on the One Show on BBC1 on October 23 at 7pm