Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Time for some bench marking

Benches without views are commonplace
We’ve been rather grounded the past week or two while Harri juggles the day job and completes the writing of his Wales Coast Path guide (Amroth to Swansea section).

It’s particularly tough being indoors now that spring has finally arrived. Yesterday, the lure of an hour outside in the sunshine compelled me to clean all my downstairs windows. As for the rotary line… well, let’s just say I’m enjoying getting re-acquainted with my enviably skinny friend.

All this sitting around inside and staring at a computer screen has got me thinking about seats, or more specifically, about benches.

Anyone brave enough to sit here?
Benches have a special importance for walkers, particularly in verdant Wales where our bottoms tend to get rather soggy if we plonk ourselves down on the ground. We bought a small picnic blanket a few years ago (half price in Past Times) but forget to stuff it in our rucksacks more often than not.

Which is why, on damp, overcast days, we approach a distant bench as excitedly as Nicholas Crane cycled towards remote chai houses on the Tibetan plateau (he writes about his epic journey with his cousin, Dick, in the hugely entertaining ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth).

I remember walking the South West Coast Path a few years back.  Faced with a particularly steep section which took us from sea level to towering cliffs in one seemingly endless climb, we brightened considerably when we spotted a distant bench. Halfway up, our spirits plummeted again as a couple appeared from nowhere and claimed it for themselves.

A prime location on the Wales Coast Path (Pendine)
Such is the impact that a well-positioned bench has on a walker’s emotional well-being. 

With the humble bench elevated to an almost symbolic level, it would be natural to assume that special care and attention was given to its positioning. A lengthy comparison between one site or another, perhaps? Informal consultation with the local community? Better still, a quick chat with the local Ramblers group? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The evidence suggests otherwise.

Probably not the safest picnic spot!
As our hiking experience has shown, benches appear in the most surprising of places with service provision (the service here being seating) ranging from overkill to sparse or non-existent.

You'll be spoilt for a seat at Llandudno's Great Orme
Like buses, they have a tendency to arrive in clusters. For miles there’s not so much as a stone on which to perch one’s derriére, then suddenly there’s seating everywhere.

The choice of location is equally mystifying. One would expect a bench to be placed close to something visually interesting – a gorgeous view, historic landmark, parkland or riverside – and yet we often stumble upon benches in the most unprepossessing of landscapes.

Another peculiarity of benches is their apparent ability to encourage natural growth. Walk along any footpath or trail and you’ll find that the vegetation inexplicably becomes thicker in the vicinity of a bench, often blocking any view entirely.  Stroll a few metres from the bench in either direction and the view magically re-appears. There’s no logical explanation for this widespread phenomenon (except perhaps hikers hurling unwanted liquids into the bushes).

At Llanrhidian, on the Gower peninsula, we were left wondering if there’d once been a nasty accident involving a public seat. The sole village bench is sited at the top of a grassy slope next to the church.

It’s a nice spot, but local officials were clearly concerned that ramblers who stopped to idle away a few minutes in this pretty village were an accident waiting to happen. Rather than risk a tragedy - someone rolling downhill like a giant cheese - they have thoughtfully installed a sturdy three-sided barrier in front of the bench.

Benches, eh?  You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.

WARNING: the most dangerous bench in Wales
So, if anyone reading this ever assumes responsibility for the positioning of a bench, I beg you to consider the following before taking any action.

Relax in the scented surroundings of... a car park
      First and foremost, please consider the location. No-one likes eating their sandwiches in a car park next to a row of recycling bins.
      Be sensible about quantity. While ten benches in close succession might make the installation process easier, it’s not terribly helpful for people who are walking a ten-mile stretch of coastline if all available seating is in the first half mile.
      Call me a romantic but a view is essential. When people sit down they usually like to look at something pretty, preferably at a distance. MOD land and busy car parks do NOT fall into this category.

.     Finally, do remember that it’s not only benches that need maintaining but the area around them. No point in keeping a bench in pristine condition if the surrounding land is so overgrown no-one can reach it. 

More on benches soon. In the mean time, where’s that picnic blanket?

Ferryside, where there's not just one bench awaiting you but four

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