Many benches have had a place in my life and many and various were the views from them.
The very first was in the centre of York, just behind the Minster, where our house in St Saviour Gate had a large walled garden with mature trees at the far end, and herbaceous borders full of wonderful flowers. The bench was beside the croquet lawn and offered a seat for spectators who wanted to watch the game while offering suggestions, helpful or otherwise, and when we were too small to play my brothers and I often sat on it watching in fascination.
There was no distant view, though to a small child the garden was huge, and full of many interesting things. The chicken run, the dog pen, our slide and sandpit and swing – all sturdy wood and metal constructions, not the gaily coloured plastic of today. Nearer to the house was a concreted area where we could ride our tricycles, and the outhouse which contained the Guinea-pigs and tools. Then down at the far end the bushes and shrubs which hid the wall, and the shady trees.
A homely, safe and pleasant view with an assurance of the ownership of all we surveyed.
When I was eight we moved, and at Lorton several new benches came into use. I remember especially a metal bench which stood back from the river wall, looking out across the swiftly flowing water to fields and trees and the rising slopes of the fell opposite. Surrounded by bushes and shrubs, it was half-hidden, and sitting there I felt I was in a living, green grotto with the ever-changing music of the river as my company, and here I found a sense of peace and seclusion, for it was not a spot the other children came to often, not a part of our regular round of games, nor a place to build one of our numerous dens.
I remember sitting here and painting (badly) the view, one which took me further than the safe garden in York; but still the fell was a bulwark against the outside world, and the view was ‘mine’, from ‘my’ garden.
There’s no space or time to tell you about every bench which played a part in my peripatetic life, so I’ll just describe four more:
I remember one in the Bishop’s garden in Dodoma (Tanzania) where I sat on occasions when greetings or partings were being celebrated. I remember the bright, dry, dusty air, and at certain times of year the brilliance of the scarlet flowers on the flamboyant trees or the wonderful purple of jacarandas, while the rich scent of the earth mingled with the frangipanis after the first rains. The tall hedge blocked out the distant view of dry, brown hills, with their scattered patches of green where a stream might be living out its brief life. Here security was precious and must be carefully guarded – there were watchmen and dogs at night.
Moving on, I find yet another enclosed space, green and rich with wild flowers and mellow walls in St Francis’ Convent, in Somerset. Many benches were scattered in this sheltered garden, which lay in the dip between two hills. They were there for the use of Sisters or guests, some against a sun-warmed wall, some in the shade of trees, and others tucked out of sight in the wild garden; all placed with care for reading, quiet meditation or silent prayer. This was a bird-haunted place, birdsong echoed everywhere and accompanied the singing in the chapel.
Sitting on one of these benches I pondered on the miracles of beauty at my feet, and gloried in the flowers and trees surrounding me.
From countryside to city, and still in my Franciscan years, a park bench in Brixton had the widest view of all, for from this hilltop I could see all London spread out below me. But overhead was a new attraction, as every thirty seconds a plane from some far corner of the globe would bank above me to take its turn on the approach to Heathrow, and as I watched I wondered who was in each one, why they were coming, and from where.
Before we look at the final benches, I want to carry you halfway round the world, and invite you to sit beside me in the little town of Picton on the south island of New Zealand. Over to our left is the great ferry which has carried me from Wellington, and in front of us the vivid blue-green waters of Queen Charlotte Sound stretch out into the distance, sparkling in the sunshine between the rich greens of the tree-covered islands and hills. Overhead little red-legged gulls float in the pure air of the Southern Hemisphere, and everything is bathed in a light unlike anything I’ve known before – a light in which I can see further and more clearly than I have done at any time in my life.
The view from this far-distant bench lifts my heart and spirit, and draws into itself every view I’ve known and loved. How rich my life has been, how full of beauty, and how wide the views I hold in my memory.
And now it’s home again – and what a choice of benches I have here. These benches aren’t mine, but they bring hundreds of people within the circuit of my life. Here in Whitehaven you can always strike up a conversation with someone if you’re sitting on a bench.
There are countless benches round the harbour, benches on the cliffs, benches in the town gardens; benches with views across the sea, views of boats, and views of flowers, trees and grass at the centre of the town.
Closest to home is the bench outside my flat in Washington Square, where in Spring the Whitebeams hold up their silver-grey candles to the sun, before turning to green and then to gold under Summer sun and Autumn chill.
There’s no distant view here, I’m enclosed again, but the graceful proportions of the Georgian houses, the flowers in the raised bed, the little birds in the hedges and trees enrich this small and unconsidered corner of the town. It’s another safe and beautiful place with a bench to sit on through the coming years.