A park bench.
Two old men, ‘lost in their overcoats’.
And two young men, Simon and Garfunkel, perceptive enough in their mid-twenties to understand the importance of that friendship – and that bench.
’How terribly strange,’ they sang, ‘to be seventy.’
Now well past that strange age themselves, I wonder if the old friends have shared that park bench, quietly?
Interesting, that ‘quietly’. A silence of memories shared? Of times past? Regret for lost beginnings? An unwillingness to think of endings?
Were those young men really able to put themselves in the ‘round toes’ of the ‘high shoes’ of two old men? Sitting together, quietly?
Once you begin to look at benches, you soon realise their role in human lives extends beyond the merely practical.
Simon and Garfunkel were singing about park benches …
…but they materialise in all sort of places, benches.
Hiding in clearings in pine woods.
Facing the crashing waves on promenades and piers.
Nestling in long grass on country lanes where they subtly infiltrate the landscape.
A bench invites you – if not to sit – at least to stop, look, share what other people see when they sit and stare and rest and think.
Memories abound around benches. Like invisible heaps made of fragments of lives.
Sadness and joy. Hope and despair. Boredom – and inspiration.
A place to open the thermos flask and eat the corned beef sandwich. A view to be savoured with each sip and bite.
The turning point, neither there nor back.
And, physically, a limbo for aching limbs, a respite for recovery.
Last summer we found a new place to walk that had many memory-laden benches.
When I say walk, I’m not a 12 mile hike kind of walker. I prefer my walks enjoyable. With plenty of time to stand and stare. To breathe deeply, not huff and puff.
A five mile round trip’s my limit.
Our new strolling patch is far shorter than that, in a nature reserve not far from a northern industrial city.
It happens to be the city where I was born. I never lived there, being whisked back from the nun-run Nursing Home pretty quickly, but it still gives me a frisson of pleasure that I’ve ended up living so close to my roots.
The nature reserve is on the site of an old brickworks, where clay was extracted for many years. Hence its name, Brickcroft.
It’s now a string of ponds, fringed by trees and swamps. An oasis amid an old, almost suburban world of housing, horticulture and, across the road – a bakery.
The Croft Bakery’s not for the frenzied. Queuing is an inevitable part of the experience.
If you want a generous slice of game pie, a freshly made sandwich of roast pork with apple sauce, a huge scone loaded with jam and cream – or a soup of pea and ham you can stand a spoon up in – you will wait.
Outside are some damp (it’s usually rained at some point, or the frost is thawing) picnic tables – with benches.
There we sit and eat, then sup a cup of tea before taking our weekend constitutional.
Around the two main ponds passing strangers nod and say hello – or more. We pat the head of the occasional dog – and notice the seasons changing.
Early autumn’s delicious colours.
The bare dark branches and bright red berries of frosty blue-skied winter.
And now, the climate-change warmth of a mild, wet, rotting-leaved middle of January.
In the largest pond a cormorant sits like a statue on the branch of a sunken tree trunk protruding from the water.
White birds sit on the ice of mid-November, reflecting like a blurred image in the greyly frozen water.
A lanky-legged heron flits across the sky, no sooner spotted than gone.
An omen for me, a good one.
He’s my bird, the heron. A source for my northern surname on my northern father’s side.
The ducks quack as regular visitors throw them seeds.
A robin follows us, bouncing one tree ahead, or one behind, till he rests on the back of a bench.
And I think of the person, Dennis, commemorated on its little plaque.
‘Preserve your memories,’ sang Simon and Garfunkel, ’they’re all that’s left you’.
Or should that be, they’re all that’s left of you?
It makes me smile to think that, perhaps, somewhere in the ether, a soul is happily watching as a cheery little redbreast perches on the back of his old haunt.
And I look at the view.
Simon and Garfunkel singing Old Friends (grit your teeth through the ad):