The dream is benches on every street corner… but first we’re going for a walk.
KOVE – the acronym for Kilburn Older Voices Exchange – has a way of making things happen in Camden. Three days a week KOVE Coordinator, Mel Wright, 69, helps older people in Kilburn and West Hampstead to be more effective campaigners tackling fly-tipping, unsafe pavements and neglected spaces.
KOVE is also really good at getting people outside by ensuring there are plenty of benches, campaigning to stop public toilets being closed and getting traffic lights timed to enable an older, or less able, person to cross the road.
“We’d like benches on every corner,” jokes Mel at the end of KOVE’s September Bench to Bench walk. “Benches were getting a very bad press – some people said they led to anti-social behaviour – but it was a minority view, so we thought ‘let’s promote benches’. We did a survey of 170 benches and then designed 10 walks between them,” explains Mel.
Walk 7, from Broadhurst Gardens to West End Green is only half a mile, but it has plenty of places to admire. In fact our meeting point by the C11 bus stop, a generous-sized wooden bench opposite the English National Opera building, starts a conversation about when it used to be the famous Decca Records Recording Studios where Django Reinhardt, Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, Lulu, David Bowie, Tom Jones and the Rolling Stones recorded – and the Beatles were turned down. Then we’re off for a meander down West End Lane looking at the library, synagogue and old pictures.
“It’s not a history tour: I get things wrong, as they tell me,” jokes Mel, who grew up in Kilburn, “and people bring along photos of what the area was like, so it’s about community identity. For people on their own or isolated it’s especially nice to have tea or coffee at the end of the Bench to Bench walk. We find some people have lived in the area for so long, but then say they’ve never been down this street, or into that library, gallery or park. And often people feel safer going into a park in a group.”
On days off Mel is completing the 184 mile Thames Path – he’s just got the Oxford to Windsor stretch left – which is probably why his secret to enjoying any walk is so sound. “Take a good break,” he advises before organising drinks for everyone on the Bench to Bench walk at David’s Deli on West End Green.
We met up with two Bench to Bench attendees and asked them if they wouldn’t mind taking us for a stroll down memory lane.
How many of the Bench to Bench walks have you joined?
Anne-Marie: I’ve been on all of them – about 20.
Ted: Six. I come with my wife, Valerie. They’re interesting. I’d like to hear about Keats next. I’m thinking of doing more but not the long ones [laughs] – I don’t want to get on the wrong bus and go for a walk in Liverpool!
How many people do you know?
Anne-Marie: On this walk I knew 12 out of the 15.
Ted: About half to see and speak to.
Are you a big walker?
Anne-Marie: I used to love walking, dancing and keeping fit, but I’m waiting for a new hip. My friend calls me ‘Miss Energy’, but I’ve had to slow down.
Ted: I used to love walking but since I’ve had COPD1 problems I need to stop more often. Everyone tells you to go for a walk. Does it count that last week I sponsored a friend to do the Great North Run and another the Serpentine Swim?
Where’s your favourite bench?
Anne-Marie: I usually sit on the one by West Hampstead Library, to have a cigarette after I’ve been shopping.
Ted: I don’t have a favourite bench.
Can you share a favourite memory of Camden life?
Anne-Marie: I live close to where the Bench to Bench group met today, opposite the ENO building (the old recording studios). Once I happened to be looking out and saw Bing Crosby. I’d written him a letter when I was 10 and I was able to find my copy of that letter, go across, shake hands and get him to sign it. A few weeks ago I saw Glenn Close rehearsing for Sunset Boulevard.
Ted: Things have changed so much. I like remembering what used to be on West End Lane – all the toy shops with big wooden trains. It’d be good to come back in a time machine and see what it was like when the Cock-a-hoop (a notorious drinking and fighting den, sited where the 1902 Alexandra Mansion is now on West End Green) was open, just to see how it looked: but there would have been so many germs. And no toilets.
1 Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common lung disease. Having COPD makes it difficult to breathe.