If you walk along the Victorian promenade in Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, you’ll notice once bench that sticks out from the rest. Sitting 100 metres from the pier head is a bright yellow sign marking “The ‘Happy to Chat’ bench: sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello.”
It was unveiled by police earlier this year in a bid to tackle loneliness among the elderly in the seaside town, where pensioners make up a third of the population. The scheme was picked up the American broadcaster CNN, and has spawned copycats around the country, as well as in locations as far afield as Canada, Australia, United States, and Ukraine.
The idea is championed by Ashley Jones of the Senior Citizen Liaison Team, who got involved after meeting an 89-year-old widow who had given away more than £25,000 of her savings to a con artist because his phone calls were her only human interaction.
More than nine million people in the UK say they “often or always” feel lonely, according to the British Red Cross, and in 2013 then-health secretary Jeremy Hunt described loneliness among the elderly as “our national shame”. With the problem so endemic, can something as simple as a bench really be enough to fix the problem?
That question led me to Burnham’s promenade on a blustery November morning, where I spent hours sitting on the country’s first ‘chatty bench’ to see who, if anyone, would strike up conversation.
Coming from the cavernous depths of south London – where, according to popular lore, nobody is allowed to talk to each other and you are more likely to know the name of your Uber driver than your neighbour – my expectations were low, and at first I had little luck. The rain seemed to have driven most of the town’s retirees indoors, and my inviting smiles received little more than suspicious glances from the few walkers who had braced the weather for a stroll.
At one point in the morning, I ask an elderly bypasser if he has time for a chat. “I don’t have any money to give you,” he replies, briskly. After explaining that I am not begging, he tells me that he has somewhere to be.
But my fortunes improved after lunch, when I got chatting to 67-year-old Ann Davies, who retired a few years ago from her job as manager of the Sue Ryder charity shop. She has lived alone since her divorce 13 years ago, and spends much of her time volunteering. Otherwise, she explains, she would be at serious risk of falling into the UK’s 1.9 million older people who “often feel ignored or invisible”, according to Age UK research. “Once you get behind that door, you don’t want to come out, and the longer it goes on, the more you don’t want to,” Ann says. “You almost get agoraphobic, and the outside seems very alien and scary. But it’s not. The best thing is to volunteer. You’ve got to have a reason to go out.”
Full of natural wit, it’s very easy to warm to Ann after just a few minutes. At one point she reaches over and fixes my wonky jacket collar – “I’ve got to do this” – as she explains why she takes regular advantage of Burnham’s chatty bench. “Even just somebody looking at it is enough – they say, ‘Oh, this is a good idea, what’s all that about then?’. You start chatting about the bench, and it goes on from there. ‘Are you on holiday? Do you come down every year?’. It’s just natural. Sometimes they’re not even sitting on the bench, they just talk to you standing up.”
Next, I meet Helen Brodie MBE, who moved to Burnham from London after retiring from a 25-year career in the Foreign Office, joining forces with Ann to set up the Women Who Write group, which sends postcards and letters to elderly people in care homes. In 2004, Helen returned from a diplomatic posting in Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, and says a bench like this “would have have been cracking” at the time.
“Having lived in a warzone, it’s just a totally surreal life compared to being back here,” Helen recounts. “Perversely, I felt insecure here, because I had no tanks to protect me. I was going to work, but you are quite isolated in your own head, and that’s where it would have been nice to come here, just to know that I can sit and bore the pants off somebody for half an hour.”
The pair have used the bench to strike up a number of conversations with strangers, and the topics extend beyond the usual mundanities of weather, football, and post office opening hours, they explain. Recently, they chatted to a man who was missing one of his thumbs. After a while of talking, Ann asked what the story was, and the man explained he had chopped his thumb off in a work accident. “It bought my first house, this thumb, and I’ve never looked back,” he added.
Another lady, in her eighties, told Helen that she had been evacuated to Burnham during the Second World War, and witnessed the moment, on New Year’s Eve 1943, when an American B17 Flying Fortress crash-landed on Burnham’s beach. “She is quite isolated and doesn’t get anybody to chat to, and she was worried about boring me,” Helen remembers. “But I was sat here listening for hours.”
Loneliness is usually considered an affliction of the elderly, but later in the day I am joined on the bench by 23-year-old Gemma Ferguson, who says she would always stop for a chat if she saw somebody sitting here. Assistant manager at a charity shop, Ferguson was briefly made homeless at 18 after falling out with her mother’s boyfriend, and took a bed at the local YMCA. Although she was surrounded by other homeless people, she says she had never felt more isolated. “I’m a very social person and I don’t like being alone with my own thoughts. It doesn’t feel very nice at all. My mental health took over, so I just shut myself away from other people. But since I got my job it’s brought my confidence up, I can talk to anyone now, and if I saw an old person sitting here on their own, I’d make sure they’re alright.”
As the afternoon wears on, and the gloomy sky dims further, I call it a day and travel back to London with my spirits high. Perhaps there is hope for neighbourliness after all.
The Silver Line is one of three charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. Our two other charities are Leukaemia Care, which provides support to individuals and families affected by blood cancer; and Wooden Spoon, which works with Britain’s rugby community to raise money for disabled and disadvantaged children. To make a donation, visit telegraph.co.uk/charity or call 0151 284 1927