It was Austin’s last day before starting school, and our final chance to tick off items on the ‘must-do’ Summer wishlist. So Austin, Gwen and I took the train into London Bridge, to seek out the BookBenches dotted along the Southbank’s Riverside trail.
The 50 BookBenches, spread along trails spanning London’s City, Riverside, Bloomsbury and Greenwich, have all been decorated by professional illustrators and local artists.
The seats we found were shiny, smooth, vibrant and welcoming. It was particularly good to see them in a city that has been criticised for some of its hostile architecture. Like anti-homeless spikes, and benches that are made uncomfortable on purpose, so people won’t want to sit on them for long.
The only hitch was that anyone who did decide to sit and watch the world go by, ran the risk of being hounded off those benches by people like us. The two men sitting eating lunch on Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson’s bench probably regretted striking up a conversation with my son, when he very politely informed them that ‘it’s time for you to move now. We need to take a photo of this bench.’
The benches were set in iconic locations, adding a bit of drama to the familiar landscape of the Southbank.
They also prompted some interesting discussions. Austin was curious about why the How To Train Your Dragon BookBench didn’t look like the cartoon series (or film) of the same name. He was captivated by my explanation that lots of films are based on books…and that the books come first. Everyone has a different idea about how the characters look, so sometimes the drawings are different to one another.
He’s been asking me about this every day since we went on the BookBench trail….and it felt good to be able to have our first ‘proper’ literary crit. conversation.
The Riverside trail was perfect for us, because it was easy to navigate with a four- and a two-year-old; and more than half the benches showed children’s books (including my favourite of the lot, Clarice Bean). But Austin and Gwen also enjoyed hearing about the Discworld novels, which I read in my late teens. They have a lifetime of books ahead of them, and they seemed to enjoy the little teasers I gave them of the literary treasures waiting for them in a few years’ time.
I felt sad as we came to the end of the trail. Not just because my little boy was due to begin his new life as a schoolboy the next morning. But because I’d left it too late to explore the other London trails. The BookBenches are going to be removed from the 14 September, then auctioned in aid of the National Literacy Trust.
I’m pleased that proceeds will go to such a good cause. And that I was able to experience the Riverside BookBenches with my two children while they are still so small.
But, I wish we’d seen the rest. And I do hope the new owners of these jolly, moving, and thought-provoking benches allow them to return to one day, to illuminate the streets of London once again.