Friendly Bench founder extends network from Durham to Cornwall

When Lyndsey Young set up a bench surrounded by plants to help lonely people connect with others in Bottesford she never believed that less than four years later the concept has been repeated in 12 communities across England.

Wednesday, 27th October 2021, 4:27 pm
Updated Wednesday, 27th October 2021, 4:42 pm
Lyndsey Young at The Friendly Bench at Bottesford EMN-211027-124021001

That first Friendly Bench has led to others being set up by volunteers from Durham in the very north of the nation down to Culdrose in Cornwall on the south coast.

Lyndsey runs the social enterprise which connects the bench commuities across the country, as well as managing the Bottesford site, which she opened in March 2018 because she felt lonely working from home as a freelancer.

Her husband, Jason, sadly passed away in March aged 49 after a battle with bowel cancer.

TV chef Ainsley Harriott pictured with users and volunteers of the Friendly Bench at Chester PHOTO A SCARGILL EMN-211027-124540001

He has worked with Lyndsey on building the Friendly Bench network and this connectiion has helped her deal with losing him.

She has been telling us about how her germ of an idea has grown into a phenomenon which has done so much to support the mental health of people in this country. This is a flavour of our conversation:

NICK RENNIE: Can you believe that the Friendly Bench has been such a success?

LYNDSEY YOUNG: I always had this strong belief that it would work because it’s such a simple, familiar concept of people coming together.

The Friendly Bench at Culdrose in Cornwall EMN-211027-124530001

What is really phenomenal is some of the connections which are happening across the network.

In Chester, for example, they’ve linked with the local hospital, the Ramblers, they run their Park Run from there, they do wellness walks from there, they work with the conservation volunteers there. They’ve also linked with the local nursing home and a place called VIVO care for people with learning difficulties who go down the bench to maintain it. That’s just the Chester one and it’s the tip of the iceberg.

NR: How important has the Bottesford Friendly Bench in terms of connecting people?

LY: Before the pandemic we had more than 500 people visiting our bench in a year.

The official opening of the Friendly Bench at Brandon in Suffolk EMN-211027-124520001

We’ve had events there for pre-school children all the way through to the older members of our community.

The primary school enjoyed nature-based activities, we’ve had the Cubs down there, a litter pick with children from the youth clubs.

Ex-military people came along for a meet-up - they brought pictures of themselves from when they were in service.

That was a whole host of people we had never met before. It helped them meet and connect with others.

NR: It must have been difficult for the users of Friendly Benches when lockdown came in over the last year or so, particularly those who suffer from loneliness and isolation?

LY: Not all of them have been used recently because some have an older group using them. There have been some small interactions, a lot of the stuff is focused on getting outside, having a chat and walking. Just reconnecting with people on a very informal basis but it’s enough for some people just to be able to make those steps back out unto the world. It’s affected all of us and quite rightly a lot of people are scared of mixing again, which is such a shame because, as humans, being connected is what makes us feel well.

NR: I understand the various benches are running Halloween events this coming weekend?

LY: We’ve got four organising events for Halloween, in Suffolk, Chester, Bury and Burbage in Leicestershire. They are doing different things such as sharing food and pumpkin carving. We are now starting to get groups starting things and being very active.

NR: Are there are any special activities happening at the Bottesford bench in the near future?

LY: We have invited members of the public to knit, sew or crochet a poppy and then we will display them all over the Friendly Bench. We’ve got quite a few people doing them, including one lady who’s done 30 knitted poppies. Members of the local Royal British Legion branch are coming over on November 11 in the afternoon and we’ve also invited our local pre-school to come out to see the poppies. The national head office of the Royal British Legion got in touch with us and we are now working in partnership with them. All of out Friendly Benches are now linked with their local Legion branch. We’re doing this because a lot of their members struggle with loneliness and disconnectedness.

NR: How did the National Lottery funding help you expand the network across England?

LY: We decided to go for funding ourselves to support volunteer groups who we believed should have them. The funding has enabled us to deliver 11 more Friendly Benches. Every one looks exactly the same. We design and build it, hand it over to the group and they then manage and run it.

We ask them to run at least one free event a year. We support them with marketing literature to promote what they are doing.

It’s like a franchise and it’s all part of the network. We want people to know there will be a dedicated group looking after it. Otherwise it’s not sustainable and it’s just a park bench. We’ve got another two which are ready to install in March, at Boston in LIncolnshire and Thetford in Norfolk. There has been interest in having a Friendly Bench in Melton. Melton BID are interested in having one so hopefully that will happen soon.

NR: How has the Friendly Bench family helped you deal with your husband’s passing?

LY: It’s personally very difficult for me to be at the Bottesford bench so we decided to just keep it maintained for now.

It’s been a light in some very dark times for me. Aside from the support of family and friends, the Family Bench community has helped me cope.

We’ve had pieces of music composed for Jason, they’ve planted roses for him, they put a plaque up for him at one bench.

He was wholly behind it and made connections with all the groups so it is a wonderful legacy for him.

NR: Do you intend to continue building the network of Friendly Benches going forward?

LY: What is so humbling is seeing photos of what people are doing at the various sites and the connections they are making. The idea is that all these microhubs all over the country serve local people but with a wider reach as well. They can all then support each other.

***Friendly Benches are now operating at Durham, Bury, Chester, Halesowen, Rugby, Burbage, Newbold Verdon, Rotherham, Brandon, Ipswich, Bottesford and Culdrose.

***To make knitted poppies for the Bottesford project, post them to The Friendly Bench Poppies, Warwick Flats, Granby Drive, Bottesford NG13 0BU

or contact the Friendly Bench Facebook page.