One weekend morning in July we took the Bloomsbury Trail to look at benches that had been created in honour of books, a joint project of the National Literacy Trust and Wild in Art. Each bench, which is shaped like a book folded open, has images that represent a famous book. In case you can’t guess the book from the illustrations, there is a plaque on the ground beside each bench to identify author, book, and artist. This is a fun way to walk around London, going on a literary treasure hunt, map in hand. Nor were we the only ones. Our first benches we had to ourselves, but by the time we got to the Sherlock Holmes bench, there was a queue for the photo. Then when we couldn’t find a bench, we found the same people wandering around looking for it too.
While there is something a little kitsch about these plasticky book-benches, like the moose that popped up in Toronto or the cows in Florence, they are at least relevant to the neighbourhood in which they’ve been placed. Such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway bench (above), which is in the Gordon Square Garden near where she lived. In fact, as you enter the park there is a billboard about the Bloomsbury Group. Some benches are better than others; Woolf’s is by far the prettiest.
I found the Pride and Prejudice bench disappointing, showing as it does an Elizabeth Bennet who seems to be taken from the TV version. Although I am a fan of Jennifer Ehle’s performance of Elizabeth Bennett in the BBC Pride and Prejudice, she is not the Elizabeth I imagine when I read the book. There is always that disconnect between reader’s imagination and screen versions, or in this case, bench versions.
I much preferred the more symbolic versions of Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest (by Trevor Skempton) and Conan Doyle’s The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (by Valerie Osment) benches, which have both restricted themselves to important images or themes.
There are other trails to follow, such as the City Trail and Riverside Trail. Another day… before 15 September. By the way, you are not allowed to climb on the benches.
- Maps to other book bench trails (booksabouttown.org.uk)
- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice anniversary (BBC.co.uk)
- Guardian article about book benches (theguardian.com)
- About the artists, and about buying a bench for the National Literacy Trust charity (literacytrust.org.uk)