Views from the You Are Hear listening benches

Have you visited any of our listening benches, installed as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place? Recently Jade Hunter, a PhD student studying Geography at Queen Mary University of London, embarked on a mini tour of some of the benches to learn more about them. She shares her thoughts on her visits in a guest blog post below.

I’m currently studying for a PhD in Geography and I encountered the listening benches when writing an assignment on sound projects. My research interests lie in identity and place, specifically in Essex, so I was really keen to visit and experience benches in different locations.

I planned to visit a number of benches which I thought could demonstrate the breadth of Essex as a large, and diverse county. I work in London, and one of the things I’m always struck by is how far away people think Essex is when they live within the (blurring) city boundaries. Visiting the benches highlighted the relationship which parts of Essex have to the city. Audio at the Raphael Park bench suggests that Essex might act as ‘the lungs of London’, and the soundscapes at the Romford, Hadleigh and Chelmsford benches include birdsong, traffic and the sounds of trains delivering people from the suburbs into the city. Viewed from the bench in Hadleigh Park, Canvey Island rooftops were flanked by a ship sailing to the London Gateway super-port, showing a connectedness not just to London, but further afield.

View looking out over Estuary

View from the listening bench in Hadleigh Country Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.

I was interested to hear about the history of the bench locations – listening to villagers of times past speak about specificities of life in Kelvedon, for example.


Frank Hume and Ronald Hayward describe their memories of the Crab and Winkle railway line that ran through Kelvedon, a clip from an oral history interview used on the Kelvedon listening bench (SA 44/1/25/1).

But I was most drawn to benches with audio about experiences which could be more broadly shared, in locations where it is perhaps more likely that people from across and outside the county would visit too. Perched on a hillside, the Hadleigh bench plays radio clips describing picnics and walks across the park. Feeling connected to the speaker and landscape, I shared the views they described of the estuary and Canvey Island below. This overlap creates connections across experiences, across time.

Sometimes, these overlaps can serve to emphasise differences. The first bench I visited was in Chelmsford on a cold morning in February. In a BBC Essex clip from 1992, an optimistic speaker describes the opening of the shopping centre. Sounds of buoyant crowds exploring new shops pin an alternative image over my contemporary view from the bench, the closed shutters of high street restaurants, and wind howling down the shopping streets.

BBC Essex report on the opening of The Meadows shopping centre in Chelmsford, used for the listening bench in Chelmsford (SA 1/1030/1).

Environmental factors pose risks to the benches which they may not face in museums. Some benches suffered a lack of solar-power, and weather can affect engagement in other ways. I visited the benches in the week preceding the arrival of the snow from Siberia, the ‘Beast from the East’ and so Southend Pier was closed, meaning its bench was inaccessible. There is also an enhanced risk of vandalism. The Bowers Gifford bench is located in Westlake Park, behind quiet residential avenues. It sits in silence, solar panel smashed, demonstrating the risk of liberating installations from museums. However, visiting the benches made me reflect on the difference which hosting oral histories outside of the Record Office can have, contributing to an enhanced engagement and alternative interpretation of the sounds and testimonials. The bench in Raphael Park plays a song, ‘’Owd Rat-Tayled Tinker’ in Essex dialect of the 1920s.


The ”Owd Rat Tayled Tinker from ‘Owd Lunnon Town’, sung by J. London in 1906, and used on the touring listening bench while it was at Raphael Park (SA 24/221/1).

Broadcast into the park, it can overlay a range of accents spoken by current park visitors. When I visited, this was most notably a man nearby on his mobile, with an Estuary accent like my own. This accent is associated with Romford and other parts of Essex, and influenced by post-war migration from London, as people moved out into the county.

View of the bench sitting by large oak tree

Touring listening bench in Raphael Park. Copyright Jade Hunter.

My experience of Essex has been shaped by growing up in Thurrock on a suburban council estate close to industrial riverside and the greenery of Rainham Marshes. There are spots where you can see the London skyline, and remain within walking distance of the shopping centre, Lakeside. It’s easy for perceptions of a place to be shaped by media representations, or limited to your own experience of a small section of it. Visiting the benches enabled me to understand more about the variety of landscapes and people that make up Essex, and the ways in which these have changed over time and continue to do so. They made me reflect on those spaces that serve as home to smaller communities, and those which are temporarily shared and experienced by people visiting from elsewhere, the market in Romford, the country park in Hadleigh, and the pier in Southend.


Map of all 18 listening benchesCan you get to all the benches? Please note the touring bench that was in Raphael Park has now moved to outside the Finchingfield Guildhall. The touring bench in Hadleigh Park will shortly be moving to Weald Country Park.

Find out more about the benches and their current locations on our Essex Sounds website. Then share your #benchselfie with us and tell us which is your favourite clip!

A Poem Upon the Ceremonial Opening of Coggeshall’s Listening Bench

As part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we are working with volunteers to install listening benches across Essex. These solar-powered park benches play clips of recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive, recordings chosen and put together by our volunteers. The listening bench for Coggeshall was successfully unveiled on Tuesday 11 July. Each listening bench launch has its own character, but this was the first to include a poetry recital in honour of the bench! We loved the poem so much that we wanted to reprint it, with an introduction by another volunteer to explain how the Coggeshall bench came about.

Miall James writes:

Back in January I went into the Coggeshall Library, and one of the staff asked me if I knew anyone who’d be interested in setting up a Listening Bench. So I asked what it was, was told, and said, OK, I’ll give it a go. I recruited my friend Nic Johnson, a well known, if fairly new in Coggeshall terms, local resident, and together we enlisted the aid of two more, thought that was enough and presented ourselves to the Essex Record Office.

Photograph of volunteers with listening bench

Volunteers who worked on Coggeshall’s listening bench (L-R: Michael Horne, Nic Johnson, Miall James, Stan Haines (who opened the bench), and Sylvie Overnell).

One of the two was Michael Horne, a well-known local historian and poet (and Lord of the Manor of Little Coggeshall), who in fact wrote some of what finally went onto the bench; the other was Sylvie Overnell, a retired local teacher, with local contacts. We looked at what was required, divided up the work and got on with it. There were no arguments; we discussed what to do, agreed and got on with it. Indeed it’s wonderful what can be done if no one’s bothered about who gets the credit! Finally, after about five months’ work we were ready, and the bench was ready for use.

Photograph of Miall James and Stan Haines standing behind listening bench

Miall James with Stan Haines officially ‘opening’ Coggeshall’s listening bench

We recruited Stan Haines, who has lived in the town most of his life, and was Chairman of the Parish Council for 48 years, to officiate at the opening.

The only thing that went wrong was the weather on the day, which wasn’t as kind as it might have been!

We’ve had some very good feedback, and we feel that, with a little fine-tuning, our Listening Bench will be something our fellow citizens can enjoy for many years to come.

Michael Horne’s poem composed for the occasion

A Poem Upon the Ceremonial Opening of Coggeshall’s Listening Bench at Doubleday Corner
11 July 2017

Photograph of Michael Horne in front of bench

Michael Horne reciting his poem

On this occasion so polite,
I can do nothing but endite
A hymn of praise, with joy intense,
To Coggeshall’s newborn Listening Bench.

We’ll take upon us, even now,
An eleemosynary vow
To set up Peace, Goodwill and Sense
Upon our worthy Listening Bench.

The stories that we now can hear
Bring memories back that are so dear
To all who’ve taken up residence
Near Coggeshall’s stalwart Listening Bench.

They speak of pubs and crafts and trades
From days of yore, of men and maids
Who gave our town its eminence,
Preserved now on the Listening Bench.

In times of great austerities,
With caps on pay and a pension squeeze,
When fiscal stocks we must retrench,
We’ll still possess our Listening Bench.

People will come this bench to view
Both in and outside the EU,
And accents Dutch, Peruvian, French
Will echo from our Listening Bench.

So men may come and men may go,
Enslaved by Time’s incessant flow,
But anything of permanence
Will stay within our Listening Bench.

And now I’ll cease these paltry rhymes
Unworthy of these glorious times,
Let’s shout instead, with Power Immense,
Three cheers for Coggeshall’s Listening Bench!

Check our website for details of further listening bench launches, and to keep track of our two touring benches. Can you visit them all?

Map of all 18 listening benches

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Harwich Inspired Youth Action collaborates on listening bench

As part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we have been installing listening benches across the county. These solar-powered park benches have in-built speakers, so at the touch of a button they play back clips of recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive. The clips give an insight into the heritage of the surrounding area, mostly from memories of long-standing residents first recorded as oral history interviews.

We have been working with volunteers from each community where we are installing these benches. With training, the volunteers have listened to relevant material from the Archive; chosen interesting snippets; and edited the audio recordings to create a series of short clips for the bench. They have also decided on the location of the bench and arranged for its installation and unveiling.

Photograph of Harwich listening bench on St Helen's Green

One of these benches is in Harwich, in a picturesque spot on St Helen’s Green looking towards the Treadwheel Crane and the sea beyond. The memories shared on the bench include experiences during the Second World War, visiting the Electric Palace Cinema, and of course the harrowing 1953 floods, such as Bett Calver’s experiences on that dreadful night:

 

The audio for the bench was selected and edited by members of Harwich Inspired Youth Action (HIYA). This group of teens takes on campaigns to improve the town and provide information and activities for other young people. They are supported by Teen Talk Harwich, a valuable information and support centre for the town. Here, two of the volunteers involved with the listening bench project share their thoughts on the experience. First, Brandon says:

We have both given up our own time to help create the sound bench part of the You Are Hear project, which is now located in old Harwich. The You Are Hear project was very interesting, learning about Harwich history with specific fascinating points like the floods, the building of the promenade and so much more. We spent some time picking out and editing the clips we thought would be good to use for the project and had to create 11 minutes of historic memories of the local area. Creating this project we felt not only inspired but also educated, learning about our town’s history. Once the audio was completed we went to the grand revealing of the bench by the mayor and mayoress. I felt proud to have taken my great-nan, who is 95 years old, to be part of the unveiling of the bench and felt I had shared some of her memories growing up in Harwich.

Photograph of Brandon with his family

Brandon with his family on the listening bench. Courtesy of Maria Fowler.

Stephen says:

Although this project took a long time to go through the different clips available, we had the difficult task of choosing the ones that seemed the most informative about Harwich and creating a short 11-minute audio clip with a number of people sharing their memories. I enjoyed meeting the mayor [at the unveiling ceremony], and I feel proud of what we have accomplished. We would hope you all can take the time to go along to sit and listen to the You Are Hear project in Harwich and to feel the same humble connection we did, listening to all the memories people shared over the years about Harwich.

Photograph of Brandon and Stephen holding HLF sign behind listening bench

Brandon and Stephen at the listening bench launch. Courtesy of Maria Fowler.

Read more about Harwich’s listening bench on the You Are Hear website. We are grateful to the HIYA teens for working so hard on the project.

Do you want to be involved with the next round of listening bench installations? We are looking for volunteers from Burnham-on-Crouch, Chelmsford, Clacton-on-Sea, Clavering, Coggeshall, Epping, Galleywood, Harlow, Southend-on-Sea, and Witham. Please get in touch if you can help.

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