The 'natter benches' sparking conversation in Yorkshire to tackle loneliness

There is a motion in loneliness emerging in Yorkshire, centered around the simple act of conversation.

Some are called natter benches, others happy benches. But as they begin to crop up in parks and towns across the country, they are all to inspire the same thing. To encourage people to talk.

In a society where we increasingly hide behind screens, say campaigners, there is something to celebrate in a little human interaction.

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"We do need that contact," said mother Lisa Bourne, from Yeadon in Leeds. "A smile, just a response to our needs.

Lisa Bourne, looking to launch a 'natter bench' in Guiseley's Nunroyd Park. Image: Gary Longbottom.Lisa Bourne, looking to launch a 'natter bench' in Guiseley's Nunroyd Park. Image: Gary Longbottom.
Lisa Bourne, looking to launch a 'natter bench' in Guiseley's Nunroyd Park. Image: Gary Longbottom. | jpimedia

"The message is a really important one. It's about saying 'yes, we need to talk more', and that people are safe to talk about mental health issues in our town."

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The notion of a safe space isn't a new one, forming the foundation for village halls, pubs, and clubs at the heart of every community.

Now it's turned to parks and open spaces. There are numerous 'happy to talk' benches now in Bradford, while York Museum's Trust has one in its grounds.

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Lisa Bourne, looking to launch a 'natter bench' in Guiseley's Nunroyd Park. Image: Gary Longbottom.Lisa Bourne, looking to launch a 'natter bench' in Guiseley's Nunroyd Park. Image: Gary Longbottom.
Lisa Bourne, looking to launch a 'natter bench' in Guiseley's Nunroyd Park. Image: Gary Longbottom. | jpimedia

Rotherham Council has just opened one in the grounds of St Leonard's Church.

Mrs Bourne, a mother to toddler Charlie, three, as well as a mental health campaigner, is fundraising for one in the grounds of Guiseley's Nunroyd Park.

"A natter bench is a bench where people can go when they want to talk, and it's really obvious what it's for," she says.

"It's to encourage conversation, to reduce social isolation. It's really important that we have something in the community, that is a permanent feature, specifically for those things."

Lisa Bourne, looking to launch a 'natter bench' in Guiseley's Nunroyd Park. Image: Gary Longbottom.Lisa Bourne, looking to launch a 'natter bench' in Guiseley's Nunroyd Park. Image: Gary Longbottom.
Lisa Bourne, looking to launch a 'natter bench' in Guiseley's Nunroyd Park. Image: Gary Longbottom. | jpimedia

Sparking a conversation

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There are studies about the impact of fresh air, on health and wellbeing. Spending just 20 minutes in a city park can make you happier, research has shown.

But when it comes to loneliness, there are more worrying figures. It can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is more damaging than obesity.

Mrs Bourne, who lost a very dear friend to suicide, said it's just about sparking a conversation.

"He was going through a really hard time, he was in crisis, and I didn't know," she said. "I want to make sure that we do have that conversation, that he and I didn't have.

"That we are talking, to save lives."

Across the generations

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Mrs Bourne, trustee and director of Leeds Survivor-Led Crisis, is also a volunteer with the city's bereavement services, leading its Christmas memorials as a humanist celebrant.

She also founded a series of mental health meet-ups in the city, from board game days at Abbey House Museum to ladies' singing sessions, a book swap, and bhangra dancing.

"Human contact, rather than being stuck behind a screen, makes you more happy," she said. "Being outside is good for your mental health.

"It's important that we reconnect," she adds. "Especially when, with something like a bench in a park, it's good for different generations.

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"Not everyone has access to a computer - not everybody wants access to a computer. But having a bench in a park, that's for anyone to use, of any age, any background.

"And I do think people can feel lonely, even if they're not alone."

Council space in Rotherham

A bench in Dinnington just launched is the first in the area to be designated a natter space for those in need.

St Leonards Church and Rotherham Council have worked together to convert the bench within the church grounds.

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Some people may go days or even weeks without any human contact, the council says.

Coun David Roche, cabinet member for public health at Rotherham Council said: “The idea of the Happy to Chat bench is to break down social barriers, such as isolation, and allow residents to all say 'hello'.

"Figures from Age UK show that one in 12 people over the age of 50 feel lonely – that’s about 1.4m people in total which is a staggering amount, especially as this is only one section of the population.

"Loneliness affects people of all ages and can have devastating results."

A crowdfunder has been launched to raise sums towards a natter bench at Guiseley's Nunroyd Park - click here to find out more.