‘An invasion of personal space. Smelled of stale urine. Not a single redeeming feature here.’
It sounds like the aftermath of the world’s worst first date – but it’s actually a description I gave to a particularly offensive bench.
You see, while some people on the dating scene might give the opposite sex marks out of 10, I prefer to reserve those kind of judgements for public seating (and in case you’re wondering, the aforementioned bench scored a lowly 1/10, purely for its existence).
I’ve been running my social media account @ratethisbench for three years now, and in that time I reckon I’ve rated over 260 benches.
It all started on a woodland walk with some uni friends in Caswell Bay in June 2019. We stopped to rest on a particularly nice bench (wooden seating, blue armrests and a great view) and soon I was waxing lyrical about it – cue some gentle mickey taking from my mates.
One of them took a photo of me on the bench and suggested I start an Instagram account rating them.
‘Why not?’ I laughed, rising to the challenge. We snapped a couple more benches that day and @ratethisbench was born. But what started as a joke soon gained momentum – people were really into it and I got loads of positive comments, garnering over 15,000 followers along the way.
Over time, the more benches I sat on, the more I realised how something that seems quite mundane can actually be really special. Benches remind us to take a seat, take a breather and ponder life.
I got so into it that I added it to my dating profile on Bumble, telling prospective love interests ‘I rate benches’. It turned out to be a bit of a conversation starter.
One girl, Sophie Bailey, 25, got completely the wrong end of the stick. We’d been exchanging a bit of banter, and I told her I welcomed guest ratings on my page.
The next thing I knew she’d sent me a rating… of myself!
‘Nice guy, 5/5, really setting the benchmark.’
I had to chuckle at the pun. This girl was obviously up for a laugh, so I found myself suggesting a trip to an arcade.
As we bonded over the 2p slot machines in November 2019, I told Sophie a little more about my bench rating. I suppose some women might have found it a bit strange but she seemed genuinely intrigued.
I explained that I like to give each bench a mark out of 10, and there’s quite a complex system of assessment.
I award up to three marks for the view, a mark for a concrete base because it stops feet getting muddy when it rains, a mark for curvature of seat, a mark for back support, a mark for the material it’s made of (I prefer wood to metal because it’s more comfortable and often drier to sit on), a mark for arm rests and a mark for a plaque or dedication.
‘So what about the tenth mark?’ asked Sophie.
Our date was turning into a 10/10, but I was too shy to say that, so I told her the elusive tenth mark I was looking for was the wow factor.
Of course, benches can have marks deducted too. I penalise them for graffiti or vandalism, not having a back rest or being too close to a bin, which can make the experience a bit smelly.
My pet hate is so-called ‘hostile benches’, usually fitted by councils in town centres with individual seat dividers.
They stop people lying down, to prevent rough sleepers, but they also make it hard to relax or put your arm around a companion. They go against the very ethos of what a bench should be – a welcoming space to take a breather.
It was actually our fourth date before we sat on a bench together. We’d been to a drag show in Bristol and afterwards went to sit on a bench in Millennium Square.
‘Let me take your photo for Instagram,’ Sophie offered, consulting my page to get my usual format right.
We agreed it was a good bench – it had a solar panel so you could charge a phone from a USB port, which is quite unusual.
A couple of dates later we went for a high tea, and sitting on a bench beside a lake afterwards I officially asked her to be my girlfriend.
Rating benches turned out to be a brilliant way to date. We spent our weekends chasing tips from followers of my account, checking out benches in picturesque locations.
Admiring the view, with a coffee or ice cream in hand, we got to know each other. Benches are a great place for conversation because they’re neutral and you’re sitting side by side.
And when the pandemic hit, with all of its various restrictions, benches became one of the few places friends could still meet outdoors. It made me upset to see some authorities taping them off.
Now, Sophie’s the woman behind the camera on my Instagram. She’ll snap a photo of me sitting on a bench, looking thoughtful, and then take a seat by my side as we contemplate together what rating we’re going to give it.
We’re normally in agreement, she usually backs my criteria, and helps me scout for new benches too. For Sophie a good view is the most important feature – she loves a sea view most of all. In fact, we joke that a good view of the ocean can make up for a very bad bench.
My favourite bench to date is a fairly standard wooden bench at St John the Baptist churchyard in Old Sodbury.
To review this bench we had to wait our turn behind another courting couple who were enjoying the spectacular view, but it was well worth it – 9/10.
Last month I even got a tattoo on my leg of it – marking myself as a bench man for life. Luckily Sophie really liked it.
I’m still looking for that elusive 10/10 bench – but I’ve definitely found my 10/10 girl.
As told to Jade Beecroft
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