When walking the Victorian stroller pier in Swanage, as Claire and I did a week ago on our Dorset holiday, you could be forgiven for staring at the glorious sea-scapes out towards the Isle of Wight.
But if you can tear yourself away from this beautiful vista for just a second and glance down at the planks you are walking on, you will discover thousands of memorial plaques.
Set out in rows they are each very personal memorials, dedications or private jokes that are helping to pay for the maintenance of this Victorian structure.
The dedications are in the most part very personal and sometimes very touching. Other’s are comical or celebratory. The fact the pier is no longer used for its historical commercial function, (to load paddle steamers with Purbeck stone), and now is predominantly used for the pleasure of taking in sea-views and fresh air, makes the stories even more pertinent in my mind. This is neither a candy-floss and arcade games pier, nor one of busy tourist boat trippers—it is much more sedate for simple pleasures with loved ones or in solitude.
On the day we were there we saw one person cleaning his plaque, which with a sneak glance, revealed itself to be dedicated to his late dog. His current pet, whether a new addition to the family or not, sat patiently by his side. After he had finished polishing the brass, he tearfully hugged his four-legged companion in what was a truly touching sight. Our thoughts immediately went out to him, having lost so many pets ourselves over the years. While we might not choose to show our emotions so publicly, we certainly know the feelings this man must have been experiencing—that rawness of losing a loved one, whether human or animal, was bought home to us again in that instance.
I became fascinated with memorial benches a few years ago after I started to study them on a visit to Felixstowe, (see Flickr set here). I had previously not given these little brass rectangles much thought. But on this Felixstowe visit I saw a silver haired woman sitting on a bench staring out to sea and a realisation hit me: she may have sat there many times before with her partner. I suddenly felt the sense of loss I assumed she was feeling—all she had left was to sit there alone, remembering their life together. Obviously this is something I laid on top of what I was witnessing, and this may not have been her personal situation at all. But whether it was the truth or not, I was hit by how important such memorials could be in helping to remember the past, to respect departed loved ones, or simply to spend some personal time reflecting on life. Since then I have always taken the time to read an inscription on a bench whenever I come across one, weaving in my own voyeuristic narrative onto someone else’s personal experience recorded in such a public way. Walking up Swanage Pier I found myself doing exactly the same.
On Swanage Pier though, it is amazing the amount of different stories that present themselves to you as you stare down at the woodwork. What makes them so poignant is that they are tales that are common to all of us—we can appreciate the emotions attached as we relate these messages to our own experiences. Marriages, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays, dogs, friends, family, football teams, and private jokes that will remain lost to everyone else but those who bought the plaque. The sense of loss, celebration or the joy of a private joke creates an all embracing sense of humanity and that we aren’t all so different from each other.
There are even celebrities represented; this plaque from a BBC’s Britain At Risk programme made in 2011, (the B signifies the row, helping people to find their plaque), has John Craven and Jules Hudson leaving a dedication.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find a video online of Britain at Risk to link here. However, I did find this fascinating documentary about the pier that features a 4 minute section purely about the plaques. It interviews the ‘plaque warden’ and some of the people who have bought them talking about their stories, and is well worth a watch.
So if you find yourself in the Purbeck area of Dorset, do take time out to visit Swanage Pier and read some of the messages beneath your feet. Touching and amusing alike, collectively they are themselves a memorial to the human need for reflection and remembrance. And if Claire and I have decided what we want on the plaque we’re planning to buy by then, you can search out ours and tweet me a picture.