The other day I was asked (not for the first time) why Berwick has so many benches with brackets in the form of a snake (or serpent if you want a more antiquarian term!)
Snakes on Parade!
And not for the first time I replied that I hadn’t a clue.
But it was a slow day so I thought I’d try to find out. I knew the Town Council still ordered them so asked where from and was told it was a firm in Billington called Logic. A phone call to them revealed that they had only started doing them about ten years ago and that Berwick wasn’t the only town they supplied that style to. Harrogate was a popular customer.
Serpent bench in Harrogate.
And indeed it is. According to the Friends of Valley Park it is because of Harrogate being a spa town and Asclepius, the Greek god of health and medicine had a staff with a snake entwined around it. It is this symbol that is still used by the medical professions today.
Statue outside Berwick Infirmary dedicated to the memory of Dr Philip Whiteside MacLagan who died in 1895. The statue is of Hygieia the goddess of health and, in mythology, the daughter of Asclepius. Note the snake wrapped around the pillar to her side.
However, the good people of Harrogate are probably unaware of the serpent bench design being used elsewhere. For places like Berwick there is no connection with health, nor is there any other “local snake mythology” that could account for the design being chosen.
The reality is that it was just one of many cast iron designs that were made in the 19th century and the North Eastern Railway standardised the benches on their stations by using this particular design. (Thanks to George Moffat for this via the Facebook site Forgotten Berwick.)
North Eastern Railway benches in what was Alnwick railway station.
These were bought from the Ballantine Iron Company in Bo’ness (who still manufacture them and sell them via firms such as Logic).
In the early 1960s many of the region’s branch lines and smaller stations on the main East Coast line were closed and it seems Berwick Council basically just acquired a job lot of them.
So, another example of a tradition that may not be so traditional but we love our serpent benches just the ssssssame.
I stand corrected! This piece was the inspiration for Stehanie Misa’s Grandstand art installation at the Gymnasium Gallery – http://grandstand2014.tumblr.com
She was inspired by the tiered seating at Fisher’s Fort and came across photos of the walls and Spittal promenade showing snake benches in the 1920s. So while a job lot may have been acquired after the Beeching cuts it would appear they’ve been here a lot longer.