Hampstead Heath bench a link to lost brother and dad
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
Scattered across Hampstead Heath are 600 benches – all with a history and their own story to tell.
Idling on the approach to the best view of the capital’s skyline is a slightly tired, battered-looking wooden bench.
On a clear day dozens of tourists might circle the popular spot, which overlooks Parliament Hill running track and bandstand, looking for a seat.
But on a crisp winter morning it is normally Hampstead Heath’s swimming supervisor Paul Jeal who can be found parked on the bench, deep in thought.
The bench was installed as a memorial to his father George, who died of heart disease, and brother Lawrence, who died in a car accident in 2002.
“It overlooks all the places where we lived while growing up and you can see William Ellis School, which we both attended,” said Mr Jeal.
“It’s where we hung around a lot on the Heath. I go up every now and again because it’s a good place to have a think, especially early in the morning when you can see the sun rise.”
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Mr Jeal, 46, and his family moved to a small flat in Dartmouth Park Road when he was just a toddler, before winding up at Lissenden Gardens, Gospel Oak.
As partners in crime Mr Jeal and his younger brother were turfed out of the house of an evening with a couple of quid in their pockets and roamed the Heath, always trying to avoid the dreaded “parkies” who patrolled the beauty spot.
Their father George taught them how to fish and would spend hours playing football and cricket with them on London’s biggest open space.
It came as a bit of a shock when their father George donned the parkies’ brown uniform himself.
Mr Jeal, who is in charge of the Heath’s bathing ponds and lido, recalls: “We used to run away from the parkies because they used to have quite a lot of power back in those days.
“But to have your dad become one of them! We had to rein it in and not mess about so much.”
But his father George died eight years later, aged 55, after a long battle with heart disease. Almost 20 years later Lawrence, 33, was killed in a car crash on his way home from playing rugby in Gloucestershire.
George is buried in Highgate Cemetery opposite Karl Marx’s grave and tourists often stand on his final resting place to get the best snap of the communist’s gravestone.
Lawrence’s ashes were laid under a tree just behind his father’s grave. Despite a ban at the time on installing more benches on the Heath, Mr Jeal managed to secure a spot overlooking all their old haunts, which he – at times reluctantly – has to share with dog walkers, tourists and school pupils.
Mr Jeal, a keen marathon runner, said: “It’s odd when you want to sit there and someone else has taken your spot.
“You often get schoolchildren, who have bunked off, smoking cigarettes there.
“Lawrence would have found that quite funny though – at least it’s being used.”
n Mr Jeal told his story to the Ham&High after taking part in artist Catriona Gray’s project to unpick the hidden secrets of the Heath’s benches.
The Kentish Town artist is looking for a gallery to exhibit her work. For more information or to tell your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org