A year in the life of Mike's Bench at Stanley Park

Gazette reporter Shelagh Parkinson,  Pat Bracewell, Alison Bott, Haidee Wilson,  Elizabeth and Iain Lynn celebrating the launch of the Mikes Bench in 'September 2017.
Gazette reporter Shelagh Parkinson, Pat Bracewell, Alison Bott, Haidee Wilson, Elizabeth and Iain Lynn celebrating the launch of the Mikes Bench in 'September 2017.

Benches are a place where someone can take the weight off their feet, have a break and watch the world go by – but one in Blackpool has become much more.

It is now a focal point of a “unique and wonderful” exhibition celebrating the life of a Lancashire photographer.

Elizabeth Gomm on Mikes Bench in Stanley Park.

Elizabeth Gomm on Mikes Bench in Stanley Park.

Following the death of her partner Mike Foster last year, former Gazette women’s editor Elizabeth Gomm decided to dedicate a bench in his memory in Stanley Park.

Rather than just attach a plaque to remember press photographer Mike, Elizabeth posted a sign on the bench inviting people to send her photographs of them sitting on it.

And after 12 months Elizabeth has received more than 300 photographs, ranging from pictures of happy families, day-trippers, dog walkers and their photogenic pooches to new-born babies and even a jogger in a Santa suit.

The snapshots from people across the UK will now feature in a special exhibition, ‘A Year in the Life of Mike’s Bench’, at Stanley Park’s visitor centre.

Janet Currey from Hambleton captured this image of her daughter and grandchildren on Mikes Bench on a cold December day.

Janet Currey from Hambleton captured this image of her daughter and grandchildren on Mikes Bench on a cold December day.

Elizabeth, 69, said: “This started out as a simple memorial for Mike but has turned into so much more.

“I gave the bench its own email address and asked people to send in their pictures. I thought I’d be lucky to get a handful, but I’ve had more than 300.

“That’s without any social media or publicity, just from people caring enough to engage with my little sign.”

Elizabeth, who worked at The Gazette for 26 years, said the pictures include people of all ages from a baby on her first trip to the park to a lady of 100, as well as “dogs of all kinds”, teddy bears, a fluffy seal and a runner in a Santa suit.

Julie Swifts picture is of ladies from Ansdell and Fairhaven WI enjoying a break on Mikes bench during a WI treasure hunt last October.

Julie Swifts picture is of ladies from Ansdell and Fairhaven WI enjoying a break on Mikes bench during a WI treasure hunt last October.

She added: “Many of the pictures have wonderful back stories telling of why the sender had been in the park that day – WI ladies on a treasure hunt, visitors to Blackpool Lights, families united for special events, some happy, some sad.

“It feels as though I’ve been sitting on the bench and someone has come to sit beside me and shared their story. I feel immensely privileged that they have cared enough to give me a glimpse into their lives, and to the life of Mike’s bench.”

Elizabeth and Mike, who worked together on the Blackpool Gazette, lived together for 25 years.

Elizabeth added: “Mike bought me a camera, and when he couldn’t go out with his own camera because of his illness, I would go into the park with mine, take some pictures and show him when I got home.

The late Mike Foster.

The late Mike Foster.

“He’d tell me what I was doing right and how I could do better. He was very encouraging and turned my new hobby into a passion. He was proud of the pictures I was taking.”

Mike, who worked at The Gazette from 1980 until his retirement in 2012, died of cancer in May, last year.

During his time at The Gazette, he rose to the position of deputy chief photographer,and on retirement was North West deputy picture editor.

Elizabeth thought of the bench idea after spending time in the park with her camera.

She said: “When he died, my daily walks in the park, photographing the wildlife, became my solace. It was then I decided to buy a bench. I thought it would be good to have a place me and my family could enjoy, but also something that others could enjoy too.

“As I always read memorial plaques on benches, I knew other people would too, so I was curious to find a way of knowing who would use Mike’s bench.

“As far as I can find out there’s never been an exhibition like this charting a year in the life of a park bench, with contributed photographs.

“What makes A Year in the Life of Mike’s Bench Exhibition special is that every picture is from a different person and a different perspective across the seasons. It’s unique and wonderful.

“Because of the very nature of Blackpool as a holiday resort there are pictures from all parts of the country and the world.

“Stanley Park holds the crown as the Fields In Trust Best Park in the UK and is beautifully kept. It brings pleasure to so many local people and visitors.

“I am deeply grateful to the Friends of Stanley Park for allowing me use of the park visitor centre for my exhibition in October.”

“I am also grateful to those who have sponsored and supported this project and to my wonderful friends who have helped me take it from an idea to an exhibition.”

Elaine Smith, chairman of the Friends of Stanley Park, said: “We think it’s marvellous what Elizabeth has done and we have supported her all the way.

“We have been doing everything we can to help and it will be great to see all of the photographs as part of the exhibition, which has certainly brought a new aspect to the park and is something different altogether.”

A Year in the Life of Mike’s Bench will be on view at the visitor centre at Stanley Park, on West Park Drive, from October 4 to 24.

Admission will be free and it will be open Tuesday to Sunday from 11am to 3pm, apart from October 9 when it will be closed.