The man behind the Tunbridge Wells ‘buddi bench’ that has got strangers talking

The man behind the “buddi bench” in a Tunbridge Wells park has spoken candidly about what he hopes it will achieve and why he wanted to do it. Seth Hunter, 46, who lives in the town, paid £900 for the bench in Calverley Grounds after going to Tunbridge Wells Borough Council with his idea.

He said the purpose of the seat, which was officially launched on Sunday (May 15), is for people to have 10 minute chats with strangers and to feel better from the interaction. Kent Live went to the bench for a 10 minute interview with Seth to find out more.

“I moved to Tunbridge Wells before Covid. I worked from home and didn’t really know anyone. My sister lives here. But I was a bit isolated. What I really wanted was lots of short chats.”

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“I didn’t want hours of intensity. I have done that in other jobs. I just wanted to talk about the weather and share one nugget, like ‘have you seen this film, read this book?’

“I got a puppy about 10 months ago, May, and it is like membership of a club you didn’t know existed. No dog walker walks past without saying hello. I thought, this is nice. The key to the success of the bench is you have a ramp on and a ramp off.”

“Sitting on the bench gives people permission to talk to you, ramp on. The ramp off is, you may not want to talk longer than 10 minutes, so you can say ‘got to go, the cleaners coming’ or something. Ramp off,” said Seth, whose parents gave him his unusual name because when they lived in Boulder, Colorado it was as familiar as “John or Michael” said Seth.

Seth has a fascinating background and although modest, is clearly used to helping others – and it’s in his DNA. His mother Margaret Smallbone is a child psychotherapist and his sister, Natascha Fulford, a specialist teacher for children with learning difficulties.

Seth Hunter and his springer spaniel pup May, lives in Tunbridge Wells and has brought the 'buddi bench' to a park in the town
Seth Hunter and his springer spaniel pup May, lives in Tunbridge Wells and has brought the ‘buddi bench’ to a park in the town

His father, who was a social worker manager, “a really good guy” was diagnosed with what was then called manic depression and also had addiction issues. Sadly he took his own life, something which has made Seth sensitive to others’ well-being. Seth worked for charity Centrepoint from the age of 18 and ran homeless shelters including the 80-bed one in Convent Garden and he also co-founded and managed The Dragon Café in Southwark, which is described in its website as a “highly effective creative and social antidote to loneliness and isolation”.

He said running shelters was “heavy” because of some of the issues in the capital. Now, with “some savings”, he wants to help others as an individual, which gives him freedom to work on his own projects, such as his first buddi bench.

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The bench is solid “sustainably sourced” oak with hand-chiselled lettering. His attention to every detail is obvious when the ‘friendly’ font was pointed out – “it’s sanscript” he said, running his fingers along the carving.

He’s a big character but he said he doesn’t want the bench to be the “Seth show”. In fact, he admitted, despite appearances, he can find long interactions anxiety-inducing and sometimes tiring.

Fessing up to loneliness

When Kent Live visited the bench, it was clear people are drawn to him, as during our interview many people stopped for a chat. Seth intends to be on the bench – for a 10 minute chat of course – for an hour a day for the rest of May, for now it is 12noon to 1pm, but he may do a 7 – 8am slot and an evening slot, in a bid to talk to different people.

Then he will decide how best to proceed. “I want to destigmatise the need to talk to people. That need knows no class, age, race. You don’t even need to feel lonely to want to chat – we are pack animals. We want to interact.”

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t fess up they want to talk about something. Sometimes it can be easier to talk about something to a random stranger. It’s that neutrality. You might never see them again,” said Seth, who said he has “fantastic” friends and family.

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Because of his previous work with charities and vulnerable people, he is well aware of safe-guarding issues, so the bench is aimed at adults. He is not “massively into” social media, preferring to see with people face-to-face. He is also not a fan of some of the behaviour on such platforms.

“I don’t think it necessarily encourages people to be kind. Why would I put myself through that? So 50 people can say something hurtful? I would rather focus on what we have in common than what we may have as differences,” he said.

He said during his first hour-long sessions, he has chatted to about five people each day. “I am getting in the swing of it. My analogy is, no-one wants to be the first person on the dancefloor. I am terrified of dancing. You might not think it, but I am.

“No-one wants to be the first but when they do, everyone else gets up. I am the first person on the dancefloor here, on this bench, but I want to encourage everyone to get up for a boogie!” he said.

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Article Source: Kent Live