“The most frequent comment is how spiritually uplifting it is. It’s a living place,” says Andrew Baud, of the National Memorial Arboretum.
Situated in the heart of the country, in Alrewas, Staffordshire, the beautiful memorial park is the focal point for the nation’s Act of Remembrance on Armistice Day.
Here, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, shards of sunlight pierce through the outer wall of its spectacular Armed Forces Memorial and illuminate the bronze wreath at its centre. Names are added annually to its giant Portland stone walls.
We will remember them: The Armed Forces Memorial's roll of honour. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum
Supported by hundreds of volunteers and part of the Royal British Legion, the National Memorial Arboretum is also the place where hundreds of charities, bereaved families and veterans hold their own special memorial ceremonies throughout the year.
Each of its striking memorials tells a story. There are already more than 350 to be discovered here and by the end of this year, a further 20 will be dedicated in memory of those who have served, those who have sacrificed and those who have suffered.
Wreath-laying at the Armed Forces Memorial. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum
Many stories will deeply move you, but the National Memorial Arboretum is also a place where people can savour the joy of living, thanks to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“It’s not a sad place at all,” says Andrew. “It’s not a cemetery, but a place of life, represented by the 30,000 trees planted here. It’s a place where older and younger generations alike can wander and wonder.”
Ice cream and sunshine at the National Memorial Arboretum. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum
Hundreds of thousands of visitors come every year to walk or voyage by land train and marvel at the stunning sculptures and memorials amidst the trees, wildflowers, slopes and gentle vales of this beautiful 150-acre parkland.
From dramatic stone edifices and towering bronze statues, to twisted wood and ribbons of rainbow glass, each memorial is dedicated to people who were valued, significant and loved, no matter how long or short their lives.
The Naval Services Memorial. Picture David Dixon/Ceative Commons
Paying tribute to those who fought, sailed or flew for the nation, as well as members of the emergency services, the memorials also mark the lives of loved ones and little ones, lost to tragedy or illness that charities are battling to prevent.
The Arboretum is a place for remembering heroism, but also the people who were once held close in someone’s arms, shared a joke, a pint, a confidence, made someone laugh, or their heart sing.
Bikers 'Ride to the Wall' every October. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum
It is a space for those who wish to reflect in quiet contemplation, while in early October, the atmosphere thrums with sound of engines, as hundreds of bikers make their annual Ride to the Wall run to attend a service dedicated to the Armed Forces.
Here at the National Memorial Arboretum, people meet up with old friends, make new ones, reminisce, picnic and play. Regular community and social events are held, from dementia-friendly memory cafes, to sensory play sessions, guided walks, concerts and talks.
Activities held at the National Memorial Arboretum can help children learn about the past. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum
“I was speaking to a lady who turned the first sod for the Armed Forces Memorial, which was dedicated 10 years ago,” says Andrew. “She said that in a way, the memorial’s become a living thing, because it’s created its own community who enjoy coming here on a regular basis.”
A daily Service of Remembrance is held at 11am at the National Memorial Arboretum’s chapel, while at its new Remembrance Centre – officially opened earlier this year by the Duke of Cambridge – there’s the chance for everyone to learn more about the fascinating stories behind each monument.
Prince William opened the National Memorial Arboretum's Remembrance Centre. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum
Youngsters are encouraged to pond-dip and to explore a specially-built facsimile of a First World War trench, while a garden of remembrance created by childhood and family bereavement charity Edward’s Trust is among a host of child-friendly outdoor spaces.
Astonishingly, just 20 years ago, this jewel in the heart of the country was a flood-prone patch of former quarry land, amid a tangle of busy arterial roads and industrial sites.
The National Memorial Arboterum has created habitats perfect for pond-dipping. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum
It was following a visit in the early 1990s to Arlington, America’s most famous national military cemetery, that the National Memorial Arboretum’s founder, Commander David Childs CBE, was inspired to create a national place of focus for remembrance. His good friend, the late Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC – founder of the famous disability living charity that bears his name – was an early supporter.
“They thought there was no equivalent for people who have paid the ultimate price, here in the UK,” explains Andrew. “Although there are lots of memorials around the country, there was no focal point.”
The annual Service of Tribute held on Armed Forces Day, June 24. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum
The national memorial park for Britain began with the backing of then Prime Minister John Major in 1994. The land was secured from owner Tarmac on a 999-year lease for a peppercorn rent, while a National Forests project to re-wood that part of the Midlands led to a donation of tens of thousands of native trees, as well as other show-stopping species gifted by other arboretums.
“The planting is incredibly well-thought-out,” says Andrew. “Everything from the colours of the foliage to the colour of the fruits are representative and symbolic.”
This September marks the 20th anniversary since the spade-work began to create the arboretum, which opened its doors to the public in March 2001. As part of its legacy to the nation there is no charge to visit, although donations help support its running costs.
Even the restaurant looks like a work of art. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum
While the Royal British Legion is the parent charity of the National Memorial Arboretum, each memorial that has been built there has been supported by individual groups and organisations. They must first put their proposals before the Arboretum’s deciding committee, who tend to approve of bold and fearless designs.
“We have not put up a single monument ourselves,” explains Andrew. “A group or regiment will form an organising committee and fundraise for each project. It’s important that the memorials have artistic merit – in fact, the deciding committee will often urge groups proposing a monument to be bolder, bigger, or braver.
“As well as memorials in their own right, they have to engage with visitors who may not be familiar with that period of history, so they have to tell a story.”
Birmingham Children's Hospital's sculptures represent journeys through grief. Picture: Elliot Brown/Flickr
One profound story, depicted in stone and timber and dedicated in 2001, is Shot at Dawn. It’s a towering sculpture of a blindfolded youth in an Army greatcoat, awaiting execution. He stands with his hands tied behind his back, at the head of serried ranks of wooden stakes.
The statue is of Private Herbert Burden, shot for ‘cowardice’ in the Great War, aged just 17. The 306 stakes each bear the name of someone who was also similarly executed.
Shot at Dawn. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum*
Herbert’s story was uncovered by Janet Booth when she was researching the life of her grandfather Harry Parr, who was among the men that were executed. Janet led a successful campaign to win an official pardon for the men, many of whom would be likely to have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder today.
“Shot at Dawn was a controversial monument at the time when there was still a lot of sentiment against those shot for cowardice,” says Andrew.
“The memorial was a part of the campaign to secure pardons for those executed. One of the thing that strikes you is that it says ‘age unknown’ on so many of the posts, because so many of them signed up to fight underage. They were teenage boys, in fact.”
Young visitors explore a replica First World War trench at the arboretum. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum
Most recently at the Arboretum, the British Evacuees Association unveiled its monument to the children and other people affected by the upheaval they endured as cities were evacuated and families separated, during the Second World War.
The memorial, Every Which Way, by sculptor Maurice Blik, depicts a row of nine children holding hands for comfort, each with small bundles of belongings and a gas mask slung around their necks.
Sculptor Maurice Blik, left, and HRH The Duke of Gloucester. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum
“It’s a really striking memorial which very much embodies what we are trying to achieve,” says Andrew.
He adds that whatever the circumstances you wish to remember, the Arboretum’s deciding committee is open to approaches from any group that has a proposed monument in mind.
One such example is the Donor Family Network, which supports bereaved families whose loved ones became organ or tissue donors after their death. Last year it unveiled a memorial sculpture, Gift of Life, depicting its beautiful butterfly logo.
The Showman's Guild has a carousel horse standing sentry. Picture: Elliot Brown/Flickr
A granite roll of honour naming those from the Showman’s Guild who served and died in the two World Wars, has a colourful carousel horse standing sentry by it, while a vintage green post box is the focal point of the Postal Workers memorial garden.
Members of the public can also remember loved ones individually at the National Memorial Arboretum. People have dedicated stepping stones, trees in their thousands and around 250 park benches in restful spots around the grounds.
The trees mark the turning of the seasons at the National Memorial Arboretum. Picture © National Memorial Arboretum
Andrew hopes that visitor numbers to the National Memorial Arboretum will soon increase to half a million annually and that people will continue to rally together and dedicate memorials to the mourned, the missed and the much-loved.
“We have plenty of space for more, in among the trees,” he says. “A lot of people have a real connection with the place.”