Friday, 12 August 2011
From a Muddy Field to a Memorial
Some of the more ‘domestic’ gardens are really touching, like the Golden Grove, packed with golden coloured plants, a celebration by couples who married at the end of the Second World War and dedicated trees to mark their 50th wedding anniversary, or the edging of decorated pebbles forming a tribute from the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society.
It’s impossible to mention all the monuments, but some will stick in my memory. The Fleet Air Arm have installed a sculpted ship, while the Women’s Royal Naval Service have put up a carved wooden wren, and the Suez Veterans’ plot features palm trees and a ‘canal’ of blue stone chippings.
An avenue of chestnuts has been planted by Police forces from all over the UK, symbolising the chestnut wood truncheons carried by the early law enforcers, and there’s a further link with the past as some trees were gown from conkers gathered at Drayton Manor, once the home of police founder Sir Robert Peel. Lifeboat crews are remembered at a wild shingle ‘beach’ where coastal flowers scramble across the stones, while nearby is a wood dedicated to the Merchant Navy convoys, where 2,535 oak trees represent 2,535 ships lost during World War Two. Consider how many men served aboard each vessel and the death toll is unimaginable.
Equally moving is the Far East Prisoners of War Memorial building with its exhibition on the men women and children held by the Japanese. Like many people, I’ve seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Tenko, and read A Town Called Alice and history books on this aspect of the war, but nothing, absolutely nothing, prepares you for the full horror of the cruelty and inhumanity inflicted on the prisoners, and the photos, sketches, relics and memories stunned visitors to silence and moved some to tears.
The high point (literally) of any visit to the Arboretum is the Armed Forces Memorial commemorating all the servicemen and women who have been killed since the end of the Second World War. Designed by Liam O'Connor, it stands on top of a mound redolent of prehistoric barrows. As you gaze up, the two curved walls and the trees planted around the two-tiered hill are reminiscent of ancient standing stones, while a gold-topped obelisk points the way to a brighter future. Within the circling walls are two straight walls, and within those is a bronze wreath and two bronze sculptures.
With its banks of poppies and crosses at the base, the scale of the walls where the names of the dead servicemen and women are inscribed is monumental, and it comes as a shock to realise how much space is left, and how many names are likely to be added in the years ahead. It is such a shame the nations of the world can't find it in their hearts to live in peace.
All this may sound a little grim, but it’s not. The arboretum is very tranquil, and very moving but also very uplifting, and it doesn’t glorify war in any way. Its theme could almost be that of Wilfred Owen, who said: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."