With Armistice Day just around the corner, it seemed a perfect time to tell you about the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. It is a really beautiful and important place, sad and moving, and a really good location for a visit from the whole family. It’s also remarkably peaceful, with the Rivers Tame and Trent flowing through the site.
The Arboretum was inspired after David Childs, who set it up, visited Arlington Cemetery and the National Arboretum in Washington DC in 1988. John Major, the then Prime Minister, launched an appeal to set up the Arboretum in 1994, even though there was no land or money at the time. It was officially opened in 2001 and is a fine tribute to all the men and women who have laid down their lives for their country.
The Arboretum is set in 150 acres, with over 40,000 trees, over 300 memorials and an abundance of wildlife.
We took a buggy tour round some of the memorials and then walked around by ourselves later. The Arboretum is huge, so a buggy tour is a really good idea, especially if you are with kids, although the land train is another good option. Our guide, Maurice Dodds, used to be in the armed forces himself and he was full of information, driving us to some fascinating memorials and pointing out many more as we whizzed past.
It is really hard to pick out particular memorials as they are all important. However, there was something especially moving about the huge one to those killed in the fighting at Basra in the first Gulf War, as it seemed so recent, while there are many beautiful gardens and marked trees, all of which have their own stories to tell. There are memorials to postal workers and policemen and women, to those who lost their lives during the Northern Irish conflict, in Suez, in Kenya, and the Far East, to Jewish servicemen and women and to those in the special forces. There is a memorial to the Twin Towers and a memorial railway line to those who died setting up the Sumatra Railway, plus a large memorial for those who died in the Falklands, not so very long ago. And of course there are so many more, with new ones added each year, just as (sadly) new names are added to the armed services memorial. You can see a listing here.
The memorials are all very thoughtfully done. The one for the police (The Beat) is an avenue of trees made up of London planes and chestnuts – this is because the first truncheons were made from chestnut trees.
One of the most impressive is made out of glass and stone and is in memory of Naval personnel. It consists of 13 glass panels (which look like sails) representing the oceans of the world. Apparently when the sun shines on them, the tops of the panels create the shadow of a warship on the pavement surrounding them. At the far end there is a panel, in red to represent the setting sun, and it says (of course): “At the going down of the sun, we will remember them.”
One of the most moving areas was definitely the Shot At Dawn Memorial which remembers those 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were shot in the First World War – whether for “cowardice”, desertion, disobeying orders or sleeping at their post. Many were under age.
The memorial is modelled on a 17-year-old, Herbert Burden, who was shot in 1915 at Ypres. His name and all the others are listed on the stakes surrounding the statue.
There is also a beautiful chapel, The Millennium Chapel of Peace and Forgiveness, which is open to people from all faiths – and none. A daily Act of Remembrance takes place each day at 11am – the only place in England where this happens.
It all sounds very sobering, and it was, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t suitable for children – and it’s certainly educational for all ages. Near the Somme memorial there is a reconstruction of a World War One trench, which was full of young children when we visited, all listening intently to actors dressed up as soldiers telling them about their lives. There is also a brand new sensory garden and another children’s woodland area to play in too. There is a lovely cafe and coffee shop on site, but you can also bring a picnic and there is so much space, that even with lots of visitors, you won’t feel crowded.
The Arboretum offers an audio tour which covers 93 of the memorials and there is also a brand new Remembrance Centre. We would really recommend it as it is also very moving, though small, with videos, art and even a way for you to create your own memorial landscape.
The Centre gives explanations and background to the concept of remembrance and the many different ways we can remember, contains interactive displays and a booth for you to record your own memories. There is also a quite magical pathway of leaves, which turns into poppies as you walk through it. Plus visitors to the Remembrance Centre have the audio guide included in their ticket price.
A visit can take you a few hours or a full day, but it truly is a beautiful place which makes you think. There are regular activities and talks (including a daily Shot at Dawn talk at 1.30pm) It is free to enter – although the Remembrance Centre costs £7.50 per adult and £6 for a child aged between 6 and 16. A ticket for a family of four is £20.
Jess says: I enjoyed our visit to the National Memorial Arboretum much more than I expected. Although it was sobering in places, it felt very fitting to honour the inspirational people who have given their lives serving this nation. It also felt like a celebration of their achievements, rather than a grim display. The memorials were beautiful and the stories fascinating – though scary in places. I really liked walking through the trench, and a highlight of mine was going to the exhibition and finding out about different peoples’ experiences serving the country. A main message from the exhibition was to remember all the people who have sacrificed their lives, and I think that this is very important.
Disclosure: We visited the National Memorial Arboretum as part of a trip organised by Enjoy Staffordshire. Our buggy tour and visit to the Remembrance Centre were given to us on a complimentary basis, but all our opinions are, as usual, entirely our own.
While in Staffordshire we had quite a different experience at Drayton Manor theme park – read about that here.