Sometimes you randomly fall upon little gems which you enjoy and are so glad to have added to your life. This may happen when you’re walking down the street on holiday (we fell in love with the Bewdley Museum while away in Shropshire) at home (it was such fun to see Cleopatra’s Needle with the children when we walked along the Thames a few weeks back) or even at a wedding!
We spent the weekend in Eastbourne where we were delighted to watch some friends get hitched. The following day we had a bracing walk by the sea, although it was so windy, we were scared we might actually be blown off the pier.
The seafront is lovely to walk along, but we decided to stop when we came upon the Pavilion and saw that it was not only offering the possibility of cakes and hot drinks, but also a free exhibition. We were intrigued.
The exhibition was about Summerdown Camp, which was the first purpose-built convalescent camp for the wounded soldiers of World War I. It opened in April 1915 and was ahead of its time in the way it dealt with its patients, including the use of pioneering treatments such as massage.
The camp could hold 3,500 men at any one time and became hugely important in Eastbourne during the war. In fact, over 150,000 men were treated there.
Summerdown was clearly a place which wanted to help these men, who had seen such dreadful things happening in front of their eyes. Some were treated for physical wounds, but others for shell-shock and psychological conditions.
The men were encouraged to take up practical skills like gardening and basket-weaving and we were fascinated to see an example of the baskets that they made – and find out that this may, in fact, have been where the phrase “basket case” came from. Of course, it means someone who is emotionally unstable, like many of the men at the camp.
The exhibition is small, but leaves its mark. It includes postcards from soldiers (there’s a beautiful example of an embroidered one which one man sent to his wife), keepsakes, examples of the kinds of things the men made while they were there, and also some personal stories which are very moving. Some are really tragic, including letters sent to his family by one soldier who clearly found it very hard to live with the sights he had seen in France.
There are worksheets for children, with stamps to fill in, some uniforms and caps to try on and a fiendish puzzle to try and solve. There’s also a lot to be learnt (do you know what it meant if it was “the king’s birthday?”. Well, it means pay day was here!)
The soldiers at the camp were known as “Blueboys” because of the uniform they had to wear. They must have been a common sight around the town and a constant reminder of the war which was raging in Europe. They also formed their own band and put on performances.
The exhibition is open every day and is a beautifully done, very accessible way to learn about one aspect of the war and open up conversations about others. It closed in 1920, but it must have done vital work. Even if, sadly, its ultimate aim was to get the injured inmates well enough to go back to the front-line. Eighty per cent of the inmates recovered sufficiently enough to return to battle.
The Summerdown Camp exhibition is on at the Pavilion in Eastbourne until November. Entry is free. And yes, it is also home to a cafe which serves some delicious cakes!