Research and visit a piece of public art and also 20th Century buildings

img_3525For this final visit I could have done two separate blogs but decided to combine both due to the sculptures and literally brand newly opened visitor centre at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. I appreciate the Visitor Centre is not a 20th Century building and is 21st Century but for me it is the obvious choice for this visit.

The reason I decided on the Arboretum was the fact that it is an important place of pilgrimage and remembrance for so many people in the UK – from the Armed Forces to the RNLI, the conflicts of past and present as well as to organisations such as SANDS and bereaved parents … it is literally a place for everyone and rather than having a sombre feel it is uplifting in its peaceful atmosphere and what makes this area even more beautiful is the friendliness of all who work there or visit.

Every memorial at the Arborteum is unique and individually designed and commissioned and they vary from very traditional bronze statues to contemporary and abstract but each is fitting and appropriate to the association or regiment or charity it represents.  Some of the early memorials are simple brick constructions but I have been informed that these may gradually be replaced.

img_2206There are over 330 memorials throughout the 150 acre site including the main Armed Forces Memorial which is currently undergoing maintenance work.

My overall favourite  is the Naval Service Memorial and perhaps this is because I am the daughter of an army captain but born in a naval port.

This memorial was commissioned by the Royal Naval Association and designed by Graeme Mitcheson and unveiled in June 2014 by HRH Prince Michaelf of Kent GCVO. It is comprised of 14 glass sails that represent the oceans of the world with the simple stone sailor bowing in respect to shipmates wherever they are in the world.  The sailor stands facing the setting sun in the west. As the sun sets the glass creates shadows and pools of coloured light blending together to represent the 5 oceans – it is incredibly effective at any time of day as the sun shines through and very moving in its simplicity.  The memorial is inscribed “As the going down of the sun we will remember them”.

The Interpretation Curator at the Arboretum has informed me that at certain times of the day the sails create the shadow of a battleship on the stone terrace as the sun catches them at the right moments – I have witnessed some of the shapes created over the summer but never quite been there to witness the full battleship shadow.   Very kindly I have been supplied with a quote by the sculptor:  “Inspiration often comes from unusual sources.  The idea for the ‘shadow ship’ stemmed from observing the outline shadows of washing on the lawn as my wife pinned it out.” – this is useful to remember in my studies of the fact inspiration can come from anywhere!

I find this memorial one of the most contemporary but also one of the most striking – there is no need for ornamentation  and is almost but not quite abstract in its design.  Graeme Mitcheson has pared down the sailor figure and details to a very minimalist state but nothing more is needed to create the narrative that he desires.

The very first memorial at the Arboretum is that of The Polar Bear Association Memorial and dedicated on 7 June 1998.

It is the memorial for the 49th Infantry West Riding Division who were stationed in Iceland during World War II with most of the campaign they were snowed in under 20 feet of snow hence their nickname the Polar Bears – this nickname also became their shoulder flash and mascot.

The creator of this incredible carving is the Essex Woodcarvers under Peter Benson’s direction and it stands at 5 foot high and 9 foot long and weighing an incredible 2.5 tonnes.  The wood used is yellow hardwood and the bear took a year to carve.  This particular memorial is a time capsule because inside are all the names of the members of the 49th division who died in the campaign along with relevant letters and documents.

The panels around the base are all the Regiments of the 49th Infantry plus two panels which have inscribed a poem written by a young girl called Jodie Johnson – she was just 11 and 9 when she wrote them.

My reasons for choosing this memorial, aside from it being the first on the site, include the fact that my own father had a wooden carved statue of a polar bear purchased when he was on exercise in Norway in the 1960’s with the rest of his Royal Artillery regiment and it is incredibly similar to this statue although sadly I do not have a photograph of it.

img_3531So now going back to the Visitor Centre itself – this opened on 21 October 2016 … just 10 days before I write this.

The building was designed by Glen Howells Architects and work began in September 2015 – my fiance and I have literally watched this building be built on several visits to the Arboretum and to see the final finished Centre was incredible today.

In my photograph above you can see Heroes Square which encompasses either the cap badge, crest or cypher of each British Army Corps and Regiment, Royal Naval Fleet or Royal Air Force carved into Yorkshire Scoutmoor stone and this area is at the back of the new Centre as it leads you out into the Arboretum itself.  What is really beautiful is that there are water rills creating gentle noise, beautiful planting and areas to sit quietly and reflect as you look out over the grounds.

img_3527So what about the actual building?  my immediate thoughts were it reminded me of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye near Paris in its structure of reinforced concrete and also the cylindrical drum above the exhibition area.  A quick check of my notes confirm my feeling that this new Centre is reminiscent of the International Style with its rectinlinear lines and open plan interior but it is also very much in keeping with the High Tech style of our modern era with its precision engineered architecture.  The use of wood and stone is very deliberate as it is intended to be sympathetic to the landscape that surrounds the building.

The interior of the Centre is kept light in colour and comprises of a main foyer with cafe, restaurant, shop and interpretation exhibition which will also house temporary exhibitions, learning centre, office, toilets and also a function room – my photograph is taken from the foyer looking towards the restaurant with the shop on the right hand side. The drum shape is also an echo of the main Armed Forces Memorial with stands at the very heart of the Arboretum as well as also having features within that echoes the rings of trees as a sign of time passing and remembrance.

The cylindrical drum that is an iconic feature of the Centre was apparently originally conceived as a viewing area which would have looked out over the grounds of the Arboretum but it now serves as the audio-visual theatre within the exhibition area.  I have not yet been around the exhibition but its focus is on a year in the life of the Arboretum and understanding the concept of Remembrance.  The High Tech style of architecture uses modern technology in its creation and this theatre makes use of technology to give spectators an interactive experience in some sections – there is also a memory booth which visitors can share their own family stories which I will personally make use of.

The architects for this project were Glen Howells Architects and they also designed Heroes Square – looking at their website their vision has been realised to great effect and beauty.

The designs are simple and functional but also warm and welcoming.  In the course material we are asked to think in terms of energy use or how secure the building might be for someone alone at night and also if the building is easy to clean and maintain – in regards to the latter it is obvious ease of maintenance has been considered by the open plan design for the main visitor areas and presumably the office areas too (although obviously these are out of bounds for the visitors) as the flooring looks to be of hard wearing stone tiles with easily wipeable/cleaning surfaces.

The building has also been designed, from what I can see, with security in mind with inner and outer doors to the front areas and fire doors to the rear as well as locks and alarms so staff after closing hours have the security that is required in our modern era Thinking about energy efficiency – this is harder for me to judge on what has been an unseasonably warm autumn day but as my fiance and I are going to be visiting again in the near future so I will be having a further look and think about this question.

Overall the building is one of function and of a timeless design that will  endure for many years to come as the Arboretum continues to evolve and grow.

Footnote:  the origins of the Arboretum apparently start at Arlington Cementery and the National Arboretum in Washington DC – founder David Childs visited in 1988. Group Captain Sir Leonard Cheshire supported Mr Childs and in 1994 Prime Minister John Major launched the Arboretum appeal.  Redlands Aggregate (now Lafarge Tarmac) donated 82 acres of reclaimed gravel land to create the Arboretum and its location is perfect as the land runs alongside the Tame.  In addition to this initial 82 acres an additional 70 acres has since been generously gifted – there is an island in the River Tame which today was happily enjoyed by Canada geese and swans.  The National Memorial Arboretum was opened on 16 May 2001 by HRH Duchess of Kent and has since developed into a peaceful and welcoming area for both humans and wildlife.


BBC. 2016.  National naval memorial unveiled in Staffordshire [online]. [Date Accessed: 31 October 2016].  Available from:

Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 2016.  International Style [online]. [Date Accessed:  31 October 2016].  Available from:

Glen Howells Architects. (date unknown). National Memorial Arboretum [online]. [Date Accessed 31 October 2016].  Available from:

QARANC. 2006-2016. Heroes Square [online]. [Date Accessed:  31 October 2016].  Available from:

Stepnell Ltd. 2013-2016.  Construction starts on world-class Remembrance Centre at National Memorial Arboretum [online]. [Date Accessed:  31 October 2016]. (date unknown).  The Polar Bear Memorial – The National Memorial Arboretum, Croxall Road, Alrewas, Staffordshire, UK – Bear Statues on [online]. [Date Accessed:  31 October 2016].  Available from:


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