National Memorial Arboretum
- darkometer rating: 2 -
A central memorial plus scores of individual memorials set in a large field with various kinds of trees planted in it (hence 'arboretum'), located near Alrewas, Staffordshire, Great Britain
It's to commemorate (mostly) British servicemen and women who lost their lives in various conflicts around the globe. Some monuments are quite simple, but others are especially interesting, in particular from a dark-tourism perspective. This is especially true for the outstanding section on the POW
s in the Far East with its Death Railway
artefacts and small museum.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Arboretum means a 'garden of trees', and indeed over 50,000 trees have been planted at the site – but as the site is still so young, so are the trees, so it will take a while until the site looks really wooded. Eventually it may be extremely wooded indeed – as amongst the trees planted are also giant redwoods from California, USA
The memorial arboretum is a comparatively recent endeavour. The first parts opened only in 2001. The main memorial monument commemorates the servicemen and women killed since the end of WWII
– it was felt that while there are scores of World War memorials, one dedicated to those who lost their lives since then was still missing.
So it was set up in memory of all those who died in action, as a result of terrorism or in training exercises since 1945. Seeing the list spelling out the individual conflicts is a sobering reminder of what a violent place the world has remained since then. The field around the central memorial is filled with monuments to various individual conflicts, also including WWII and earlier conflicts.
The development of the vast site is still ongoing and will continue for many years to come. Between my first visit in 2008 and my latest return visit in March 2016, countless more monuments/memorials had been added (in fact the number has gone up almost threefold over that period of time).
And at the visitor centre a whole new “Remembrance Centre” was under construction, which will no doubt further enhance the museum-like commodification
aspects of the place significantly.
What there is to see: lots and lots of memorials – and trees. Many of these are not that spectacular (but at least the trees will grow), but there are notable exceptions. To describe every single one of the hundreds of individual memorials is way beyond the scope of this website, so only a few ones of special note from a dark-tourism perspective shall be picked out here:
The largest memorial by far is the central Armed Forces Memorial
in honour of all those who have lost their lives in service since the end of WWII
. It was inaugurated in 2007 and it's quite a gigantic (and slightly pompous) affair. Architecturally inspired by both ancient British burial mounds and ancient Rome
(could there perhaps be an allusion to the Colosseum
?) it consists of a large terraced mound on top of which sits a circular structure of two semi-circular walls around a central obelisk and two shorter straight walls in each half.
The insides of the walls are inscribed with the names of the servicemen and women who have died in conflict, peacekeeping missions, in military exercises, etc. – in addition two sets of bronze sculptures on different related themes round off the ensemble.
Of the smaller individual memorials that stand out one might be strangely recognizable to the seasoned (dark) tourist who has been to Berlin
: the memorial to the Berlin Airlift
by the entrance is a kind of miniature version of the large memorial outside Tempelhof airport
Representing various campaigns and conflicts are monuments ranging from the explanational (e.g. the one about Gallipoli
) via classic abstract cenotaphs to very concrete memorials involving actual military gear such as anti-aircraft guns.
There are also unexpected memorials, slightly out of context, such as the one dedicated to those killed in road accidents, or the Wind in the Willows garden with wood sculptures for kids.
The part that stands out the most from a dark-tourism perspective is the section about the POW
s of WWII
in the Far East. There are original gates from Changi prison
, a memorial to the Sumatra railway built by POWs in today's Indonesia
when it was under Japanese
occupation – and to the much better known counterpart in (mostly) Thailand
, the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway
(including the Bridge over the River Kwai
). 30 metres of original rail tracks complete with sleepers were transported over from Thailand to be incorporated into this memorial.
Adjacent to this is what is definitely the most interesting thing here: the Far East Prisoners of War Memorial Building
. This is actually a small but excellent stand-alone museum that incorporates an exhibition featuring artefacts from the POW camps and the Death Railway
as well as photos, documents and models of bridges and the Wang Po viaduct. Amongst the most significant objects on display is the original door from a Changi prison
Film footage and eyewitness testimonies on various video screen stations further enhance the exhibition. And there is also a large interactive semi-globe on which you can light up the various locations related to this part of the Pacific
war by pressing buttons on a board.
Perhaps the most unusual exhibit is a church window. This was made by POWs on Java, Indonesia
, and includes an intriguing detail – a small act of defiance: instead of the lion's head in the British coat of arms, the POW artist inserted the image of Churchill
, compete with a cigar in the corner of his mouth!
Further away at the other end of the memorial complex is also a monument dedicated more generally to POWs. It takes the form of a stretch of wall with a partly opened gate. Behind this, new trees are growing.
UPDATE: on my latest return trip in March 2016 I found numerous new monuments had been added since the last time I visited, or perhaps they were ones I had somehow missed before.
Moreover, the main central memorial was undergoing extensive refurbishing/expansion work (yet again – that was also the case when I visited in 2008), so I guess there will be significant changes here too.
Amongst the new memorials I found was one dedicated to the Gulf War
of 1991/92, another one by the Football Association celebrated the famous story of the Christmas Truce
when German and British soldiers laid down their weapons, of their own accord, at Christmas and played football with each other instead. Also new, presumably, was a memorial grove for Special Forces.
What I hadn't seen before either is the memorial to those killed in the Falklands War
. Because I've visited the Falkland Islands
, and went on several battlefield tours while I was there, this part of the Memorial resonated with me especially.
But the most touching memorial of the whole lot to me is the “Shot at Dawn Memorial”. It's not actually new and was already inaugurated in 2001, but on my previous visits I hadn't walked as far as its location at the extreme south-eastern edge of the whole vast complex. When I arrived at the visitor centre on my most recent visit, however, the lady at the desk alerted me to the fact that there would be a talk given at this memorial, so I hurried to get to hear this. I'm glad I did.
This is an unusual memorial here in so far as it does not commemorate servicemen who died on duty, but those who – during Word War One
– were court-martialled and sentenced to death by their own superiors for “cowardice”, desertion or disobedience.
As the docent giving the talk at this site pointed out, most of the victims were young volunteers, often under the age of 18. Many of these youngsters were simply traumatized ('shell shocked') by the extreme horrors of the reality of war, which was so starkly different from all the heroic and patriotic propaganda that had made them volunteer in the first place.
The cruelty enforced by the commanders also involved the fact that the firing squads were regularly recruited from the same units as the soldier to be executed – so it was often their own comrades or even friends who had to kill their mates this way. And if they had refused they'd have been the next in line.
The monument consists of a single statue of a man blindfolded and with his hands tied behind the back awaiting the firing squad to do their job. Next to this there are 306 wooden stakes, one for each soldier executed this way. Little plaques give the names and ranks of the dead, but many do not state the age. However, if the their age was given as “unknown” this means in actual fact under 18, i.e. officially under age for recruitment as a soldier. But such was the propaganda-instilled enthusiasm to volunteer than many teenagers lied about their age … and there was little questioning this on the part of the recruiters.
After this touching and tragic monument you can take a walk along the riverbank
as a counterpoint – although you soon get to more war memorials and even an authentic war relic, namely in the form of a WWII
-era pillbox bunker
, right on the riverbank. In fact the memorial's area incorporates a nature reserve of sorts. This is particularly the case in the parts furthest east beyond the railway bridge. Here at the confluence of the Rivers Trent and Tame there is a little secluded piece of paradise for waterfowl and there are information panels at observation spots for birdwatchers too.
In contrast to that, the northern edge of the memorial area is characterized by the sight of the adjacent mining operations going on. This mining is presumably also responsible for the tailings pond bordering the north-western end of the National Memorial. Here signs warn of dangerous quicksand and urge you to stay away!
Part of the National Memorial Arboretum is also a large cafeteria area and a comprehensive shop selling regular tourist tack alongside war movies and toys.
just off the A38 trunk road between Lichfield and Derby. About five miles north of Lichfield, and about 20 miles (30 km) north-east of Birmingham city centre, in Staffordshire, right in the middle of England, Great Britain
Google maps locator: [52.727,-1.728
Access and costs: easy to get to by car (less so by bus) and nominally free (but donations welcome).
Details: To get to the site it's easiest to drive: from the A38 between Lichfield and Burton upon Trent take the exit at Alrewas and get on the A513 in the direction of Tamworth and you'll soon get to a roundabout where the access road to the site branches off – it's signposted.
Note that there's a flat-rate parking fee of 3 GBP (pay and display), which is valid for teh whole day.
Access by public transport is more limited and tricky. The nearest train station is Lichfield Trent Valley some 5-6 miles (8 km) away. Some taxi companies offer fixed pre-booked rates for transfers to the National Memorial. The only bus going directly there is limited to Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays and runs from Burton upon Trent and Lichfield. The nearest regular, daily bus service connects the same two places and stops at the village of Alrewas, which is roughly a 30-minute walk away.
Admission: nominally free – but donations are welcome.
Opening times: daily throughout the year (except Christmas Day)from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The site is mostly, but not completely wheelchair accessible, some gravelly and grassy parts would be tricky to negotiate. Electric scooters and wheelchairs can be hired at the site.
Time required: very much depends on how much time you want to spend at how many of the individual memorials – ranging from between an hour or so for targeted visits to only specific memorials and at last half a day for seeing it all. The POW museum alone requires a minimum of half an hour. When the new Remembrance Centre opens this will probably add substantially to the overall visiting time as well..
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see Great Britain
. Going south you could combine a visit to the National Memorial with a look at Coventry Cathedral & Memorial
. Going north the A38 will take you to the M1 north, in order to get to Bradford
The IWM North
in Manchester further north-west would also make for a suitable counterpart/add-on to a visit to the National Memorial, namely in so far as it too is more about the people caught up in war (rather than about military hardware).
Combinations with other non-dark destinations:
in general see Great Britain
. This part of Britain isn't exactly its most scenic, but one of the country's least well known National Parks, the Peak District, isn't far off, starting about 25 miles (40 km) north of Lichfield. The cities of Birmingham, just a few miles south, and Nottingham some 40 miles (65 km) to the north-east are worth a stopover as well.
- National Memorial 01a
- National Memorial 01b - central monument statue group
- National Memorial 02 - chiseller statue
- National Memorial 03 - the inner sanctum
- National Memorial 04 - refurbishment work in 2016
- National Memorial 05 - new visitor centre in the making too
- National Memorial 06 - Berlin air lift memorial
- National Memorial 07- Jewish memorial stone
- National Memorial 08 - Changi prison memorial stone
- National Memorial 09 - Sumatra railway memorial
- National Memorial 10 - Death Railway
- National Memorial 10b - crosses and poppies on the track
- National Memorial 11 - POW exhibition
- National Memorial 11b - interactive globe exhibit
- National Memorial 12 - route of the Death Railway
- National Memorial 12b - model of Wang Po viaduct
- National Memorial 13 - spot Churchill with cigar
- National Memorial 14 - original Changi prison door
- National Memorial 15 - stylized prison gate
- National Memorial 16 - gun as memorial
- National Memorial 16b - mini tank
- National Memorial 17 - marble aircraft carrier
- National Memorial 18 - Xmas Truce memorial
- National Memorial 18b - Gallipoli monument
- National Memorial 19 - poppy
- National Memorial 20 - Shot At Dawn memorial
- National Memorial 21 - unknown age means under 18
- National Memorial 22 - lest we forget
- National Memorial 23 - Gulf War memorial
- National Memorial 24 - Afghanistan
- National Memorial 25 - Falklands War
- National Memorial 26 - Pebble Island, Falklands
- National Memorial 27 - Falklands coat of arms
- National Memorial 28 - Special Forces grove
- National Memorial 29 - strange tree monument
- National Memorial 30 - India memorial
- National Memorial 31 - visiting on the day of the Brussels airport bombings, this suddenly had a different ring to it
- National Memorial 32 - Russian tree
- National Memorial 33 - strange sculptures by the river
- National Memorial 34 - plenty of wildfowl
- National Memorial 35 - old pillbox bunker
- National Memorial 36 - non-war-related dangers
- National Memorial 37 - it is not just war that kills
- National Memorial 38 - gold against gray