By Judith Phillips
Did you read Alison Mounter’s account of her visit to the National Memorial Arboretum in a recent newsletter? Has it inspired you to add the arboretum to your list of ‘places to go’? It’s been a long time since I had visited but I recently found myself faced with a long drive home from Reading, so I reckoned the arboretum would make a good stopping place for a couple of hours.
This was at the very beginning of July and I hadn’t reckoned on its being Armed Forces Weekend! The place was absolutely heaving – several coaches parked up, lots of families enjoying the hot weather and the children’s activities, entertainment for all ages. But the arboretum now covers such a large area and has been so carefully laid out that it was surprisingly easy to find some quiet places and sometimes I didn’t meet another visitor for minutes at a time.
I knew I hadn’t given myself a lot of time, so I decided to concentrate on a few memorials while getting a feel of the general atmosphere. All the volunteers on duty were so helpful despite the fact I really could have answered my own questions by consulting the excellent leaflets, publications and signage. It was absolutely amazing to realise how many and how varied are the memorials.
I particularly wanted to see the memorial to the men ‘shot at dawn’ as that was completely new to me. And I have to say, it was a very strange and moving experience. You wouldn’t really think that a small grove of wooden stakes could have such an effect, but I noticed that everyone who approached it fell silent. I wandered through the rows of stakes, each with information about the executed man, and you couldn’t help imagining their stories. They weren’t all youngsters, they came from several different regiments, some died early in the war and others were executed in the final year of hostilities. If I’m honest, the whole experience left me sad and angry at the same time but it felt it was almost my duty to these men to spend time with the memory and imagining of their lives and deaths.
After that rather emotional experience I decided to limit my visit this time to finding the DLI memorial as it was quite close by, rather than racing around trying to see as much as possible (which is what I tend to do). I thought I had found it very quickly but that turned out to be a general memorial to light infantry regiments – I had been a little misled by recognising the DLI cap badge and only realising there were other similar badges when I looked more closely. But the main DLI memorial is not far away. I know that many Teesdale men who served in the First World War weren’t in the DLI but this seemed an appropriate memorial to spend time at, remembering the DLI memorial in the grounds of The Bowes Museum.
I had thought the arboretum would be a really long drive from Teesdale. In the end, it took me just under 3 hours to drive back (via A38/M1/A1M) which was better than I had expected. It was certainly a memorable visit and I will certainly be revisiting. For a much fuller (and illustrated) account of a visit, I recommend Alison Mounter’s article in the newsletter sent out on 6th July 2018. If you have a story to tell about visiting any WWI memorial with a Teesdale connection, we’d love to hear about it.