Our speaker Mike Turner described the transformation since 1996 of flood-prone land used for gravel extraction near the River Tame is Staffordshire into the National Memorial Arboretum, the second most visited attraction in the country. Mike is an official guide to the site - not a cemetery, he stresses – which commemorates over 16,000 members of the armed forces and men and women who have died in the service of their country or community. The original idea for the memorial came from ex-naval commander David Childs, encouraged by Leonard Cheshire and fund-raising sanctioned by John Major began in 1984. After a slow start, the project took shape as thousands of trees were planted on the 150 acre site, given by a gravel company on a 900-year lease at £1 a year rent.Every year fresh monuments are erected, including the recent recognition of the Arctic convoys and a chapel built on a newly-landscaped hill holds a remembrance service at 11am every day of the year. Visitors including royalty, school parties and people from all over the world now flock there in ever-increasing numbers and last July saw a record 40,000 people visiting in a single month, to see the maturing trees, wild flower meadow and spectacular flowers and shrubs. The names of the fallen are carved on a special wall by one inscriber who comes each year to update the lists, showing the names but not their ranks. The rapidly-rising visitor numbers mean that the original visitor centre will soon be replaced by a much larger one costing millions, most of which has already been raised.
Mike’s knowledge of his subject and his evocative photos of the monuments and developments there, including aerial views of the huge site, enthralled his audience. He then judged the competition for the most interesting war memorabilia. Members had brought souvenirs of two world wars including black-out curtains and a gas mask from WW2, a silk scarf with a message printed in 16 different languages (though not German) which could show the owner was friendly and in need of help in whichever country he found himself. One member, Marjorie Power brought a Spitfire brooch – a memory of her days building Spitfires at Castle Bromwich – as well as a sword and knife, memoirs of her husband’s army service in the Far East.
The winning entry brought by Mavis Gordon was a locket and a New Testament which had belonged to her husband’s aunt’s fiancé, a soldier in the Gordon Highlanders in the First World War. He and every man in the regiment received a copy and when he was tragically killed in action his fiancée kept his memory alive with this book and a locket containing photos of the young couple. Bena Stuart took second place with her photo of her father, a Royal Navy commander who served in the WW1 Battle of Crete. This was accompanied by the huge sword which he wore as part of his full dress uniform and still as sharp and shiny as the days he went on parade. WI President Christine Jones’s display of photos of her father-in-law Edward Henry Jones in World War I was placed third and showed his progress from a reservist with the Durham and Yorkshire Infantry Brigade at camp on August 4th, 1914, still in civvies, then a month later in uniform with his comrades, followed by a photo of him in France in 1916. He had a fine bass voice and often sang to entertain the troops, hence his appearance in pierrot costume in 1917 as part of an army concert party which even included “girls” suitably attired and upholstered, reminiscent of “It Ain’t Arf Ot, Mum”.
The WI nationwide is recruiting growing numbers of younger women and Coleshill members were delighted to welcome two more today. Our meetings are held on the second Tuesday of each month in the Council Room at Coleshill Town Hall and visitors are always welcome to come and sample our varied activities and meet new friends.Our next meeting on April 9th will feature Rob Hemming’s presentation of “The Shazam! Show”, all about cinema and films and the competition is for a flower arrangement illustrating your favourite film. In May, Jane Arnold is coming as a Roman lady with her slave, who will do some Roman cooking (will they be in togas?) We are holding a fund-raising coffee morning in the Parish Room on Saturday,May 18th between 10 and 12, with a raffle and bring and buy stall. Everyone is welcome.