Feature Mondays – The National Memorial Arboretum

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Since planting began in 1997, the National Memorial Arboretum has been a special place honouring those who have served and continue to serve, our nation in many different ways.

It's not a cemetery, it's a place of life, represented by the 50,000 trees planted there, where older and younger generations alike can wander and wonder. Covering 150 acres, the Arboretum has something for everyone. For some it's a wonderful place to stroll and enjoy the trees; for others it's a peaceful and beautiful place to remember loved ones, particularly those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

The trees and the more than 300 dedicated memorials on the site make the Arboretum a living tribute that will forever acknowledge the personal sacrifices made by the Armed Forces and civil services of this country. Importantly, the focus isn't totally military. There is a large area devoted to Police who have fallen while on duty, as well as other areas devoted to the Fire and Rescue and Ambulance services. National charities representing those who have died in particular circumstances, including children, are also to be found in the Arboretum grounds. The National Memorial Arboretum has recently topped a poll of favourite places in England funded by the National Lottery, followed by Cornwall's Eden Project and County Durham's Beamish museum. The Arboretum received more than £8m of funding.


The Arboretum was the brainchild of Commander David Childs CBE who wished to see established a national focus for Remembrance. Following a meeting with Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC, an appeal was launched in 1994 by the then Prime Minister, John Major.

The project began with no money, no land, no staff and no trees. The National Lottery, in the form of the Millennium Commission, granted some 40% of the funds needed and this was matched by thousands of donations, both large and small, from a wide variety of organisations both military and civilian, men and women, corporate and voluntary. The site was developed on reclaimed gravel workings, bordered by the Rivers Trent and Tame, gifted to the charity by Lafarge, which has generously supported the idea from the beginning.

The future of the project became assured when three proposals were agreed. These were: for the site to be the location of the Armed Forces Memorial; for the Ministry of Defence to pay a significant grant-in-aid to allow for free entry and that The Royal British Legion would accept the gift of the site as the focus for the Nation's year-round Remembrance.

It was created by a staff of thousands: a small paid group; a dedicated and active Friends of the National Memorial Arboretum organisation and countless others who have either planted individual trees or helped create a memorial for their specific organisation. The initial planting took place thanks to grants from the Forestry Commission and the National Forest.

It was once estimated that the involvement of so many supporters made the Arboretum the most popular of all the Millennium projects. It will, certainly, be one of the longest lasting. The Arboretum was officially opened to the public in May, 2001. From the start it was seen as a place of joy where the lives of people would be remembered by living trees that would grow and mature in a world at peace.

As planting began in 1997, it seemed appropriate that the site should also celebrate the turn of the century.

The Millennium Chapel of Peace and Forgiveness is a central part of the site and was created to offer a place of tranquillity and reflection to people of every faith or none. The Arboretum's planting philosophy has always been inclusive, as can be seen in the many and varied plots. Nearly all were designed in partnership and consultation so that every group could feel a sense of ownership of the memorial to which they had contributed. Now, more than 10 years on, the site hosts an abundance of wild plants, woodland areas, grassland, a reed bed and wetland. It is populated by a variety of wildlife, including brown hares, skylarks, lapwings, otters, tits and finches, green woodpeckers, buntings and an occasional black redstart. The Wildlife Watch Group meets every month and enjoy activities including bat detecting evenings, bird watching and walks.

Although many of the trees are still young, they are rapidly growing into a unique living tribute. Every year sees the dedication of new memorials and special events at the Arboretum. Over 80% of visitors surveyed say they will return, many time and again, to see the Arboretum as it develops.


The Arboretum is a charity run by staff and volunteers and is part of The Royal British Legion family. The Arboretum receives around 300,000 visitors a year, including Service personnel, veterans, students of all ages and groups. There are over 200 special events held there each year. The Act of Remembrance, including a Silence, is observed daily in the Millennium Chapel.

The Arboretum is home to the striking Armed Forces Memorial, which commemorates those who have been killed on duty or as a result of terrorism from the end of World War II to the current conflict in Afghanistan.

The Arboretum is home to many moving and unusual memorials, many of which are visible from the Visitor Centre. They fall into several categories: Military, Civil Services – Police, Fire & Rescue Service, Ambulance – Charities, Local organisations and Overseas organisations.

The Armed Forces Memorial

The Armed Forces Memorial, dedicated in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen on 12 October, 2007, is a nationally significant focus for Remembrance. It honours those members of the Armed Forces – Regular and Reserve – who were killed on duty while performing functions attributable to the special circumstances and requirements of the Armed Forces, or as a result of terrorist action and those who died while deployed on designated operations. The Memorial is a stunning piece of architecture comprising of a 43-metre diameter stone structure with two curved walls and two straight walls containing the names of those honoured here.

Since the end of World War II the men and women of the Armed Forces, often supported by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Merchant Navy, have taken part in more than 50 operations and conflicts across the world, often as part of United Nations, NATO or other international coalitions.

It's not just Service Personnel who've made the sacrifice. Behind every name on the Memorial are the wives, husbands, partners, parents, children and colleagues who loved them and who live with the pain and consequences of their loss every day.

The Merchant Navy Convoy

The Merchant Navy convoy was dedicated on 1 October, 2003. It commemorates over 46,000 British merchant seafarers and fishermen, lost in conflict during the 20th century, including two World Wars, Falklands, Kuwait, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq and others. 31,908 seafarers perished in World War II, proportionately more than any of the Armed Services. 2,535 trees represent the British vessels lost at that time.

The Children's Woodland

The Children's Woodland was dedicated in 2001, sponsored by the Midlands Co-operative Society Limited and planted with 2,640 native British trees. The Children's Woodland was designed to combine arboriculture and wildlife education with Remembrance.

Individual trees have been sponsored by families and schools and dedicated to babies and children who have passed away. In the nearby shelter are large child-sized wooden figures of the characters from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. They were carved by the Essex Woodcarvers under the supervision of Peter Benson of the British Woodcarvers Association.

The children's activity and picnic area was funded by Staffordshire Aggregates Levy Grant Scheme – SALGS. It is a purpose-built wooden environment for children aged between 7-13 years.


Visitors to the National Memorial Arboretum can see and learn about a wide variety of trees. Although it is still a 'young' Arboretum, there are already about 50,000 trees in the grounds, which are growing rapidly into a unique living tribute.

The Beat is an avenue of London plane (Platanus hybrida) trees and some horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum), funded by every Police Force in the UK. Chestnuts were chosen because the first truncheons were made from this extremely durable wood. Visitors to the Chapel will be struck by the 12 imposing pillars of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Construction of the Chapel began in 1999, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Scottish plant collector, David Douglas. Between 1825 and 1827, he travelled 10,000 miles in Western Canada and North West USA on foot and by canoe, collecting and classifying plants. As a result of his efforts, 200 new plants were introduced to the UK, including the Douglas fir.

Dawn redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostrobides), can be found behind the British Korean Veterans memorial. These magnificent trees, identified as a 'living fossil' in 1941, once blanketed the entire Northern Hemisphere and were thought to be extinct by Western botanists until their rediscovery in 1941 in the Szechuan Province of China. Of the 33 truly native species found in Great Britain, such as the black poplar (Populus spp.) and strawberry tree (Arbutus menziesii), many can be found at the Arboretum.

One of the special features of the Arboretum is that memorials exist in complete harmony with the living trees – each bestows a particular relevance on the other. Here, the trees are as much a memorial as the constructions themselves.

The NMA Appeal

The National Memorial Arboretum Appeal was set up to ensure that the necessary facilities for widows, families, comrades and the public were provided. In time, the Arboretum seeks to become a world class Centre for Remembrance.

The National Memorial Arboretum Appeal was launched on Friday 24 April, 2009 by its patron, HRH Prince William of Wales – now HRH The Duke of Cambridge KG, with a target of £8m. In 2010/11 the plans were reviewed in the light of the continuing high numbers of visitors and it was decided that a major area for outside events, such as Armistice Day was needed together with a canopy for shelter, hence the figure rose to £15.7m.

The Appeal will fund the building of a Pavilion to provide a venue for functions, events and acts of Remembrance for the 200 military units, ex-Service groups and other interested parties to meet. It will also enable the Arboretum to expand its work with children from 5,000 a year to 10,000 a year, through the creation of a dedicated Education Centre.

In addition there will be an Interpretation area, which will present the meaning of Remembrance. These, together with better facilities – reception area, restaurant, cafe, shop – will provide a much more appropriate experience particularly for those who have had long journeys.

The Armed Forces Memorial, which was dedicated by HM The Queen in 2007, is the reason that many people travel to this unique place. Since then, many more memorials have been added to the site, including the Basra Wall, the new RAF Memorial, the new RNLI memorial, the Polish Armed Forces Memorial and many more. As the Centre of National Remembrance, the stunning and moving National Memorial Arboretum plays a leading role in many Remembrance occasions.

Major-General Patrick Cordingley, who commanded the Desert Rats in the first Gulf War and is Chairman of the Appeal, said: “The Arboretum has become a place in which the Nation comes to remember and pays tribute to our Armed Forces. I've met no one who has failed to be incredibly moved by their visit here, especially when seeing the massed ranks of names on the towering Portland Stone walls of the Armed Forces Memorial.”

The future

The National Memorial Arboretum aims to develop an ambitious plan to create an environment worthy of Remembrance, equal to their famous national parks and gardens.

Over the next 25 years, the National Memorial Arboretum is developing an ambitious landscape master plan. The plan to create a setting worthy of celebrating will develop on the current landscape, as their initial collection of trees begins to reach maturity.

The master plan will include: the current Arboretum site doubled in size to 300 acres, an inspiring new landscape with woodlands, lakes and water features, organised footpaths and routes taking visitors directly where they want to go in a clear and logical way, memorials arranged in meaningful groups with space to expand as demand grows, principle memorials on sculptural mounds to act as gateways and landmarks, and to have the Arboretum as part of an enhanced riverside landscape between Burton-on-Trent and Tamworth, known as 'Central Rivers'.

As of yet, no formal memorial exists for those killed in the most recent war against the Taliban, in Afghanistan. 453 compatriots have died during the 13-year deployment, but after the final military vigil on 9 October, 2014 the wall of names at Camp Bastion was dismantled and transported back to Britain. The wall is heading to the National Memorial Arboretum, joining the memorial from Basra air base in Iraq, which was taken down after British soldiers withdrew in 2009. The wall will be incorporated into a new memorial, with the original brass plaques embedded into the structure, behind engraved stone tablets. The foundations for the memorial have been placed, on a patch of open lawn between the existing memorial and a grove of saplings and is a lasting and fitting tribute to Great Britain's recent war dead. For more information about the Arboretum, see details opposite.