Remembering Land and Sea on Tower Hill
I decided that a month dedicated to World War One remembrance would not be complete without a trip to the Tower of London to view the incredible Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red progressive exhibit that’s down in the famous grassy moat until 11 November. By now I’m sure that you’ve seen it, or pictures of it, but if not then click this link.
It’s an art installation created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, and aims to fill the moat gradually, between August 5th (100 years since the first full day of fighting) and 11 November with over 800,000 delicate ceramic poppies – each one representing a British and colonial military fatality during WW1.
You can buy a poppy for £25 – with part of the proceeds split between 6 different military charities. And every night at sunset the Last Post is played, and a roll call of 180 names of military troops is read out.
It’s a startling sight – a normally green and tranquil looking place in the middle of a bustling city suddenly spilling over with bright, violent red.
Tower Hill is full of people stopping to take photographs, or just to stand and stare quietly at the vast display in front of them. It’s right in the heart of London, in the City and surrounded by tourist attractions (the bridge, the Tower, the river, that large building that looks like a walkie talkie) and yet somehow, the pace slows a little up here. It’s quieter and more respectful. It’s peaceful. A proper memorial – and people don’t just walk on by. They stop and pay attention.
There are even little, more personal memorials left for family members long gone.
Across the road is something a little less iconic that you might not even realise is there. I certainly didn’t until I nearly walked right on past it.
Trinity Square Gardens sits quietly next to Tower Hill Tube station, a tranquil place where people meander, sit, eat their lunch. It used to play home to the infamous Scaffold where many took their last breath – the last in 1747. Now it is home to something much better and less murderous – although sadly also death themed. The Edwin Lutyens’ Tower Hill Memorial (1928) sits here, split into two parts – one for each World War. It is dedicated to the 24,000 merchant sailors who died in both world wars and have no known grave. The World War One part of the memorial sits alongside the road, unassuming yet hulking in the form of a sheltered passageway, the walls covered with names of lost seamen from 1914-1918. It is majestic yet also blends somehow into the background – which is how I nearly came to miss it altogether.
An excerpt from the information board that’s found in the Gardens, next to the memorial:
‘More than 17,000 men lost their lives while serving with the mercantile marine during the First World War. After the Armistice, the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was determined to find an appropriate way to commemorate merchant seamen who had lost their lives through enemy action and had no grave but the sea. In consultation with several organisations representing merchant mariners, the Commission decided that a memorial bearing the names of the lost should be constructed on the Embankment, near the heart of maritime Britain – the Thames and the Port of London. The First World War Monument, a vaulted corridor of Portland stone, was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens and unveiled by Her Majesty Queen Mary on 12 December 1928. The bronze panels commemorate over 11,900 merchant navel personnel of the First World War. ‘
This memorial is by no means the only thing to see at Trinity Square Gardens. The World War Two memorial to merchant seamen takes the form of a sunken garden with a large compass in the centre. At the other end of the gardens, near the exit for the Tube station, there’s an anchor statue that serves as memorial to those lost in the Falklands War.
There’s a stretch of medieval wall also on that side of the gardens, built on Roman foundations. On the far side, at the end furthest from the embankment, there’s the towering white presence of the old Port of London Authority building (1922) with Father Thames gazing down on all his London subjects. Next to that, you can find Trinity House (1795) which houses the General Lighthouse Authority for England and Wales. The gardens themselves are green and full of flowers. There’s a lot to see here. And it’s the perfect place for a memorial. Much like the poppy installation across the road, this place is quiet and respectful and peaceful and beautiful in it’s remembrance.
Unlike the poppy installation across the road, people do walk on by or through without stopping to take a look around. I get the feeling it’s firmly filed under the heading Things in London You’ll Miss Through Not Paying Attention. In fact, the gardens were ranked #1531 of 2018 things to do in London by Lonely Planet travelers in 2013. Meaning – it’s pretty far down the list. Especially because it’s so near so many much more famous tourist attractions that screech out for your attention. But go and have a look -at the gardens themselves and at the beautiful, underrated war memorials that it holds.
All photographs Copyright Christina Owen (2014)