Much has changed since 2001, however our purpose remains the same: to be the Nation’s year-round place to remember, an inspirational living landscape and world-class setting, freely open to all.
Join us as we explore the Arboretum’s foundation and history, its memorials, stories and people, without whom none of this would have been possible.
Following a journey to Arlington Cemetery and the National Arboretum in Washington by Commander David Childs, and inspired by conversations with Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC, the Arboretum was founded as a place where people’s lives would be commemorated among living trees that would grow and mature in a ‘world at peace’.
The idea really began to take shape in 1994, when the then Prime Minister John Major launched a nationwide fundraising campaign. The land, a former gravel works, was generously gifted by Redland Aggregates, now Tarmac, and slowly but surely support for the plan began to grow. Thousands of donations from individuals and military, civilian, corporate and voluntary organisations were matched by the National Lottery’s Millennium Commission, providing the vital funds needed to get the initiative off the ground. The National Forest provided a grant for the planting of the earliest trees, and in 1997 the first saplings of the Arboretum were growing at last.
A year later, the first memorial arrived, a statue of a Polar Bear dedicated to the 49th West Riding Infantry Division.
After years of hard work, the Arboretum officially opened its doors to the public on 16th May 2001, a young, living tribute that celebrated lives lived and remembered lives lost. In the words of David Childs himself, ‘a bridge between the past and future’ began to take shape.
The number of people visiting the Arboretum began to grow steadily until, in 2007, the dedication of the Armed Forces memorial prompted a huge increase, as people came to pay their respects to our serving community.
In 2017, following a fundraising campaign by HRH The Duke of Cambridge, we opened the Remembrance Centre, complete with exhibition galleries, an extensive restaurant, and a Learning Centre. A year later, Aspects opened, a purpose-build events facility where we host many of our remembrance events today.
The Arboretum now warmly welcomes over 300,000 people each year, providing people with opportunities to remember, reconnect and rejoice. Although the pandemic has meant that many people have been unable to visit over the last year, we look forward to welcoming you in the very near future.
The Polar Bear Association Memorial was dedicated on 7th June 1998, and was the first memorial sculpture to be placed in the Arboretum. The memorial stands as tribute to the 49th West Riding Infantry Division, inspired by their nickname ‘Polar Bears’ after their actions in icy Norway and Iceland during the Second World War.
Explore below to learn more about the people that make the Arboretum the world-class centre for Remembrance it is today.
The Arboretum is freely open to all, and welcomes people from all walks of life. People come from all over the world to pay their respects to loved ones lost, as well as to commemorate the service and sacrifice of those represented by the memorials. Others visit for the beauty of the Arboretum’s outdoor spaces, to attend events or take part in activities, an inspirational landscape in which to make new memories and remember lasting ones. The support of the public through their generous donations, feedback and shared stories will always be vital to the growth of the Arboretum and the work that we do.
Volunteers have been essential to the growth of the Arboretum from the very beginning. Inspired by the cause, many local people offered their time to ready the rough land for planting. Since then the number of volunteers has increased vastly, and today you’ll find volunteers helping our guests feel welcome, giving tours and teaching young people, as well as working on our grounds and behind the scenes. Each and every volunteer remains as dedicated and welcoming now as when visitor numbers were in single digits, driven by their love for the Arboretum and deep respect for those that are remembered onsite. Without their selfless contribution, the Arboretum as we know it could not exist today.
While our memorials bridge the gap between the past and present, the Arboretum also looks forwards and passes on the baton of remembrance to future generations. The Arboretum offers learning experiences for young people, teaching them about the deeds of those commemorated on site and enabling them to share these stories with others in turn.
The Arboretum features nearly 400 memorials to military and civilian groups, including the emergency services, volunteer organisations and youth charities. Each memorial provides a lasting focus for Remembrance, a place where people can come together, reflect and remember. Set within an inspirational living landscape, the memorials recognise those who serve, remember those who have been lost and ensure that their stories will continue to be told.
Sikh soldiers were renowned for their bravery. Over 124,000 Sikhs fought for the British Indian Army in the First World War, taking part in major battles at Ypres, Flanders, Gallipoli and the Somme. The Sikh memorial was unveiled at the Arboretum in November 2015, funded by an online Kickstarter campaign with over 200 people of many different faiths and backgrounds donating to the cause.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution has been saving lives at sea for nearly 200 years, with 95% of the organisation being made up of volunteers. Independent from the coastguard, the RNLI’s 24/7 search and rescue lifeboat service has even continued throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Its volunteer lifeboat crews and lifeguards help thousands of people each year, and have saved over 143,000 lives since the charity’s foundation in 1824.
Woodland, meadowland, lakes, wetland and rivers all make up the Arboretum, serving as home to animals such as rabbits, otters and foxes, as well as many species of insects, fish and birds. The diversity of the trees on site is ever increasing, with native species such as black poplar and horse chestnut planted alongside others from around the globe, such as American oak and the rare Serbian spruce.
Caring for the environment is extremely important to the Arboretum. We have a responsibility to act sustainably to safeguard the world that generations before us have sacrificed for, and to support the communities who combat the effects of climate change. As well as caring for 150 acres of green space and adopting sustainable practices, the Arboretum helps people to connect with nature and learn about the environment through exhibitions, activities and events.
The Arboretum is a place for people to reflect and remember, and spending time in nature has been shown to have a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing. Whether a person is grieving, living with a mental health condition or simply feels a bit low, we hope that spending time in the outdoor, green space of the Arboretum will have a positive impact on their wellbeing. The Arboretum is perfect for activities such as woodland walking and forest bathing, which have been shown to reduce blood pressure and reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
The Remembrance Glade was created in collaboration with the Royal British Legion to provoke reflection and contemplation through the symbolic forms of nature, providing a space for peaceful contemplation of both military and civilian loss, service and sacrifice. The curved oak gateways represent strength and resilience, giving way to a quiet inner sanctum. The glade’s perfect circle of white stemmed Himalayan birches create a sense of harmony and unity. The mirror reflects truth and brings light.
Since reopening after the first lockdown, the Arboretum has remained freely open to all, providing a safe place where people could exercise, remember, reflect and reconnect. Meanwhile, we have hosted digital events and activities so that people were able to come together and Remember in the safety of their own homes.
Many of those who have served our country through the pandemic are remembered in the Arboretum’s memorials, and in 2020 we collaborated with the National Portrait Gallery to host Hold Still, an exhibition spearheaded by HRH the Duchess of Cambridge featuring photographs that captured the Nation’s experience of lockdown.
We know that the Nation needs a place where it can come together to remember those who have lost their lives or suffered as a result of the pandemic. Working in partnership with the National Forest Company, we are cultivating a new memorial woodland at the National Memorial Arboretum. This living, growing memorial will celebrate the memory of those who have died, providing a space in which we can reflect on our shared experience of the pandemic and look with hope to the future.
From a muddy open field to the beautiful growing landscape you see before you today, you have helped us heal the landscape upon which the Arboretum is sited, and collectively, as a community we have already achieved so much.
As a charity we can only achieve our vision with the support of our friends, advocates and donors. You will ensure that we can continue to educate future generations, inspiring them with the important stories we share, provide a safe harbour for those struggling with the complicated emotions brought on by grief, and help our community celebrate lives lived and remember those lost in service.
Our ambitions are high, but our vision is simple and clear, and as we reflect on the past 20 years we are galvanised by the early aspirations of our founders and donors. We welcome opportunities to work with those who share our vision and there are many ways you can support the Arboretum as we embark on the next 20 years.
Whilst a charity in our own right, the Arboretum has been part of the Royal British Legion since 2003. As the champions of Remembrance, the Royal British Legion works with the Arboretum to engage people in learning and remembrance of those who have served our Nation.
The Armed Forces Memorial will be closed between 10am and 1pm on Thursday 7 July for a private event. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.