Not sure where you went for your quiet moments of Coronavirus contemplation, but I found myself at the National Memorial Arboretum for, embarrassingly, the first time in my life. Zookers, it's stunning. I was fully expecting to sob my heart out and there were, indeed, moments of hefty contemplation, but what I most came away with, actually, was what I didn't realise I needed — relaxation. It's so calming. And as we continue along the road to demask us, and bustle and clamour escalates, a slice of peace might be exactly what we all need. On a good run it's only 35 minutes drive from town and on a bad run it's still absolutely worth it. Bosses at the Arboretum have said a new woodland is planned in memory of key workers who died during the pandemic, but that's unlikely to be this year, so don't hold off. Here's just 9 of the memorials that caught my eye, but every visitor will have a different experience.
Naval Service Memorial
This one commemorates those who have served, serve today and will serve tomorrow, regardless of rank, trade or fighting arm. The 13 glass panels depict the colours of the five oceans — steel grey with spume lines for the Atlantic, turquoise for the Indian, ultramarine for the Pacific and white for the Arctic and Southern oceans. Yellow is for the rising sun, red for the setting sun and the blood spilled at sea, and on land. On the terrace stands a figure of a sailor, head bowed, cap held in the 'at ease' position. He faces west, where the sun sets. The terrace has a carved inscription of the Tennyson poem Crossing the Bar — a phrase used when shipmates pass away. The glass panels cast a shadow suggesting the shape of a warship — visible only in sunlight and for few hours a day, it's best seen on Nov 11.
The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces Memorial
Commissioned as a national memorial to all those who have served, it plays a focal role in Remembrance and the grieving of bereaved families. The emblem of the Airborne Forces is Bellerophon mounted on the winged horse Pegasus. The first recorded instance of an airborne warrior, his exploits are recounted in Greek mythology, where he slayed the fire-breathing monster Chimera. Mounted on Pegasus, with spear in hand, Bellerophon rode into the air, swooped down upon the monster and destroyed it. Pretty cool. In front, a paratrooper pulls in his bergen.
Shot at Dawn Memorial
This one completely blew me away. During the First World War, 309 British and Commonwealth soldiers were shot for desertion, cowardice, striking a senior officer, disobeying a lawful order, casting away arms and sleeping at post. Most of them were sentenced after a short trial with no real opportunity for defence. Today, it is recognised that several of them were underage when they volunteered and that many of them were suffering from PTSD, which was not recognised as a medical condition until 1980, unbelievably. Andy De Comyn's statue 'Shot at Dawn' is modelled on Private Herbert Burden, of the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, who was shot at Ypres in 1915, aged 17. The names of Burden and others who suffered the fate of being shot at dawn are listed on the stakes arranged in the form of a Greek theatre around the statue, symbolising the pure tragedy. Many of the posts say 'Age Unknown' as a lot of young men lied about their age in order to enlist. It seems appropriate that it should be on the eastern edge of the Arboretum, where dawn strikes first. The six trees facing the posts (top picture of the two) represent the firing squad, all aiming for the medallion around the statue's neck. It must have been very traumatic for them too, having to shoot one of their own.
Still Water Memorial
A memorial to the British victims of overseas terrorism, The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall were joined by nearly 300 people who have lost relatives, friends and loved ones, for its unveiling in 2018. Among the families attending were survivors of the deadly Tunisian beach attack at Sousse in 2015, in which 30 Britons were killed. Its design, as an elliptical-shaped pool surrounded by woodland, was selected by an independent panel, in consultation with victims' relatives. The memorial has no dominating symbolism but was chosen as it reflected the global reach of terrorism and the continuation of life. For me it was totally silent. Not even nature seemed to interrupt the peace, here.
The Women's Land Army and Timber Corps Memorial
The Women's Land Army was initially established during the First World War to provide agricultural labour and support. As many farmworkers left their jobs to join up, a huge labour shortage was left. By 1943, 80,000 women, nicknamed Land Girls, were working in the Land Army. Some 6,000 women, known as Lumber Jills, also worked in the Timber Corps. During the First and Second World Wars, over 240,000 Land Girls and Lumber Jills provided food and timber for the war effort. The bronze memorial, created by sculptor Denise Dutton, depicts two young women dressed in their respective uniforms. The Land Girl holds a sprig of corn in one hand and a pitchfork in the other symbolising agriculture. The Lumber Jill has an axe over her shoulder and in her hand holds a sprig of oak and a pine cone, symbolising the hard and soft woods with which they had to work. At the base of the memorial a dead rat and a gin trap. During the Second World War a thousand Land Girls worked as rat catchers to control the threat posed to harvests by "Hitler's little helpers".
The Polar Bear Memorial
This was the first memorial to be placed in the Arboretum. It's a tribute to the 49th West Riding Infantry Division and was dedicated on 7 June 1998. The 49th Infantry was formed in April 1908 and fought in France and Flanders during the First World War. In the Second World War the 49th saw action in Norway and Iceland where they earned their famous 'Polar Bears' nickname as much of the campaign was compounded with heavy snow. The polar bear standing on an ice floe was soon adopted as their insignia and remains so today. Made from yellow hardwood, the bear is 9ft long and 5ft high and weighs 2.5 tonnes. It took a year to carve. Inside the bear is a time capsule containing the names of all the members of the 49th Division who did not come home, together with relevant letters and documents.
Armed Forces Memorial
The centrepiece of the site it commemorates the service men and women of the British Armed Forces who have been killed whilst on duty, died in operational theatre or been targeted by terrorists since the end of the Second World War. Unlike the war memorials in towns and villages, there is nowhere else that records over 16,000 names of those who have been killed on duty in recent times. Since 1948, the men and women of the Armed Forces have taken part in more than 50 operations and conflicts. These actions have ranged from hot war to peacekeeping; from humanitarian assistance to fighting terrorism; from the jungles of Malaysia to the storms of the Atlantic; from the seaport of Aden to the streets of Northern Ireland. In recognition of Armistice Day, a gap has been left in the two southern walls, allowing a shaft of sunlight to penetrate to the heart of the Memorial, onto a central bronze wreath, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year. The Memorial is particularly important for families and friends who have no grave to visit, or who remember those in graves in far-off places. Eerily there is space for new names, which hit me as hard as the thousands of names already there.
Burma Railway Memorial
The Burma Railway Memorial is a permanent tribute to those who were forced to construct the infamous 'Railway of Death' during the Second World War. The 258 mile railway between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma, was built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign. The memorial is constructed of 30 metres of track and sleepers from the original railway, brought back to Britain on HMS Northumberland in 2001 and laid at the Arboretum as a permanent memorial to those who died working on it. Some 16,000 Prisoners of War and 100,000 labourers lost their lives — one life for every sleeper laid.
WWI Sikh Memorial
Dedicated to the 124,245 Sikh soldiers who fought for the British Indian Army during the First World War, it's the first memorial of its kind in the world. Despite making up less than 2% of the Indian population, Sikhs rallied for the British Empire in huge numbers, and made up around 22% of the Indian Armed Forces by the end of the First World War. They fought in all the theatres, including major battles at Ypres, Flanders. the Somme and Gallipoli. At Gully Ravine, the 14th King George's Own Ferozepore Sikhs lost 12 British Officers,11 Indian Officers and 371 men in mere minutes. After the war, they became known as "The Black Lions" for their bravery.
It's free to enter the National Memorial Arboretum, but you must book ahead. The Arboretum has a new kid-friendly AR app that you can find for iPhone and Android.
SHE DOESN'T LOOK 50
It's been a big week for The REP who have announced their 50th anniversary autumn season. She's older than that, of course, launching in The Old Rep back in 1913 with Twelfth Night, but she's been in her current home on Centenary Square since 1971. The programme shows the kind of big promise the ever-inventive REP has become famed for. Dependable hit comedy-drama East Is East (Sept 4 to 25) returns home for its 25th anniversary. It premiered on The REP's stage in 1996 and since has sold out three runs in London and been adapted into a BAFTA-guzzling movie. Next up is a new musical based in London's Swinging Sixties called What’s New Pussycat? (Oct 8 to Nov 14), written by the Tony-winning Joe DiPietro (Memphis The Musical) and based on comic novel The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. TJ himself has been in close consultation on the project. Perhaps the pièce de résistance comes, though, when The REP’s Artistic Director Sean Foley directs his own hit, The Play What I Wrote, Nov 27 to Jan 1. Reviewers went gah-gah for this one when it was in the West End. A guest star will appear every night. Tickets go on general sale from 10am, Friday, April 30. More
YOU SHALL GO TO THE BALL-ET
Pride of Brum, Birmingham Royal Ballet have set ticket sales live for the Company’s June shows — a triple bill called Curated by Carlos (Acosta, no less) and Sir David Bintley’s Cinderella. Usually found at the Hippodrome, the Company will be taking up residency at The REP with performances from June 10 to 26, tickets starting at the insanely reasonable £17. Social distancing is big on their agenda (on stage and in seating), and the triple header includes City of a Thousand Trades, a new, one-act abstract ballet celebrating the diversity and industrial heritage of Brum. Also on the bill is Imminent — a poignant ballet born of hope and the importance of letting go of the past, plus the UK premiere of Goyo Montero’s thrillingly physical work, Chacona, which is set to live music by some guy called Bach. Reviewers went gangbusters for Sir David B’s Cinderella when it was last in town, capturing audiences with its awesome scenery, and a cast of magical / trippy characters. Cinders comes with the kind of breath-taking backdrop and costumes (by the designer behind the Company’s famous Nutcracker) that have you feeling like you've got plenty of bang for your ballet-ing buck. Tickets from just £20 for that one.
SET YOUR ELEPHANTS FOR 7AM
West Midland Safari Park have launched overnight lodges which are integrated into newly-updated animal habitats on the park's reserves — so you can eat your Shreddies while overlooking cheetahs and African elephants. Six of the lodges offer the only overnight accommodation experience with elephants in the UK, whilst two more lodges offer views of those cheeky cheetahs, also the only experience of its kind in the country. The double-story elephant lodges (pictured) are themed with thatched roofs, accommodating up to five. The two single-story, detached cheetah lodges sleep up to six. Expect jumbo windows, spanning one entire side of the building, offering panoramic views of the beasts in their habitat. A floor-to-ceiling window offers similarly incredible views in the bedrooms where guests can watch cheetahs Azrael and Bappe goon about. Short breaks will include brekkie and dins, plus admission to the Safari Park. Wristbands for the Adventure Theme Park will also be included for those staying during the summer season. The development forms the first phase, with more expected in spring, including (and I'm holding out for this) a red panda cottage, which unsurprisingly will also be the first of its kind. Bookings for 2021 have almost sold out, (yeeesh) but 2022 breaks are available. Prices start from a cool £171 per adult per night and £147 per night for kids. More
Brum has long struggled with a tragedy of Euripides proportions when it comes to top Greek restaurants. I remember spending a hat-trick of 16th birthdays trying to impress girls between courses at Zorbas, in... Hall Green, I want to say? Plus a few nights in that place next door to Snobs — bloody hell, what a location! The pair of venues were enough to turn me off Greek food for years, until I actually — you know — ate food in Greece. Following the opening of All Greek Street Food on Stephenson Street, comes Kouzina. It's takeaway only just now and the walk through the bustling Bullring got the ol' virus anxiety going, but Selfridges itself was super quiet. A bizarre oasis of tranquility in a shop so often pumping and jumping. It's there, in the food hall, you'll find Kouzina looking a little like this. Branding-wise it fits Selfridges clean cut bill but, when it comes to background, these guys come from exactly where you want them to. A West Midlands-based Greek-Cypriot family business, they cut their teeth in the sink-or-swim world of street food, front crawling full throttle at Digbeth Dining Club, BBC Good Food Show and Lichfield Food Festival, progressing from blow-away gazebo to a fancy Selfridges spot, learning it all the hard way. What I'm saying is, the polished appearance belies soul, energy and passion. It was the friendliness of service that first hit home, as owner Paul Polyviou recommended the pork souvlaki box. The menu houses a wealth of below a tenner options, placing Kouzina squarely in the once-weekly pool of competitive lunch take-outs. The pork arrived quickly (another big takeaway tick), not at all greasy, it was barbecued perfectly, the inside still moist and flavourful. Pork that actually tasted of pork rather than simply serving as a vehicle for char and chilli. This was waaay too much food even for me — if you were to add one of their fresh meze's that start at £3, you have a meal for two for £12 — chips, bread, meat, salad, dips, sauces, the works. Top sellers include anything falafel and halloumi, as well as chicken gyro. But meateaters should plum for that pork, and the taramasalata is so good you'll never accept supermarket slop again. Menu
So help me God, I went to that new designer outlet place in Cannock and the deals were actually really good. They're not paying me to say this — I wish they were. The Le Creuset shop was a particular highlight. It's 5 mins walk from Cannock Station which is 40 mins from New Street. Queues were quite horrendous early in the day, but they dissipated.
As a precursor to Pride, musical hits from Hairspray, Footloose, Kinky Boots, Rocky Horror and Moulin Rouge will be performed by queer musicians at a candlelit St Paul's Church in the JQ. Thursday, May 20 from £15.
Listen to how London tried to nobble post-war Brum and how our city fought back, on BBC Sounds' Birmingham – the city they couldn’t kill.
The UK’s first ever drive-in drag show kicks off its tour in Sutton Coldfield, April 23 and 25. Drag queen royalty Baga Chipz and Vinegar Strokes will be joined by Ginny Lemon on night one, with UK Drag Race alumni Divina De Campo, Gothy Kendoll, and finalist Ellie Diamond taking to the stage for night two. More
"Quiet is peace. Tranquility.
Quiet is turning down the volume knob on life.
Silence is pushing the off button. Shutting it down. All of it." — Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
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