Lest we forget

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
February 2018

Steffie Shields explores Lincolnshire’s newest Memorial Gardens with their creator landscape architect, Shona Hatton CMLI.
One misty, dark December day recently, I headed to the International Bomber Command Centre, (IBCC) just off Canwick Hill. Dank weather, with low clouds blocking the light and any view of Lincoln Cathedral, helped only to conjure WWII’s ‘darkest hours’. Young aircrews relied only on navigational instruments and radio contact with early radar controllers, as they flew arduous, freezing and treacherous night-time bombing missions over Europe.

From hello, Shona Hatton engaged me in an uplifting design story, a commission conceived and masterminded by a former Lord Lieutenant of Lincolnshire. The late Tony Worth CVO formed a Trust to honour not only the memory of more than a million men and women who served in Bomber Command, but also all involved with or affected by the bombing campaign, especially the families of those airmen who died, every single one a volunteer. An associate director of Influence Environmental Ltd, Newark-based chartered landscape architects, urban designers, environmental planners and arborists, Shona has collaborated these last four years with many others in refining plans and finding solutions to funding, planning and archaeology issues. What was once a quarrying site for the city that the Romans would have known, was leased from Jesus College, Oxford, at agricultural rents as the ideal complementary location for this long-overdue venture.

Poignantly, on my first visit, 11th November 2017, came the news that Tony Worth had died three days earlier, only a few months before the inspirational project’s completion and the IBCC and Peace Gardens Official Opening on 12th April. He would have surely welcomed hundreds of visitors laying glistening gold pound coins along a line of donated, engraved pavers of durable Yorkstone Scoutmoor. This ‘Ribbon of Remembrance’ accompanies a long, central walkway to the dramatic, rusted Memorial Spire reaching up to azure blue skies. On high ground, just as pre-historic barrows since time immemorial, this landscape is outstanding and achingly memorable.

I remember standing in awe at the scale. The ten-acre open space offers iconic views across Lincoln City, and the subtle transition between South Common’s meadow uplands and expansive, tidy, typically flat farming country beyond native hedgerows. The spire’s award-winning design by Stephen Palmer from Place Architecture, consisting of 73 tonnes of Corten Weathering Steel, was built off-site by S H Structures, structural and civil engineering designers. The height, 102 feet, matches the wingspan of an Avro Lancaster bomber, a relevant reminder of how massive these planes were.

I met Nicky Barr, IBCC project director, who embodies the enthusiasm of all involved. She recounted the excitement when the structure first arrived in May 2015, so huge that it necessitated a police escort. That summer, strangely and unexpectedly, thousands of poppies bloomed in the disturbed soil around the memorial pinnacle.

Fifty-eight thousand names have been inscribed by laser on twenty-three Memorial Walls, weathered dark orange, steel panels arranged maze-like around the towering spire. Some families have begun to leave red poppies threaded through individual names here and there, drawing attention to their fallen loved ones, in touches of colour mixed with a pathos more potent than medals.

This next visit proved even more moving. Shona led me back to the entrance, determined to explain how she arrived at a simple, effective concept to unite both the Lincolnshire Peace Garden and the International Peace Garden. In-depth research had taken her, with family, including her husband’s now 94-year-old grandfather (a former flight navigator) to East Kirkby Aviation Heritage Centre. This triggered unheard memories that, combined with many other survivors’ accounts, helped Shona begin to understand some of what the ‘Bomber Boys’ had been through.

A simple narrative underpins her design: a journey through a landscape of quiet contemplation, where the Memorials remain centre stage in harmony with meaningful surrounding views. Every visitor will follow her approach, first to ‘Assemble’ in a quadrangle, darkly enclosed by upright purple beech hedging, and an outer wall of prickly hawthorn, as if serried ranks of young volunteers on parade, with knots of anticipation in their stomachs.

The path leads through grassland punctuated with heart-warming young oak and liquidambar trees towards the Chadwick Centre, named in honour of Roy Chadwick, designer of the Lancaster aeroplane. This architecturally dynamic, aircraft-like building houses a state of the art exhibition, with education and heritage archive facilities. Here visitors will ‘Prepare’ by being briefed in dark operation rooms with interactive maps and displays conveying the training involved. They will be able to ‘Interpret’ the airmen’s mission but also contemplate the profound impact on their families at home and communities abroad, before they move outside into the light of the Lincolnshire Peace Garden.

The community response to the project has been phenomenal, with grant aid from Biffa Award, WREN, the Landfill Communities Fund, the FCC Environment and Veolia Environmental Trust, NKDC, LIBOR, HLF, Tesco and others. Native lime trees, Tilia cordata, supplied by Hilliers Nurseries, mark the location of each of the twenty-seven RAF Bomber Command stations in Lincolnshire, in uneven, wild grass terrain shaped as the map of ‘Bomber County’. Why limes, a tree much-planted in German cities, and associated with the House of Hanover, rather than oaks? Shona simply wished to suggest healing and cross-border understanding.

The county map area, underplanted with 8,000 Lincolnshire daffodils, is intersected not by Ermine Street, but the long pathway and ‘Ribbon of Remembrance’ towards the great Memorial Spire. At this apex of the design, uncannily, many minds will take off and ‘Fly’. It is easy to imagine the Spire as a beacon and the path edged with lights as a runway to the skies above. The view opens to reveal a panorama of the City of Lincoln below, dominated by the Castle and ancient Cathedral on the horizon, the last sight the ‘Bomber Boys’ would have craned their necks to see as they flew off, hoping and praying to return. Realising that Lincolnshire’s coastline also made a heartfelt line of departure and homecoming, Shona included extra tree-planting to reinforce the existing shelterbelt and to emphasise a coastal ‘feel’ along the Lincoln Edge.

The stark Memorial Walls bring onlookers back down to earth and tragic reality. Of 364,514 sorties flown, 3,491 aircraft were lost and 26,296 aircrew, average age 22 years, lost their lives. Nearby, curved benches are placed for privacy and solitude, each with a different view, only one directly facing the St Mary’s Cathedral. The Field of Remembrance and flower beds in amongst the Memorial Walls are sown with wildflowers, including poppies.

A winding path to the International Peace Garden represents ‘Return’ and reconciliation. Through waves of international planting a ‘coastline’ will be suggested, representing five ‘continents’. Here one can explore and wander quietly amongst the dappled light of the Peace Grove and pay silent tribute to the many ‘Bomber Boys’ who hailed from sixty-two nations overseas. A Peace Sculpture will feature nearby, designed by Cathedral mason, Jason Pettrica, and currently being carved by his fellow masons donating their time freely in support of the project.

Our collective memory will never be allowed to grow rusty or dim. Public entrance to the gardens and Memorial will be free of charge. Resilient and single-minded in coping with this significant professional responsibility, Shona has been motivated by stories from surviving WWII crew, fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers. Working closely with Nicky Barr, the project team, contractors and 600 volunteers from across the world, they have together delivered a sensitive new designed landscape for Lincolnshire, a profoundly personal, world-class interpretation of international service, sacrifice and reconciliation.

As the volunteer airmen stood tall, so will the lime grove grow tall to set off the fitting Memorial Spire and lend shade to the haunting Field of Remembrance. Future generations, young and old, from home and abroad, will be prompted to sit and ponder those extraordinary wartime journeys. Many will pause to walk humbly through the hollow base of the tapering spire framing Lincoln Cathedral and give thanks for the peace that was eventually won.

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