National Memorial Arboretum viewed from above

History of the National Memorial Arboretum

The National Memorial Arboretum has been part of the Royal British Legion since 2003, but its history stretches back over 20 years. 

Officially opened by HRH The Duchess of Kent on 16 May 2001, the Arboretum has grown into an inspirational living landscape where families, friends and comrades celebrate lives lived and remember lives lost. 

Spread over 150 acres of beautiful woodland and gardens in Staffordshire, the National Memorial Arboretum features almost 400 dedicated symbolic memorials that acknowledge the personal sacrifices made by the Armed Forces, emergency services and civilian organisations of the UK. 

Dave Childs at holding early National Memorial Arboretum plans
David Childs holding early plans for the Arboretum

How things began

The Arboretum was the idea of Commander David Childs CBE who, having been inspired by a visit to Arlington Cemetery and the National Arboretum in Washington, believed a year-round national centre of Remembrance was needed in the UK to ensure we never forget.

David Childs holding early plans for the Arboretum

Supported by Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC, an appeal was launched in 1994 by the then Prime Minister, John Major. 

The National Lottery, in the form of the Millennium Commission, granted 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. 

Based in Alrewas Staffordshire between Burton upon Trent and Lichfield, the National Memorial Arboretum was developed on reclaimed gravel workings that was gifted by Redland Aggregates, now Tarmac. 

Planting began in 1996 and a year later the first memorial sculpture was dedicated.

Polar Bear Memorial

The first memorial

A tribute to the 49th West Riding Infantry Division, The Polar Bear Memorial was inspired by their actions in Norway and Iceland where they earned their famous ‘Polar Bears’ nickname during the Second World War.

After its official opening in 2001, the Arboretum became part of the Royal British Legion in 2003 and we now work hand-in-hand to champion Remembrance.  

In 2007 the Armed Forces Memorial was unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen and put the Arboretum at the heart of Remembrance all year-round. 

Armed Forces Memorial

The Armed Forces Memorial is a national monument to the service men and women of the British Armed Forces who have lost their lives on duty, died in operational theatre or been targeted by terrorists since the end of the Second World War.

And since its addition the Arboretum has seen visitor numbers grow from 65,000 each year to 300,000. 

Aspects event building at National Memorial Arboretum
Aspects hosts events such as Remembrance services, dedication events and military reunions

A new Remembrance Centre was opened in 2016 to provide suitable visitor facilities, including an exhibition space and restaurant.  

And in 2018, a second building, Aspects, was opened to provide facilities for over 250 events each year – many of them Remembrance services, dedication events and military reunions. 

As part of a commemorative programme to mark 20 years since opening to the public, in May 2021 the Arboretum unveiled a series of ambitious pledges, committing to continue to engage people in Remembrance, adopt and advocate for sustainable practices, and nurture a space which is inclusive and accessible to all.

This coincided with the announcement of a planned new Remembrance space in memory of all those who have died as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the landscaping plans for the memorial woodland could accommodate any national government-sponsored memorial to key workers.  

Remembrance Glade at National Memorial Arboretum
The Remembrance Glade has been created to provoke reflection and contemplation

Every year sees the dedication of new memorials, and as we look towards the next 100 years the Arboretum will be play a central role in how the nation remembers.  

In September 2021, the Remembrance Glade was opened at the Arboretum, providing a peaceful oasis for personal reflection, surrounded by trees and plants of symbolic meaning. This year-round Remembrance space will change with the seasons and is located next to the RBL Poppy Field.

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