Since 2014 a large tract of former agricultural land near Epsom has been in the ownership of the Woodland Trust. With sponsorship from Sainsbury's gradually the land is being turned into a woodland commemorating the centenary of the Great War.
As you walk up through the fields you come across a boat shaped clearing. The avenue leading up to it is marked by 14 oak porthole markers [the work of Andrew Lapthorn] commemorating the British warships lost in the biggest naval battle of WWI- the Battle of Jutland. One sapling has been planted for every life lost...it is sobering to see 6097 trees across such a large area. John Travers Cornwell holds the dubious title of being the youngest person to have been awarded the VC for his bravery. He was only 16 when he died of the injuries he'd received. At the centre sits the steel sculpture by Christine Charlesworth showing a sailor in the uniforms of 1916 and 2016. It is going to look amazing when all the trees have matured.
Further round the site stands the Regiment of Trees. The placement is very deliberate because this was where Lord Kitchener carried out his inspection of 20000 troops in January 1915. 12 standstone figures carved by Patrick Walls represent the recruits from the 2nd London Division of Kitchener's New Army. It was a bitterly cold day with blizzard conditions. The men had already been standing outside for hours [having been woken up at 4am] and many were ill prepared for the weather. Lord K showed up for five minutes at 10.30 and subsequently some poor souls had to be carted off to hospital and treated for hypothermia.
Off in one corner stands this beautiful wooden edifice. It's called "Witness" and is made up of 35 pieces of oak. Standing at 6m high you can sit within it and read the carved excerpts from some of the war poems. It is very atmospheric and the creator, John Merrill, has been able to bring forth one of those special liminal spaces that you only come across once in a while. It represents the twisted forms of the dead trees on the battlefields.
It's a place which conveys the horror of war without glorifying it or demanding a mawkish sentimentality. Everything is understated yet it is also a place of hope. Nature is thriving and the Trust have created a community orchard. During the summer months the former fields are now awash with rare wild flowers which had been relegated to the outer margins. The land is ploughed every year so that the seeds are agitated into growth. Below is Common Toadflax, but nowadays you can see Red Hemp Nettle, Night-Flowering Catchfly, Ground Pine and Prickly Poppy.
Until recently this place was not easy to find, but I gather that they are in the process of building a carpark to encourage visitors. We followed the fancy free walk over to it.