Every Memorial Has A Story To Tell
1st Rhagfyr 2020
Michael Byrne, Visitor Service Volunteer, National Memorial Arboretum
With 30,000 trees planted across 150 acres and almost 300 memorials to the fallen, the National Memorial Arboretum is a place to remember the sacrifice of all those in the British Armed Forces.
After taking early retirement, Michael Byrne became a Volunteer Guide, building up a strong knowledge of military history and devoting his life to the arboretum.
Since then, the 68-year-old’s work has been invaluable, particularly during the pandemic, when he led guided, socially distanced walks, and introduced a weekly guided ‘Victory Over Japan’ Day walk for visitors, which quickly became so popular that it became a daily fixture.
Michael, lives in Tamworth with his wife Pamela, who also volunteers at the St Giles Hospice, near Lichfield. He says: “I used to come here with family and friends before I retired. One of my friend’s son got killed in Iraq in 2005, so his name is on the Armed Forces memorial wall.
“I always thought it was a beautiful place: serene, calm and uplifting and I thought when I retire I might try and volunteer.”
After being accepted, Michael quickly became a mainstay of the centre, which has become an important place for the bereaved to seek solace.
“The best thing is when we can help a visitor, but our aim is to make it special for everybody and for everyone who comes to us,” he says.
During lockdown a dedicated team of 12 continued to care for the grounds, led by the head of estates, Andy Ansell. Their work included improving pathways and strengthening roads, drainage work, keeping the site secure, the memorials pristine and even created an NHS carpet bed as a thank you to medics for their work fighting on the Covid-19 frontline.
In June, the arboretum reopened under strict Covid-safe guidelines, allowing pre-booked visits, so that people could return to contemplate and grieve – a vital opportunity during such a turbulent time.
Michael says: “I began taking socially distanced guided walks again in July. Getting back to the tours was amazing. We have voice amplifiers, so our visitors can be well away from each other and the guide and we can carry on doing that at the moment.
“That’s what we’re all passionate about. Telling the stories of the different memorials because every memorial at the arboretum – there’s nearly 400 – they’ve all got a story to tell, so we had missed being able to tell the visitors all about the memorials and the stories behind them.
“It was 75 years since Victory Over Japan on August 15th this year, so during lockdown I also wrote a script for a VJ Day walk which has proved to be very successful, along with another for VE Day, which unfortunately we could commemorate at the arboretum. As a charity we rely on donations, so if people go on one of our tours, they pay a small fee, so the VJ Day walk has helped balance the books a bit.
“It starts with the bombing of Pearl Harbour and we go through all the stages including the fall of Singapore, the Burma railway, the Chindits, the 14th Army, the ‘hell ships’ and then the atomic bombs. We always try and finish on a positive note, so at the end of the walk we arrive at a Japanese grove of reconciliation and we finish on there.
“I’m quite sure without The National Lottery support this place wouldn’t be around. Over the years they’ve kept us expanding and more people are getting to know about us. Without their input we would’ve struggled.
“We are the national centre for remembrance for the UK, so to have this exposure is really excellent for us and we’re really proud to be part of it.”