I became aware of the Memorial after purchasing Errol Martyn's 'For Your Tommorow: a record of the New Zealanders who have died while serving with the RNZAF and Allied Air Services since 1915' (Volplane Press (Christchurch) 1999). Our visit was one of those things 'to fit in' while in London if we could manage it. As it happens, we managed to visit, and I'm very glad we did!
We visited the Memorial on the last morning we had our rental car - so things were rather rushed as we had to have it back by 11.25am, and as usual we were running late. Drove out from Thames Ditton along the A308 through Staines - bad navigating by me, as we should have followed the bypass. Under the M25 and toward Egham, then we followed the signs to Coopers Hill. The Memorial is visible from the Windsor Road as it runs along the Thames riverside - the road passes the tree covered ridge to the south on which the Memorial is located. We followed the A328 up Priest Hill and into Coopers Hill Lane. Arrived in the carpark at 10.35am. From there it was a short walk to the Memorial.
The road is literally a tree-lined lane. The entrance was a couple of hundred metres from the carpark. The Memorial is in the 'countryside' (although Brunel University and other builtup areas are near by) and can best be described as having a park-like setting - all trees and lawn. The impression was of a tranquil place. We walked up to the building and through the gates as another couple were leaving, So we were the only people inside.
The memorial itself is a cloistered courtyard with a larger shrinelike building opposite the gates and a small curved extension at each corner above the river. These wings end in lookouts. This central structure has large windows facing the river. The hilltop location must provide a wonderful view over the woodland and out past the Thames toward London, but it was a misty morning and although the haze had lifted it had not cleared. The Memorial, designed by Sir Edward Maufe is on land donated by Sir Eugen and Lady Effie Millington-Drake in 1949, and was dedicated by Queen Elizabeth II in October 1953.
Left: The memorial as seen from the road entrance where the path leads up to the triple-arched portico with the shrine beyond. Right: The view across the courtyard (or garth) showing the surrounding cloisters.
Stairs led up to the next level, but we didn't have time to explore. We walked around one half of the cloister. The ceiling has some magnificent paintings featuring various Commonwealth armorials. Niches in the walls contain flowers and a number of personal items. On a window sill I noted a pair of ceramic Kiwis. They made me realise that people come here to remember real people - which left me feeling quite overwhelmed! The walls carry the names of more than 20,000 Airmen and Women with no known grave. The names fill the walls arranged by year. We found a number of New Zealanders listed.
Left: the central 'shrine' showing the arched entrance with three figures above by Vernon Hill representing Justice, Victory, and Courage. Centre: The view along a cloister. Right: The curved wing on the North East side, leading to one of two lookouts.
Although overwhelmed by the feeling of personal loss, the RAF Memorial didn't strike me with the sense of incredible sadness that I've felt at places like the Vimy Ridge Memorial. Rather it was a peaceful place, but full of feeling. I guess it fulfils its intention as a place of remembrance. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certainly do a wonderful job in keeping the place perfect.
We didn't stay long - maybe 15 minutes, as we had to return our rental car. I could have spent far longer in contemplation. As we left we met more arrivals, including a bus group who appeared to be from Malaysia walking from the carpark. Maybe we were lucky to have the place to ourselves for a short while.
© 2002 Phillip Treweek, all rights reserved