Back in August, an installation of scarlet poppies began in the moat of the Tower of London. The poppy has long been the symbol of Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth, with many folks sporting poppy buttons and pins during the month of November to pay tribute to the lost soldiers, but with this year marking the centenary of the outbreak of WW1, something really special was in order. Known as Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, this giant, collaborative work of art is made up of a collection of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each symbolizing the soul of a British or Colonial soldier lost during the course of WW1. Considering the Tower’s bloody past, the location for such a commemorative masterpiece was aptly chosen.
Designed by artist Paul Cummins and handmade in his studio by a team of skilled potters, each poppy is carefully cut out, formed into a flower, fired in the kiln, and then sent off to the Tower of London where it will be planted by volunteers sometime between August and November. After November 11, the poppies will be picked and sold with the proceeds going to six different charities.
After I heard about this installation going in, we made a point to see it the next time we were in the city. It was near the end of August and already it looked like the moat was over halfway filled with poppies. Besides filling the base of the moat in waves, poppies also spilled over the rooftop and streamed out of windows. It was a bright, sunny day that we visited, but with the blood-red poppies filling the moat, the Tower had a much darker mood about it than usual.
We stood along the perimeter of the Tower gazing at the poppies and watching the volunteers work in the moat when it hit me – how cool would it be to actually get to be a part of this? Judging by how full the moat already appeared, I didn’t have high hopes that we’d be able to get our names on the list in time to volunteer, but I tried anyway. We heard nothing back for over two weeks, and I had just about given up hope when we got an email asking us to appear at the Tower on October 4 at 1pm.
This past summer, London enjoyed the benefit of a few extra weeks of unseasonably warm weather, all the way up until the first days of October. And then on October 4, autumn decided to show her true colors. Our lovely sun and comfortable temperatures were replaced with chilly winds and a nearly all-day torrential downpour. When I looked out the window that morning and saw the grey clouds and felt the wind coming through the cracks in the sill, I almost stayed home. But then I sighed and put on my coat and wellies – if almost a million Commonwealth soldiers were willing to lose their lives for their countries, then I could certainly work in the cold and rain for four hours to memorialize their sacrifice.
Despite the less than stellar weather, when we arrived, all of the volunteers were in good spirits and the mood was really quite jovial – there may have even been some singing from time to time. (Not from me, thank goodness. Morale would have plummeted in an instant.) We took turns assembling the poppies on their stems, which was actually way more difficult than it looked during the demonstration, and planting the poppies in their wave formations along the moat surrounding the Tower.
I wish I could tell you something poignant was going through my head as I planted my first poppy, maybe thoughts of the servicemen who gave their lives in the name of peace, but the truth was, the only thoughts running through my mind were – how can the ground possibly still be this hard after an entire day’s worth of rain? and please, dear God, don’t let me break these poppies as I use my entire body weight to stick them in the ground.
It was rather hard work – by the end of the day I’d torn holes in half the fingers of my gloves and my thumbs felt like floppy, useless appendages, but we were also having a lot of fun. I even made some new friends out of it, albeit friends I’ll likely never see again. With the mindless task of fitting small washers, large washers, spacers, poppies, and end caps on the metal stems, there was plenty of time for chatter. I quickly earned myself the nickname ‘The Foreigner’ by a particularly boisterous bloke who, for all intents and purposes, could have been a “good old boy” from back home were it not for the Geordie accent. And then there was the girl, about my age, who I quickly befriended, and who was happy to commiserate with me over the rain and the distressing lack of hot beverages as we assembled poppy after poppy with our slippery, fumbling hands.
The time passed much quicker than I expected, and when 5pm rolled around, I can’t say I wasn’t ready to go home, but I was pleased by the productive way we’d spent the afternoon. As fate would have it, when we were cleaning up our supplies, the sun finally came out. Not early enough to dry us out before the ride home, but just in time for me to use its light to capture some photos of the poppies as we left. (Big thanks to Lexie for letting me borrow her little camera for these. I didn’t want to risk the safety of my DSLR around rain and metal spikes!) The poppies that appear as a sea of red from further away are so delicate and unique up close. A photogenic bunch, these flowers are!
As I rode the 19 tube stops home, exhausted, filthy, and soaked to the bone, it finally hit me just how significant this day was. Not only did we get to see something that will probably only happen just this once in our lifetimes, but we also got to be a part of it, doing our small piece to honor these soldiers who deserve our utmost respect and recognition. And as far as future stories go, That Time We Planted Poppies at the Tower of London will be a way more interesting tale to tell than I Sat on the Sofa and Watched The Hunger Games for the Fourth Time.
I believe all the volunteer slots for planting are filled, but there’s still a chance to participate during the next phase – the picking of the poppies at the Tower of London – if you’re interested. See the link below for more info!