The Arboretum – More Tales of Staffordshire


We made our first visit to the National Memorial Arboretum on Thursday.  It was one of those clear, crisp days that we get in early October; a perfect day to be outside.  The Arboretum doesn’t charge an entrance fee, but it does ask for donations, which we were happy to make; the three of us are keen supporters of our armed forces.  There is plenty of parking space at the Arboretum, with disabled parking near to the entrance.

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The Arboretum is built on a 150-acre site that used to be gravel workings, the brainchild of former Royal Navy officer, David Childs.  He says that the idea came to him in a dream, after visiting Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC.  We do pomp and ceremony better than any other nation here in the UK but we are utter rubbish at honouring our war heroes.  (Let’s get this out of the way now: I know that not every soldier, sailor, airman or marine is a hero.  My Dad told me that, and he should have known, he fought in the Second World War.  He told me that some of the things our troops did were awful, what we would nowadays treat as war crimes.  I don’t and won’t glorify any of that.  But the majority of our troops, just the same as the majority of other men and women, try to do their best.  They hurt when they are wounded, they bleed when they are cut.  Young men and women, too young in so many cases, go to fight wars in which they have no personal investment, sometimes because joining up is the only job they can get.  If you don’t believe me, come meet me for a drink one night, and I’ll prove it to you.)

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So, now I’ve got that out of the way, I take my hat off to David Childs, but I really think that this should have been a government led initiative.  It wasn’t.  We are where we are.  Let’s move on.  Childs managed to get the site and the Arboretum pays £1 per year in rent.  Way to go, David.

The location of the Arboretum is almost fated – it is adjacent to the confluence of the River Tame and the River Trent.  The waterways nestle against the grounds nicely on one side, it gives the impression of protecting the grounds from any interference; like a moat round a castle.

As you enter the Arboretum, there is a chapel on the right hand side, where a little service, an Act of Remembrance, takes place every day at 11am.  This is the only place in the country where a service like this happens daily, and it’s quite rightly a non-denominational service, incorporating the Last Post and Reveille.  We went to the service on the Friday, it was very moving, and a charming little chapel.

Back to the Thursday, we wanted to find the police memorial area – known as The Beat.  We’d been told that there was a memorial there to someone we knew, so we wanted to pay our respects.  We walked down one side and the memorial we were seeking was on the other side, so it took us quite a time to find it, with the help of one of the volunteers, but the memorial to Detective Constable John Fordham was there. It was fortuitous that the volunteer helped us because he told us that he was giving a short lecture shortly after, at the Shot at Dawn memorial.

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Geoff decided to take a trip on the land train, whilst Kate and I went to the lecture.  The memorial is dedicated to the 306 soldiers who were executed for desertion during World War I.  The talk was given by one of the 200 odd volunteers at the Arboretum, Martin Turner.

The memorial is headed by a statue of Private Herbert Burden, who enlisted just before World War I started.  Like so many other young men, Herbert lied about his age in order to be able to sign up.

He was trained in England and posted to France.  There is a certain irony to this – had he not lied about his age, he would not have been posted overseas.  On 26 June 1915, Herbert was directed to join a party that was extending trench lines, but he went missing.  He was picked up a couple of days later, and told the authorities that he had gone to meet a pal of his who was stationed nearby.  They clearly didn’t buy his story because he was court martialled and executed on 21 July 1915.  It is believed that Private Burden was the youngest of those executed – although the army thought he was 19, he was actually only 17 years and three months old.  The first soldier to be executed was Private Thomas Highgate, on 8 September 1914; the last two soldiers were Privates Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson, on 7 November 1918, just four days before the war ended.

There are 306 posts at this memorial, one for each of the men who were executed.  There is a small plaque on each one giving the name, age, regiment and the date of execution of each of the soldiers.  Another 40 soldiers were executed for committing what are known as non-military crimes – for example, murder.

During World War I, a number of soldiers were said to suffer from Shell Shock, a poorly defined condition that covered physical or psychological symptoms, and was also sometimes just defined as cowardice or lack of moral fibre.  By World War II, the term Shell Shock was replaced with Combat Stress Reaction, but the symptoms may not have been exactly the same.  Different war, different fighting conditions, so in a way, we’re comparing apples and pears.  I suppose nowadays we’d use the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but if I’m honest, I still think these conditions are poorly understood.  Human beings are so diverse, it’s difficult to specify these things.

To say that life in the trenches, where the soldiers spent a fair bit of their time, was grim, is a massive understatement. The trenches would often be ankle deep in water, and soldiers would frequently be standing next to the corpses of their fallen colleagues.  The trenches were also infested with rats; two types, black and brown.  The brown rats were particularly feared and disliked, they fed on the remains of the dead soldiers, and could grow to the size of a cat!  Rats reproduce at a terrifying rate, and a female can birth to up to 900 offspring a year.  No wonder the trenches were overrun with them.

As if rats weren’t enough to contend with, the soldiers were infested with lice, largely because standards of hygiene were, understandably, so poor.  The lice caused what was known as Trench Fever, a disease that started with pain and then went onto to produce a high fever.  It could take up to twelve weeks to recover from Trench Fever, away from the trenches, and sadly, the cause wasn’t discovered until 1918.  There were also frogs, slugs and any other creepy crawly things that you find in stagnant water.  Many soldiers chose to shave their heads completely to avoid getting head lice.

I’m honestly not sure how well I’d cope with all of this, and I’m not sure that struggling with coping with it constitutes cowardice, although of course I understand why the military authorities didn’t want people going on the trot.  In any event, the families of the 306 men executed for desertion started a campaign to have them posthumously pardoned.  These 40 were not pardoned, but the other 306 were, as a result of a campaign by the families.

Martin explained to us that the firing squad was comprised of at least six men, mostly from the same regiment as the man to be executed (I wonder whether that was done as a deterrent?).  One of the rifles (and none of the firing squad knew which one it was) did not have any ammunition, so the squad members could tell themselves that they had not fired the fatal bullet.

The memorial is situated at the far end of the Arboretum because it is where the morning sun is first seen.  Some small comfort for the families, I suppose.

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After this very sobering event, Kate and I went back to meet Geoff, who had been hugely impressed with the Land Train ride.  We decided that we would all take a trip on it the following day.  We spent the rest of the day looking around that side of the Arboretum, the side we’d been in all day.

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The following day, we got to the Arboretum early so that we could attend the service in the chapel.  It was a very moving service and a fitting tribute to service personnel from the whole world over.  Then we all went on the land train, which goes slowly enough for you to see all the memorials it passes while a recorded message explains what you are seeing.  I’ll be honest, I love walking but I would never have known where to go without going on the Land Train.


The Land Train ends at the piece de resistance, the Armed Forces Memorial, situated at the top of a little hillock. The memorial, made from Portland Stone, commemorates all of those who have died whilst serving since the Second World War.  I’m not sure which is more of a leveller: the number of names that are already there or the fact that there is still so much space for more names.

We spent the rest of the day exploring zones 1, 2, 3 and 4.  (They mark it clearly in zones on the maps, which is really helpful.)

Royal Engineers Memorial
Royal Engineers Memorial

Highlights for me in the Arboretum were the Royal Engineers memorial (because my Dad was in the Royal Engineers), the Royal Naval memorial, more correctly known as the Naval Service Memorial.  The latter was commissioned by the Royal Naval Association, is made of 13 glass panels of different colours, described by designer Graeme Mitcheson as “sails of coloured glass,” representing the Oceans of the world.  A bowed figure stands at one side.  We were told, although we didn’t see it ourselves, that when the sun shines through the spaces in the panels the shadows form the shape of a warship.

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Also the woodland area made up of an oak tree planted for each merchantman sunk during the Second World War.  An incredible tribute and good for the environment too!

Truth to be told, there is so much at the Arboretum, and I wholeheartedly recommend it as somewhere to visit.  Two days probably wasn’t enough, and there is so much work going on at the Arboretum, that I will need to go back again in a couple of years.  It is an amazing memorial, and made me feel very proud.

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Our trip to Staffordshire ended on the Saturday, my birthday, by going back to the Waterfront at Barton Marina for lunch.  We didn’t need the car to get home after that, we could have rolled home, we ate so much.  Kate and I went for a walk along the canal when we got back home, and chatted to a few people in the narrow boats.  Kate got her first taste of closing a lock gate; I’ll get those two out on a narrow boat yet.

We drove home on the Sunday, having had a tremendous week.  Back home to normality and everything else that life throws at us.


© Susan Shirley 2015








Lichfield – more tales of Staffordshire


Continuing the tales of Staffordshire….  Kate and I decided to go into Lichfield by bus on the Wednesday.  The weather wasn’t great, it was cold and wet and we didn’t want to go the Arboretum in the rain.  Geoff didn’t fancy shopping for some reason so we went alone.

Unfortunately, and rather foolishly, we hadn’t checked the bus timetable before leaving the cottage, and arrived to discover that we had 50 minutes to wait before the next one arrived.

“Let’s have a bit of a walk, there must be another bus stop down here somewhere, the bus has to go this way” said I.

“Ok,” said my poor, unsuspecting friend.

That was my school girl error.  By the time we had walked to the main road at the end of the village, we realised that there was, in fact, no bus stop further along that road.  It wasn’t that my sense of direction was out of whack, far from it; just that buses being buses, they rarely take the most direct route.  It kind of the defeats the object of being available for all if they do.  As I later discovered, it picked up the same road further down, having done a very circuitous route around the houses.  At least our walk killed a bit of time.


We walked back to the bus stop and waited.  Once we boarded, it was quite an efficient journey, serving the local housing estate.  The bus eventually terminated at the bus garage in Lichfield, which is very close to Debenhams.  It would have been rude not to stop off and check it out before moving on…In fact, we looked around quite a lot of the shops before stopping for lunch and then going onto the cathedral.  I rather think it’s a genetic thing for women and shops.

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After lunch, we visited the beautiful cathedral.  There has been a church on the site of Lichfield Cathedral since 700AD.  Originally a small Saxon church , it was replaced by a larger Norman church in the twelfth century.  Work started on the current cathedral in around 1215, but it took 150 years to complete.   St Chad’s bones were interred at the cathedral, which attracted hundreds of pilgrims until Henry VIII commanded that this church, along with so many others, during the Reformation.

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If you’ve never visited, may I suggest that you put Lichfield Cathedral on your bucket list.  It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful buildings you will ever see.  The high, vaulted ceilings are absolutely stunning, and the stained glass windows are pretty magnificent too.  It has that typical sense of serenity so often found in cathedrals, I always feel very peaceful when I visit.

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Lichfield is not only notable for its cathedral, some famous people were born here too.  There was Samuel Johnson, of course, of the dictionary fame, but there was also Elias Ashmole, founder of the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, Anna Seward (eighteenth century poet, aka the Swan of Lichfield), Erasmus Darwin (physician and grandfather of Charles of Origin of the Species fame) and David Garrick (playwright and actor, after whom the Garrick theatre in London is named.  There is also a Garrick theatre in Lichfield itself named after him).  It’s a pleasant little city (if that’s not an oxymoron) with it’s little river and old Georgian buildings.  If we’d had more time, we could have done more of the touristy things but it was a pleasant way to spend a day.

A bus ride home to settle down for a quite night in, ready for our trip to the Arboretum the following day.


© Susan Shirley 2015


A Visit to Staffordshire



I’ve just come back after a few days away with my friends, Kate and Geoff.  We’ve been saying for ages that we want to visit the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, so we decided to extend my most recent visit to include this.

Geoff had booked a little holiday cottage close to the Arboretum in a village called Alrewas.  It’s a little village on the Trent Mersey canal, very close to the Arboretum.  It has three pubs – we tried two of them – and three restaurants – we all tried one, Geoff tried two of them.  With a local supermarket and a lovely butchers, we had everything we needed for our week.

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The Arboretum is 150 acres in size and is somewhere best seen in dry weather.  Day one of our holiday was wet, so we deferred our visit in favour of a trip to Barton Marina.

 Barton Marina is a beautiful marina linking into the Trent and Mersey Canal.  It has berths for 320 boats, with facilities for the boaters.  I’m not going into detail about that, but if you are interested, check out

where you can find all the details.

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It was lovely for us to see all the narrow boats, and to watch one being reversed into its mooring – we shouldn’t really have stood and watched, it’s bad enough when someone watches me reversing in a car.  And I think it’s harder in a boat (yes, I have been on a narrow boat and have “driven” one).  There are more canal boat stories to follow.

Up until 1994, the land surrounding the canal was farmland, when work started to extract over one million metric tonnes of gravel and sand to build the marina and two fishing lakes.  The marina opened for business in 2001.

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The landside of the marina is not huge, I’ve been to bigger ones, but it is lovely.  There are some lovely little shops here – what I would call quite artsy shops, but I suppose would be more correctly called artisan shops.

We started off having coffee in the tea rooms, which had some beautifully painted accessories for the narrow boats – kettles, coal scuttles and the like.  Then we had a good look around the shops, and spent a bit of time in some of them.  Well, more correctly, Kate and I had a nice little shop.  Geoff was very patient with us.  Geoff said that he would treat us for lunch at the The Waterfront Pub.  It would have been churlish to refuse…

The Waterfront, as the name suggests, is on the waterfront, and the restaurant overlooks the marina.  We were lucky enough to get a table right at the front.

Geoff had the creamy garlic mushrooms, with toasted ciabatta, which he enjoyed.  Kate and I both chose the fresh warm asparagus and parmesan salad – the salad was actually asparagus and rocket (one of my favourites) and was warm enough to start to melt the parmesan.  It was delicious.

For his main course, Geoff chose the beer-battered cod and chips.  It was huge!  He’s quite a particular eater, and I can honestly say that I have never seen him enjoy a meal so much!  Kate and I both had one of the specials – pan fried hake on a bed of crushed potatoes with fricassee of pea and bacon.  You don’t see hake on the menu very often nowadays, so it was a no-brainer for me.  I thought the fricassee was a bit rich, but it was rather lovely.

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We went back to our cottage after that.  There are more tales of my trip to come in the next post…

©  Susan Shirley 2015


The Cookbook Cafe



Hot Chocolate recently returned from her holiday in Jamaica.  I can’t tell you how well she looked; rested and glowing, and with the long plaits she’d had done just before she went away, she looked about 12 years old.  That didn’t stop me going out with her though.  I can take it.

We’d pre-booked dinner at the The Cookbook Café at the InterContinental London, at Hamilton Place, just off Park Lane.  It’s about 20 minutes walk from Victoria Station, so, apart from the fact that I took us the wrong way round the Hyde Park Corner roundabout so we had to dice with death at one point, it was quite a pleasant walk.

This restaurant is one of several in the hotel, and has won a Three Star Award from the Sustainable Restaurant Association, a not-for-profit organisation set up to help restaurants, and others in the food industry work towards sustainability.  I didn’t know that when we booked it; we’d found one of those deals where you pay a reduced price – this one was for a three course meal and Free Flowing Bubbles.

We’d chosen to have an early meal, partly because HC had only flown home the day before and partly because I’d been working and hadn’t had time to eat, so we knew we’d both be tired and hungry.  And anyway, in the words of the Fabulous Frankie, “she’s always too hungry for dinner at eight.”  Not too tired or hungry for non-stop chat throughout the meal though.  When we worked together, we chatted when we had downtime, but now that we don’t see each other pretty much every day we just seem to have a lot to catch up on.   All the time.  You’d have to know us to understand the conversations, they seem to flip about a lot, but we know what each other is talking about.

Our lovely waiter offered a choice of three sparkling wines: a French white methode champenoise, a sparkling rose and Prosecco.  The girls like Prosecco, so that was easy.  We also asked for some tap water, which came up in bottles with mint leaves – very refreshing.

Obviously, as we were there on a meal deal, we didn’t get the full menu, but that didn’t matter at all, there was a good selection.  And as soon as I asked for gluten free bread, they brought that up too.  Another thumbs up.

Smoked Duck with Quails' Eggs
Smoked Duck with Quails’ Eggs

We both decided to go for the smoked duck breast to start.  It was a cold starter, served with quails’ eggs and some salad leaves and mayonnaise.  I think we were actually silent while we ate this, at least to start.  I think I’d probably expected it to be hot, or different, but it was lovely, with a very subtle smokiness to the duck.

Roast Lamb
Roast Lamb

HC chose lamb for her main course, served with green beans and mash, I chose the chicken. For dessert, we both went for cheese.  The food was good, no complaints from either of us.  Nothing else to say there.  Good, honest food.

Grilled Chicken
Grilled Chicken

The Cookbook Café prides itself on its suppliers.  Clearly, not all the food is UK produced (I don’t know anywhere in the UK where they grow cocoa trees) but they choose Fairtrade and locally produced where possible.  As someone who is concerned about food miles, and the way her food is produced, these are plusses for me.  (I don’t say that I always eat organic or buy Fairtrade, but where I can… And I am very fussy about my meat, and so is HC.  In fact, I think I should write a blog about our meat supplier at Smithfield…But that’s a story for another day.)

The restaurant also runs food festivals from time to time; it also runs events such as Cocktail and Dessert Master classes.  At £35 a throw, I think that’s pretty good value.  Particularly as I am sure you get to try whatever you make.

There are also brunch menus for Saturdays and Sundays.  Eat as much as you like and drink endless Bellini’s or Prosecco.  Eggs, waffles, ham, smoked salmon, traditional roast dishes and desserts…  I think I may be going back for many visits.

© Susan Shirley 2015





Hix Soho


I don’t spend every Friday going out for lunch, honestly I don’t, it’s just happened that way over the past few weeks.  So, on Friday, Nicola and I went to Hix in Soho, for our annual birthday lunch.

I’ve been there before, but it was a first for Nicola, so I really hoped it would be good, as I’d recommended it.  We were seated at the far part of the restaurant, which meant that we had a good view of the room.  Our waiter was a lovely young man named Jacob, who was very knowledgeable about the restaurant and the food.

We couldn’t decide what to drink so we opted for Prosecco, as it was a special occasion – we were celebrating both our birthdays.  Lots of chatting and catching up was taking place, so Jacob suggested that we might like to try the Cockle Popcorn while we were making up our minds.

“What’s that then?” we asked.

Cockle popcorn and pork scratchings
Cockle popcorn and pork scratchings

Jacob explained that they were Carmarthen Bay cockles coated in a gluten free flour and deep fried.  Such a simple idea and yet so tasty.  Nicola liked them with vinegar, I preferred them without, but then I’m not a huge vinegar fan.  Still chatting, and looking at the menu, we then chose the freshly cooked Moyallon pork scratchings with Bramley apple sauce.   They were good.  We were still chatting.  We had another round of both, which was actually a huge mistake because we were starting to get full before we’d even ordered the mains.

Still undecided about our main courses (clearly, we were not having starters after all those cockles and crackling), Jacob came to the rescue.  He suggested Dover Sole, which Nicola chose, with new, buttered potatoes.  I’ll be honest, I always think sole is a bit over-rated, so Jacob suggested I go for the griddled St Mary’s bay scallops with chanterelle mushrooms and Maldon sweetcorn, with fries on the side.  They were lovely but not hot enough for my taste, even the second time round.  Sorry, but if it’s meant to be hot, it’s meant to be hot, in my book.  The staff were very gracious about it though.  We had a garden salad with the main course, which was interesting, if a bit earthy in flavour.  It tasted as though it had nettles in it; maybe it did.

Dover Sole
Dover Sole

After all that food, we had to have a bit of a rest before dessert, although the menu did look enticing.  The young lad at the next table had the Peruvian Gold chocolate mousse, which looked, well, gold.  In the end we shared cheese – Nicola doesn’t like blue cheese, I do, so it made sense, and that way we didn’t have too much.  Jacob also brought us each an espresso martini.  Considering that I don’t like cold coffee, I managed to polish that off very smartly, can’t imagine why…

Then we felt it was necessary to have port…

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There was some interesting artwork in the restaurant.  I couldn’t see it until I turned round, but there was a mobile made from Fray Bentos pie tins.  For those of you too young to have a clue what I am talking about, Fray Bentos is a city in Uruguay where the main industry used to be meat processing.  The tins were quite distinctive in that they were fairly shallow in size, about an inch deep, I think.  I seem to recall my mum making a hole in the lid to release the pressure and then heating the tins in boiling water… The mobile is the work of Sarah Lucas, called Pie Mobile (I said Kiddley Diddley Eye).



In the private dining room there is a display by Douglas White called Nest which is a combination of tree roots and basketballs.  It’s different…  On the main wall in the restaurant is an Angus Fairhurst print, which, although red in colour, looks to me like a forest.

There are nine separate venues for the Hix chain, including the Oyster and Fish House in Lyme Regis.  Perhaps I should make it a mission to visit them all.


© Susan Shirley 2015