Sowing wildflowers in memory of past Chelsea Pensioners

23rd May 2022

On 6 May, Chelsea Pensioners and members of the Royal Hospital’s grounds team joined representatives from the Royal Parks, the Royal Parks Guild and the Friends of Brompton Cemetery to sow a patch of wildflower seeds in Brompton Cemetery as part of the Battlefields and Butterflies initiative.

Brompton Cemetery’s memorial to the Chelsea Pensioners “erected on behalf of an admiring nation” features flags, cannon balls and bronze lion heads.

Brompton Cemetery’s memorial to the Chelsea Pensioners “erected on behalf of an admiring nation” features flags, cannon balls and bronze lion heads.

Battlefields to Butterflies began in 2014 when the Royal Parks Guild and the Royal Parks came together to find out – 100 years on – the impact of World War I on the Royal Parks. The 24 gardeners who went to war were researched and a special garden was created at the RHS Hampton Court Palace flower show in 2018. Both Chelsea Pensioners and horticultural apprentices got involved with the project, which branched out into other initiatives – from a ‘living wall’ at the Royal Hospital to pottery artefacts recalling the trenches, created by the Chelsea Pensioners.

In 2018, a plaque commemorating the Royal Parks gardeners who lost their lives was presented to the Brompton Cemetery and a meadow was created near to the memorial commemorating the 2625 Chelsea Pensioners laid to rest there between 1855 and 1893. At the same time, Chelsea Pensioner and artist Rick Graham presented his own Battlefields to Butterflies painting to the cemetery.

Now, four years on, the meadow area needed reinvigorating, as Russell Stevens – Brompton Cemetery’s Technical Officer (and soon to be head gardener) explains:

“Over the past couple of years, as you can imagine, the meadow has gone away a bit. We’ve prepared the ground and the aim is to do this every year to ensure the seed can come up because it easily succumbs to the competition of grasses and other things.”

Chelsea Pensioners Preparing the Ground for Sowing the Seeds
From battlefields to butterflies

Russell also explained how Battlefields to Butterflies was inspired by the observations of World War I poet and artist William Orpen:

“He did a lot of observational work, especially around the Somme and recorded how the mud and destruction quickly rejuvenated the ground with wild flowers and he noticed all the butterflies that came about as a result.”

Orpen’s own words bring this phenomenon vividly to life:

“The dreary, dismal mud was baked white – and pure dazzling white. Red poppies and a blue flower [most likely cornflower], great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky was dark blue, and the whole air up to a height of 40 feet thick with white butterflies. Your clothes were covered with butterflies, it was like an enchanted land...”

A living tribute 

Chelsea Pensioner Arthur Spreading Seeds
At the meadow-sowing event, Chelsea Pensioners Tony Bendry, Michael Campbell-Smith, Arthur Currie, Michael Wickens and Rick Graham joined gardeners and friends to cast the flower seed – mixed with sand to ensure it covered a wide enough area ­– and raked it in. Now all that’s needed is sunshine and rain to bring the meadow to life.

“The meadow will look very attractive” Michael Campell-Smith said, “It’s nice to hear of other Chelsea Pensioners here.”

Michael Wickens agreed:

“It’s good to have a physical act of remembrance. I served for 40 years and I’m proud to wear my Scarlet.”

The project is also positive from a horticultural point according to Justin Dennis, the Royal Hospital’s deputy grounds and gardens manager:  

“It ticks all the boxes. It’s good to build connections with our neighbours horticulturally and this oasis of green will attract birds. If you get plugs, they go in a greenhouse, they need to be watered and planted out and then they might end up in the bin. It’s not ecologically sustainable – it wastes water, heating, time. Naturalistic planting like this needs less labour and is low maintenance.”

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