Several years ago I was reading an admiring article in a French newspaper, probably Libération, about sailor Ellen MacArthur. The journalist chronicled her achievements, and her determination when still a child, to sail. All this, he wrote, despite coming from landlocked Derbyshire. If you don’t know the geography of the British Isles, that might make it sound as though young Ellen lived so far away from the sea as to make it as distant as Mars. But, as the celebrated television programme Coast used to point out every week, if you live in these islands you are never more than seventy-two miles from the sea.
So it is hardly surprising that the sea and the coastline exercises such a pull on our imaginations, and contributes so strongly to our sense of identity. I grew up in landlocked Surrey, but trips to the seaside were a feature of every summer. We explored the south coast, and had our favourite places; West Wittering, Littlehampton, Southsea.
My father loved Cornwall, but that was too far for a day trip. He was a Royal Marine Commando during the Second World War, and stationed in St Ives for part of that time. Cornwall is famous for its rugged coast, the quality of the light in the sky, its intrepid sailors, including, of course, Ben Ainslie who has just won gold at the Olympics.
Here in London there is a moving memorial to merchant seamen. The merchant fleet has contributed enormously to British trading success down the centuries. But it was only after its contribution and terrible losses in the First World War, when some fifteen thousand seamen died, that George V said it could call itself the Merchant Navy. Twelve thousand of those who died were never recovered from the sea, and Edwin Lutyens designed a memorial for them. It stands in Trinity Gardens, close to Tower Hill.
In the Second World War, some thirty thousand members of the Merchant Navy were lost at sea. Only six thousand bodies were recovered. As in 1914-18, the ships were targeted by German U-boats.
A second memorial was raised in Trinity Gardens, this time by Edward Maufe who also designed the RAF memorial at Runneymede.
An officer stands at the western entrance.
See how the waves are behind him. It’s the same on the easter pillar where an ordinary seaman, his coat tied with a rope, stands guard.
Down the steps, symbolically beneath the waves, is the main part of the memorial. A compass in the grass shows true north. There are panels arranged in a semi circle; lists of names of those lost, grouped by ship, and listed not by rank, but alphabetically.
Between the lists are sculptures by Charles Wheeler depicting the Seven Seas.
Here a man stands with a dolphin.
Charles Wheeler’s dolphins at Trafalgar Square are probably seen by more people, but these are no less evocative.
Here, a boy rides a dolphin, while a school of seahorses hover at his feet.
And a merman blows on a conch shell. I don’t know the exact significance, but it always seems to me as though he is sounding the Last Post.
Incongruously, yesterday, a girl was sunbathing in the middle of the memorial, dressed just in a bikini. Maybe she didn’t realise this sunny spot remembered so many people who died.