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Drowning in a sea of poppies

07 November 2014

Bertrand Olivier, Vicar of All Hallows', describes life surrounded by four million visitors


Capturing people's imaginations: the poppy installation at the Tower of London

Capturing people's imaginations: the poppy installation at the Tower of London

ALL HALLOWS' by the Tower, in London, has found visitor numbers rocketing in the run-up to 11 November.

The church has plenty of First World War associations: Tubby Clayton, one of the luminaries from the Forces' chaplains, who set up Talbot House in Poperinge in Flanders, and Toc H, the charitable association that flowed from it, was Vicar here. In the past, this has been enough to generate a decent level of interest.

But the overwhelming stimulus for the huge increase of visitors this year must be the field of ceramic poppies in the moat at the Tower of London.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by the artist Paul Cummins and the stage designer Tom Piper has been growing: a trickle from the wall of the Tower in the summer became a cascade that has taken root and spread. Thanks to an army of workers, the poppies will number 888,246 by Remembrance Day.

The work of art has captured the imagination of many thousands - despite its condemnation by The Guardian's art critic, Jonathan Jones. An estimated four million people will have travelled to see it by 11 November.

Its appeal has been such that, last week, with the coincidence of school half-term and the near-completion of the planting, emergency crowd-control measures had to be put into force. Barriers were erected to stop people crossing the road. Transport for London shut Tower Hill Tube station for a time. I even had to call the police to help to deal with the confusion of those trying to get a glimpse of the sea of red on green.

ALL HALLOWS' is already on the tourist map. It is the oldest church in the City of London, with a Roman pavement in its crypt, Saxon and Medieval architectural remains, and historical links to the founding of the US state of Pennsylvania. Being next to the Tower of London does not hurt.

As a consequence, we welcome many visitors from the UK and overseas, and have a small team of guides and volunteers, and a few paid staff, who run concerts and educational projects.

But even such an efficient infrastructure has been stretched beyond capacity as people have poured into the church, seeking a breather from the crush outside, perhaps taking refreshment in the busy café that adjoins the church - not to mention the perennial quest for a free public lavatory.

We have made a number of startling observations. The first is the desire for a connection with something that resonates. Jones's online criticism was headlined: "fake, trite and inward looking". Yet Jones conceded that the work was "the real thing - popular art". At the moment, that seems to be the understatement of the century.

So many in the Church long for a connection that allows bigger questions to be opened. There is no doubt that this is happening at All Hallows'. People start conversations in the nave to consider the implications of what they have seen.

If Mr Jones is disappointed that the work does not highlight the horrors of the trenches, for many people it is a moving realisation at the sheer expense of life in battle. They discuss the futility of war - still an issue today - and its cost to families. They talk of politics, history, and faith.

And they pray. Candles fill the stands all through the day, sometimes dangerously so. We have had to order extra candles, and even an additional stand. Such is the power of silent commendation.

Strangers talk with each other. Many families are coming together to make pilgrimages to the site, especially if their loved ones are among the daily roll-call of names before the sounding of the Last Post.

There is an extraordinary cross-generational element to what is happening: people who would be grandchildren to the men who served in the war were telling their own grandchildren about their ancestors. Lost names and people have come to life again.

The Church has been for some years the repository of such memory. War memorials and remembrance services have been maintained as a mark of respect. Too often, though, we can feel that we have no contemporary purchase.

This year, if the hordes on Tower Hill are anything to go by, we have an opportunity to engage with people on a level that has not been experienced for a long while. We must acknowledge our debt to those who come up with ideas that capture a broader imagination than we have. None the less, it is an opportunity too good to miss.

The Revd Bertrand Olivier is the Vicar of All Hallows' by the Tower.

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