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