Where Poppies Blow: the British soldier, nature and the Great War

Press release
A John Nash watercolour entitled 'Near Houdkerk Belgium bean poles in a field near the camp of the 1st Artists Rifles 1914-1918
Published : 01 Mar 2018

From Saturday 10 March, a powerful new exhibition will mark 100 years since the end of the First World War.

Where Poppies Blow at the National Trust’s Wordsworth House and Garden in Cockermouth, Cumbria, celebrates the role of the natural world in helping sustain Britain’s troops through the horrors of battle.

The exhibition, guest curated by historian, farmer and prize-winning author John Lewis-Stempel, reveals the importance of the British countryside and sense of place as an incentive for men to join up, the solace that nature and gardening provided in the trenches, and the discomfort of living too close to nature.

In the years after the war, Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, Great Gable and 11 other Lakeland summits were gifted to the National Trust. They became a unique memorial to those who lost their lives in the conflict. These gifts were some of the largest donations the Trust had received at the time and are the reason people can walk the mountains freely today.

Items on display include the original manuscript of war-poet Edward Thomas’s iconic poem Adlestrop, paintings by brothers Paul and John Nash, both commissioned as official war artists during WWI, and digital artworks by renowned graphic novelist Dave McKean. Also on show later in the summer will be Thomas’s war diary, whose pages bear the eerie arc of creases created by the shell blast that killed him.

John, who won the 2017 Wainwright Golden Beer Prize for nature writing, said: “Nature mattered in the Great War. Tens of thousands went to war for the fields, the flowers, the birds of Britain.

“On active service abroad, soldiers lived in trenches, inside the ground, closer to nature than most humans had lived for centuries. Soldiers planted flower gardens, birdwatched and fished flooded shell-holes for eels. Nature was also a curse – rats and lice abounded at the front.

“Above all, the wonders and comforts of nature helped men endure the bullets and the blood. As one soldier of the Great War put it, ‘If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be’. This is the unique story of the British soldiers of the Great War, and their relationships with the animals and plants around them.”

Zoe Gilbert, Wordsworth House’s visitor experience manager, said: “As the birthplace of one of the world’s best-loved nature poets, we’re thrilled to be showcasing this evocative exhibition guest curated by such a renowned nature writer.

“The National Trust looks after one of the world’s greatest war memorials, the ‘Great Gift’ of Lakeland summits, given for everyone to enjoy. In the Lake District, throughout 2018, we’re commemorating the centenary of the war’s end, and this exhibition is a fitting way to remember the sacrifice made to protect these landscapes.”

The first set of evocative exhibits will be on display until Sunday 8 July and includes the Adlestrop manuscript, Nash paintings and digital artworks by Dave McKean. A second set will go on show from Monday 16 July to Sunday 28 October, among them Thomas’s war diary.

Exhibition entry is free with house and garden admission. Locals taking proof of their CA postcode can enjoy a free visit to the house, garden and exhibition on Saturday 10 or Sunday 11 March.