Last week I learned two things about Croydon.
Firstly: that within the Whitgift School’s grounds sits a beautiful walled garden built for King Henry the Eighth.
Combined with the gorgeous (and more recent) maze that sits within it, the effect is quite stunning. I half expected Mark Rylance to come trotting out in his best “Wolf Hall” garb whispering of treachery and plots before swishing his cloak and disappearing in a puff of history.
Secondly, right next to this gorgeous garden, is a brand new exhibition marking the centenary of the First World War.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Dr Christopher Barnett the head of Whitgift and it celebrates a raft of personal stories from WW1. To be clear, this is not about the glorification of war, but a collection of recollections, diaries and artefacts to bring, for a moment at least, the people of that awful conflict back to life.
And it’s very very good.
Personal testimonies from some of the largest theatres of the war, such as Jutland and the Somme, sit alongside more intimate stories, such as a 19 year old ex-pupil mortally shot down by the ‘Red Baron’. A mock-up of a trench, complete with the booms and flashes of conflict, are juxtaposed with an Edwardian drawing room where a wife waits for news of her husband.
There are over 600 items and many have never before been seen on public display.
My personal favourites were two extremely rare first issues of the British trench newspaper, The Wipers Times; original British, French and German uniforms and a train station sign complete with bullet hole from the French city of Verdun, site of one of the most horrific battles of the war.
“Reynard the Flying Fox” is clearly visible on signs and notices to guide any younger visitors and the whole event manages to navigate the difficult waters of engaging both young and old alike.
At the end there is a wonderful café in which to reflect whilst eating cakes fit for a king, a mere stones throw from a Tudor monarch’s walled garden.