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Hearts, pebbles, flags: handmade tributes mourn nation’s lost lives

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Rebecca Naden/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Rebecca Naden/Reuters

It began with simple hearts painted on a wall by the Thames. Now people across the UK are constructing their own Covid memorials, from rainbow-painted lawns to hundreds of flags on a Welsh mountainside.

Although Boris Johnson has pledged to create a permanent national memorial, and set up a commission on Covid commemoration, no further details have been made public.

So communities are creating their own tributes. Gardens are a popular choice, with members of the public and community groups starting work in Solihull, Rushcliffe near Nottingham and Walthamstow in east London.

Many have very personal and poignant beginnings. Bev Johnson, from Treorchy in south Wales, lost her mother Sheila in January, so she and her family created a giant memorial in the shape of a heart on the side of Bwlch mountain. They spent days moving white stones and decorated them with yellow flags, each featuring the name of a someone who had died.

In Sunderland, a rainbow has been spraypainted on the embankment outside the football-focused Fans Museum. It sits below the railway on Weymouth bridge and can be seen by thousands of travellers every day. The museum’s director, Michael Ganley, said they would add a pebble garden in the coming weeks and months.

“We want to get families to write their message on polished stones to remember the ones that they have lost,” Ganley said.

The memorial wall by the Thames in London.
The memorial wall by the Thames in London. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP

There are some more official commemorations as well. The National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire will include a 25-acre remembrance space, due to be planted next year, while 33 blossom trees have been planted at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford. Last week, health ministers at the G7 meeting planted 10 Japanese cherry blossom trees at the Oxford Botanic Gardens.

On Friday, 200 MPs, peers and mayors including Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham signed a letter to the prime minister calling for him to make the Covid memorial wall in London a permanent national landmark.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice group began in March to inscribe hearts on the wall on the south side of the Thames, with dedications to loved ones.

The group March for Change has led a cross-party campaign to institute a Covid Memorial Day every year on 23 March, marked by a poppy in the blue of the NHS logo. It is also calling for a memorial in Whitehall and has asked people to submit design proposals.

“We have already received hundreds of ideas from people around the country, including key workers and bereaved families, about how to remember the victims of the pandemic,” said Tom Brufatto, director of March for Change. “Many are backing calls for a memorial day to bring communities together to mourn the lives lost and remember the efforts of those working on the frontline.

“The government must listen to these calls and put the public at the heart of its plans to commemorate the pandemic.”

Among those who have submitted proposals is Martin Jackson, a 57-year-old emergency medical technician, who would like to construct a tower in Amble in his native Northumberland. Known as Squaring the Circle, it would face the North Sea, with a path leading from a square base that gradually becomes circular at the top.

Another is James Pardoe, whose mother died in a care home in May last year, a few weeks after contracting the virus. The 42-year-old from Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire said his mother had been given no oxygen and was only treated with paracetamol.

Photographs and messages at Riverside Church in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire.
Photographs and messages at Riverside Church in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“I have been exasperated at the government’s response to this pandemic,” he said. “The last 18 months has been like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

His memorial idea, the Final Goodbye, is for a statue of two old people walking into a sunset.

“Poor folks dying alone after being locked away in care homes has been particularly tragic,” he said. “Already struggling with being locked away without visitors and face-to-face contact with family, they have to be remembered because many will have been left feeling forgotten before they die – an unimaginable hardship. These people deserve to be remembered.”

The Cabinet Office did not say when the commission would start work, or if the Thameside wall would be made permanent, but a government spokesman said: “Every death from this virus is a tragedy and our sympathies are with everyone who has lost loved ones. The government’s immediate focus is on further protecting the lives and livelihoods of the nation, but there will be a time to remember those who have lost their lives and to recognise those involved in the unprecedented response.”

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