Blood Swept Lands and a Sea of Red – the truly amazing installation at the Tower of London created by the ceramic artist Paul Cummins and hundreds and thousands of volunteers – is still creeping its way round the wide grass moat that surrounds the old grey walls of the Tower. Each day another few hundred volunteers ‘plant’ another few thousand poppies on the way to the total of 888,246 that will have been planted by the 11th November.
Meanwhile, back at the factory in Derby, each poppy is pressed out of rolled out clay and shaped by hand, then painted, then fired – after which is is loaded into a truck and driven to London where another batch of volunteers is waiting to ‘plant’ them. (You can watch a short video of the poppies being made on the BBC News story on the 5th August here.)
Hardly surprisingly, the factory are struggling to keep up with demand as 888,246 is an awful lot of poppies and they are, inevitably, taking longer to make than anticipated. But, according to our ‘team leader’ on my planting day, they are very much still on track.
In terms of volunteer organisation the project is almost as ambitious as it is in concept! I was only one of thousands and thousands who have volunteered for a morning or an afternoon of planting since the project was launched in August. All you have to do is to log onto the site and follow the instructions. I chose an afternoon in early September and ten days later I got an email with instructions as to where to go and at what time to check in.
When I duly turned up I was one of just over 200 others, many of whom had taken days off work to come. We were all squeezed through the Tower walls, told to take ourselves a T shirt and then gathered together to be shown a short video of the poppies being made and how we were meant to plant them! We were given a ‘team leader’ – a very pleasant young man who had just finished at university and was filling in the summer while he decided whether he and his band – the Rapscallions for anyone who might just think of giving them a contract…. – could make it as a band or whether he needed to look for a job! Then we were then ushered into the moat. Our side, as you can see, was far from fully planted….
We were divided into two groups one of whom would make up the poppy ‘stems’, the other would plant then – but we could swop groups so that everyone got to plant their poppy! We were then supplied with thick gloves, mallets and eye protectors!
The design is delightfully simple – three differing length of steel rods and four rubber washers/bungs per rod. The first group pushed the rubber washers onto differing length rods – not easy on your hands as to be sure that the washers will hold the quite heavy ceramic poppies in place, they have to be pretty tight. The second group actually did the planting.
This involved using your mallet to bash the rod into the ground, then getting a poppy out of the box, removing your top two washers/bungs, slipping the poppy (all of which have holes in the middle) onto the rod and securing it with the washers/bungs you have just taken off! Again, hard on the thumbs as the washers needed to be squeezed tight so that they held the flower in place.
In fact, because we were a large (and very keen…) group, we ran out of poppies before our three hour stint was up – so we were let off to go and wander round to the other side of the tower where planting is already finished, and where you can also see the ‘streams of blood’ which pour out of some of the window slits in the tower and over the bridge.
It is a truly amazing sight from a distance (the image above was taken, not by me, from the road around the Tower) but is almost better at close hand, especially if there is a breeze, as the poppies sway and all but rustle. You can also see John Piper’s excellent design in more detail while the grass which has now grown up round the earlier plantings make them look even more realistic.
The only bit which did not really quite work for me was the ‘blood’ pouring from the window slits – not because the concept was not brilliant, but because they did not use enough poppies. As a result it did not really look like a ‘river’ of blood – more like a blood spattered scaffold. None the less, it was pretty impressive from behind…
I am not sure whether all planting volunteer spots are now filled. But, if you are keen, after 11th November all those 888,246 poppies have to be taken up again, cleaned, their stems shortened and be sent off to the many thousands of people (including me!) who have already bought one! Not sure that the Tower moat in a November drizzle sounds quite as appealing as it did on a sunny September afternoon though…
Anyhow, if you want a poppy, even if you haven’t planted one, they cost £25 each and you can order them from the site here. And keep your eye on my garden blog – my poppy has already booked its place in the herbaceous patch!!