That’s something that has become really evident for me while volunteering at Hydon Hill, giving lectures on art to the residents. Long-time Hydon Hill resident Jackie Kerr is someone whose creative passion really shines through. She puts together fantastic montages, collages and pictures, which you’ll find throughout the home. I love her work. It’s inspired.
She is doing things she may not have had the chance to do elsewhere. She is supported and encouraged in her work by staff and volunteers. Jackie’s story is a great example of how the spirit that Leonard fostered is still alive and well at Hydon Hill.
Prior to helping out at Leonard Cheshire, I was a voluntary consultant at his wife’s organisation, The Sue Ryder Foundation. Among many other things, I taught art to Hell’s Angels and spent a few years as director at the Hackney Empire.
But my connection to Leonard Cheshire goes further back than that. I met Leonard Cheshire himself on 1 July 1989 on the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Leonard, Sue, my friend Les and I were meeting in France to remember those who fought in the first world war.
We gathered at the Lochnagar crater — the largest crater ever created by man in anger. I had bought it in 1978, trying to save it from being filled in by the French government. I wanted to preserve it as a monument to the fallen.
Leonard Cheshire was Les’ hero. Les chatted on to him for ages! Leonard had that ability to listen, to connect, to engage. And he had an unmistakeable humility — a much-underrated quality.
In recent years I visited Lochnagar with Dan Eley, a former resident of Hydon Hill who runs his own charity. Dan was the first wheelchair user to try the new accessible pathway around the site.
I’ve been over to the crater hundreds of times and it never fails to move me. I’ve visited with quite a few veterans. I saw people who had lost friends and felt a responsibility to go with them. They had tears streaming down their faces.
On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme saw 60,000 casualties in the British army alone, including 19,000 killed. At Lochnagar British troops detonated two explosives under German front lines, causing huge destruction and forming the Lochnagar crater. Expecting little resistance, they walked into a barrage of machine gun fire. A man fell on average every half a yard. The crater eventually provided much-needed shelter for some of the troops.
In 2016 I received an MBE for services to remembrance. This was a proud moment. This year, as every year, we held ceremonies on 1 July and on remembrance weekend. A hundred years ago, people fought and died in a war that left many thinking of the lives these people might have lived. Today, we can stand together side by side in peace and reconciliation.
I’ve been over to the crater hundreds of times and it never fails to move me.