The Memorial Garden

Garden conception described by Reg Maxwell

The British Friends of Normandy (BFN), having been involved in the establishment of the Memorial Museum to Peace in Caen, was keen to create a British Garden of Peace in the grounds of the Museum and a proposal was made for gardens, separately, to represent The United States of America, Canada and Great Britain within these grounds.

In 1993, a meeting was held with the Mayor of Belfast, officers of Belfast City Council, General Sir Ian Harris, Lady Harris and Committee Members of the BFN in attendance. The pressing task then was to raise funds to build the garden and a Ball was held at the City Hall in Belfast. It proved a great success and there followed the request to prepare a plan for a garden in Caen. I was present to provide Floral Decorations in the City Hall for this event and would at this time be invited to lay out the design for the Gardens.

I knew very little about the Battle for Normandy and had never visited the beaches or the War Cemeteries. General Harris took me on a tour of the route that he and the 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles followed from their landing beaches to the city of Caen and talked about some of the experiences of the campaign. One striking account was that of the battle for Cambes–en-Plaine, which was extremely fierce and the Chateau of Cambes would be completely destroyed. The site there now hosts a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. On one corner of the road nearby, the cemetery has a monument to the Royal Ulster Rifles facing in the direction from which they came to remove the occupying German forces.

One experience that will always remain with me was when I was in the cemetery at dusk. In the dim light, the headstones took on an almost luminous appearance and in contrast to this were the black figures of the silently moving rooks. It was then that I had my ideas for the Garden with a central feature being the ‘Temple of Spirits’. And so an outline design was born.

General Harris had given me a brief that the garden should in some way reflect the sacrifice that had been made and a clear recognition of the military involvement. A key element of his vision was that everyone would be able to appreciate the peace and serenity of the gardens. He also wanted to ensure that it could be used as a garden at all times by the people of Caen as well as visitors from further afield and that ceremonies and events could be held throughout the year. The gardens should form an integral part of the Memorial estate that continues to reflect on the sacrifice and importance of peace.  

Garden Key Features.  

The entrance Pergola is in the shape of a large Celtic Cross which was made in Belfast. It is clothed with climbers that give flower and foliage colour. At the end of each arm is the 3rd Infantry Division emblem, the Red Triangle set within the Black Triangles. These are backed by shrubs such as Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’ with red foliage, Nandina domestica ‘Fire Power’, yellow green foliage that turns red in winter and a range of other seasonal plants.

The Temple of Spirits is set in the lawn of the first part of the Garden and is the dominant feature and was designed as a memorial to the citizens of Caen who died in the fighting to liberate the city. The four pillars are made of Caen Stone and surmounted with copper roof members on a black metal structure, which were made in Lisburn, Co Antrim. They are set at differing angles to illustrate conflict. In the centre of this structure is the single jet fountain – water being the symbol of life.


On the left side of the garden as you enter is the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy commemoration consisting of three glass steles cut in the shape of a wave and engraved with pictures of ships. 

On the same side is The Royal Air Force memorial which is a natural obelisk piece of Castlewellan Granite from Co Down, Northern Ireland. These features are backed by a bed containing trees such as the Tulip tree  Liriodendron tulipifera, the golden foliage of  Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ and Liquidamber styraciflua, the ‘Sweet Gum’ which has good autumn colour. There is a range of shrubs that provide flowers, for example,  Escallonia  and Philadelphus and foliage colour for example Cotinus coggygria  ‘Royal Purple’ The shrub border runs the full length of this part of the garden and is backed by a three metre high hornbeam hedge.

On the right hand side of this part of the garden are the Divisional steles – small flats of Caen Stone into which are placed ceramic plaques depicting the badges of the Infantry Divisions that took part in the Battle for Normandy. They are placed at the base of the Yew Walls each of which are three metres wide and two metres high with three metre gaps between them to create windows.

Further out from the Yew Walls are the Guards – yew cones two meters high signifying the Brigade Commanders.

Before leaving this part of the garden, the visitor will see a splendid granite plinth on which there is the bust of Lieutenant General Sir Ian Harris. He was in command of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles that fought their way to Caen.

The garden is bisected by the Colonnade which has a series of arches on the front as you approach from the Temple but only one arch at the back leading into the Peace Garden. The arches and walls of the Colonnade were created from Cuprocyparis leylandii ‘Olive’s Green’ raised in Northern Ireland in 1984. Sadly the plants were recently attacked by the Cypress aphid, Cinara cupressivora,which seems to flourish on well manicured hedges and in 2018 it was replaced with Quercus ilex (evergreen oak). In front of the arches is a bed containing plants with red flowers and in particular the poppies. One variety is Papaver orientale ‘Beauty of Livermere’.

The Peace Garden is enclosed by a three metre high hornbeam hedge and has a quiet aura, certainly a place for contemplation. As the visitor enters, the eye is drawn to the far end where there is a crescent of Golden Irish Yew Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata Aureomarginata’.  On either side are planted silver birch with lovely white stems. Between and in front of the birch is a collection of Rubus cockburnianus (ornamental bramble), which has striking white bloom on the stems,  white roses and peony. There are no strong features, no structures. The planting in the cruciform beds consist of shrubs, herbaceous perennials and bulbs that have foliage and flowers of cream, white, silver and pale pink colours. One striking woody herbaceous plant is the Romneya coulteri , which has white tissue paper like flowers with a boss of golden stamens in the centre.  Silver and white can be found in the foliage and stems of the trees for example the weeping silver pear Pyrus salicifolia pendula and silver birch, Betula utilis var, jacquemontii

Many of the features in the garden are illuminated at night which adds to the charm and peace.

The garden is set on limestone so the soil is alkaline which dictates the type of plants that may be grown.  You will not find any Rhododendrons here.  The shrub and herbaceous borders have changes of plants through the year and over time will create interest and replace those that have come to the end of their natural life cycle.

It is indeed a living and developing garden that will stand there for at least a hundred years.