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Meet our Place Board – Mark Ellis, Lead, National Memorial Arboretum

Our Place Board brings together and engaged collaboration of the county’s leaders who set the direction for our work and champion Staffordshire at every turn.

This month, meet Mark Ellis, Lead, National Memorial Arboretum, the UK’s year- round Centre of Remembrance, based in Staffordshire.

  • Tell us about your role at the Arboretum and what it involves

I’ve been really privileged to have been part of the Arboretum team since September 2015 when I joined as Head of Commercial Operations.  Since then I have been fortunate enough to look after many parts of the Arboretum team at various times and I am always struck by the talent, enthusiasm and dedication of so many that I have had the pleasure to work with – from those that our visitors see on a regular basis to those who are busy ‘out back’ making sure the everything runs smoothly.  I have recently taken on a new role as Arboretum Lead and the job description talks about responsibility for the day-to-day operations at the Arboretum and implementing our strategic outcomes to be the UKs year-round centre of Remembrance, an inspirational world-class setting that is freely open to all.  In slightly plainer English it means I lead our exceptional team, help them to find solutions to the many and varied challenges that come our way, and make sure we offer the best possible experience for all our visitors.

I have a genuine passion for delivering great customer service and I am immensely proud that our team have built such a strong reputation for doing so.  If ever I need cheering up I like to spend some time chatting to our visitors as they leave the Arboretum – it is always clear that we make a massive difference to so many people who come to our site.  When we are at our best we make this look effortless, but I know how much planning, hard work, and never-ending commitment it takes from all of our team for this to be the case.  Of course, we don’t get it right all the time and we are always happy when visitors let us know we have let them down – we will always do our best to make amends and improve for the future.

  • What major achievements/events are you proud of and are there any exciting events happening in the future?

I am very proud of the number of Remembrance events we host throughout the year and of the visitor activities that run alongside these.  Illuminated Arboretum and our Summer Proms have become embedded in our events calendar and are both hugely popular.   However, it’s not just the ticketed events that stand out for me.  This summer we created Arboretum Games as part of the Commonwealth Games Festival and this enabled visitors to try their hand at a number of sports including basketball, table tennis, volleyball, archery, an assault course and problem-solving activities. Our Arboretum Trainers not only encouraged participation but also explained the link between sports and service – especially through programmes such as the Invictus Games and the Battle Back Centre (the Royal British Legion rehabilitation centre in Newport).  I was thrilled to see that the Games really encouraged families to play together and we saw some epic battles played out – especially on the table tennis table and the volleyball court.

We also have some very ambitious plans for the future and we are delighted to be working with the National Forest Company to create a new living memorial that recognises service and sacrifice through the COVID-19 pandemic and remembers every person who sadly lost their lives as a result.  We hope to create a new 25 acre woodland that will be a place for people to remember their loved ones, recognise the bravery and dedication shown by key workers and members of the NHS, and reflect on the impact that it has had on all our lives.  We are currently drawing up plans to determine the cost of this multi-million-pound project but we need more large-scale funding partners to create this lasting tribute, so please do get in touch if you or your representative organisation are interested in joining us.  Once the majority of core funds have been secured, a public appeal will be launched to support the latter phases of the project.

  • Is it important that the National Memorial Arboretum is centrally located in the country? What does being in Staffordshire mean for the Arboretum?

When our founders created the Arboretum in the 1990s they were very keen to make sure that it was located in an easily accessible part of the country and we are delighted that they found a site, generously gifted by Redland Aggregates, now Tarmac, that is conveniently located in Staffordshire.  The county is within 2 hours drive time of 40% of the population and this is key to our ambitions to grow our visitor numbers to over 500,000 per annum over the next few years.  We are also very keen to work with local businesses and suppliers and Staffordshire offers us an unparalleled breadth and depth of options – from choirs and musicians that take part in our services, to food producers that supply our very talented Foodservices department, creative manufacturers that provide stock for our shop, construction professionals that work on our major developments, and many of the talented Team that provide a warm welcome to our site.

  • What do you think Staffordshire has to offer to people who live in and visit the county?

Staffordshire is a diverse and exciting county that has plenty to offer for all those that are privileged to live here or who are visiting – and I’m sure the rest of the county is familiar with the phenomenon we often see when a ‘quick visit’ soon turns into a longer stay.  We are currently embarking on a project, called Lockdown Landscapes, that will explore how different communities engaged with their own local heritage and open spaces during the pandemic.  With this in mind, and as Green Flag accredited open space ourselves, I am always struck by the uniqueness of the green spaces in Staffordshire.  The county is home to a National Park (The Peak District), an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (Cannock Chase) and a National Forest – I am lucky enough to have been exploring all of these for several decades and still take great delight when I find something or somewhere new to me.  At the Arboretum we are working on several projects with the National Forest Company and I am very excited about the passion and energy that their team bring to regeneration and re-greening this part of the county

  • Why do you think the work of We Are Staffordshire is important and how are you involved as a member of our Place Board?

Whilst we all know that Staffordshire is a very special place to live, work and visit we also know that we can be a bit of blind-spot on the national consciousness.  There are huge advantages to being at the intersection of three major engines of growth in the UK: the West and East Midlands and the North West – but we need to make sure that our voice is heard and that we turn that blind-spot into a shining light.  Staffordshire County Council have launched an exciting and ambitious Strategic Plan and Economic Strategy for the next few years and our job at We Are Staffordshire is to tell that story.  I often talk about our role at the Arboretum as story tellers – keeping the stories of service and sacrifice alive and passing them on to future generations – and it is a privilege to work with some truly brilliant colleagues on the Place Board to make sure the Staffordshire story is not only captivating but also one that brings tangible benefits to our very special part of the country.

Visit the National Memorial Arboretum website for more information about their work.

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