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    Mosaic Masterpieces by Paul Watts

    Blind veteran, Paul Watts discovered a new and rather unique passion at his last training week at our Brighton centre.

    Paul studied the art of mosaic during his visit, learning how to create pieces such as a mosaic coffee table with the help from art and craft instructor Dave Bryant.

    paul watts training

    After the training week Paul was so captivated he continued his mosaic table at home and later sent a photograph of the completed table to instructor Dave who was incredibly impressed.

    To help Paul create more pieces Dave and Blind Veterans UK provided Paul with equipment such as a magnifier, custom made tools and even helped build a workshop at Paul’s home.

    Paul says: “Before Blind Veterans UK I would sit and watch TV all day, but now I spend every day in my workshop”

    “With the tools Dave and Blind Veterans UK have supplied me with I can now work independently and always have something to do”

    paul watts home work after trianing week

    It was not only instructor Dave who was impressed with Paul’s creations, family and friends have also been impressed. Luckily for them Paul plans to continue mosaicking and will be creating special pieces for friends and families birthdays.

    what can be acheived on a training week

    Paul has been receiving support from Blind Veterans UK for over four years. He has attended around five courses so far, each teaching different skills.

    Previously Paul was an infantry soldier in the Gloucester Regiment. He was stationed in Germany before returning to Tidworth. He now lives in Bristol with his wife who is hugely supportive and his two children.

    If you know a veteran like Paul who could benefit from our free support, please visit http://www.noonealone.org.uk/

    Transforming acrylic painting for three blind veterans at our centre in Brighton.

    Three veterans, Richard, Ron and Ted all came to our centre in Brighton for a week of training in the art and craft department. They were learning how to paint, despite being severely visually impaired.


    Art instructor Dave Bryant chose the subject ‘acrylic painting’ and that was the focus of the week.  Dave has developed an exciting system of working which makes acrylic painting much easier for people with sight loss and as you can see from the result, the veterans achieved really good work and left happily with their paintings at the end of the week.

    Ron, Richard and Ted

    Ron, Richard and Ted

    We spoke to 80 year old blind veteran Richard, one of the blind veterans and painters about his experiences.


    He said “It was the first time I have painted since I was 13 or 14 at school and now I’m 80. I tried pencil drawing a few years ago before I lost my sight but that was it, so learning to paint this week with my sight loss was a great new experience for me.


    I worked alongside fellow veterans Ted and Ron, but also worked closely with the instructor Dave. Dave taught me skills using masking tape on the painting to help make sure the colours were separated properly.


    We also had a specialist magnifier so I could work closely on the painting. All in all it took me about a week to complete, working on it every day. It was such a pleasant surprise to find that I could actually do something like that.


    At the centre you meet all kinds of people and I was amazed at how talented, lively and active many of the other, more elderly veterans were. I’ve had a lot of support from Blind Veterans UK, with lots of training and equipment so I can do things for myself at home. I can proudly say I am very happy to a part of Blind Veterans UK.


    Since returning from the art and craft week, the training Richard has received has enabled him to carry on with painting as a hobby at home.  The charity has ordered all the kit he needs to continue with his art and has sent it to his home so he is set up and ready to continue with his new skills.


    If you know a veteran with sight loss who may be eligible for our support get in touch today, call free on 0800 389 7979 or visit noonealone.org.uk for more information.

    Matthew Rhodes painting features at Headley Court

    Blind veteran Matthew Cecil Rhodes has one of his paintings featured at Headley Court, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre for veterans. He says that his painting has been selected to show other veterans what they can achieve with their injuries.

    The painting is inspirational in two ways: the artist Matt Rhodes is a veteran himself and is blind, he is also paralysed in his right hand, so now paints with his left. He has never actually seen a full finished piece of his artistic creations. As well as being colour-blind, he suffers from a form a blindness called tunnel vision, and said about the act of painting “my eyes follow the paintbrush, rather than the paintbrush follows my eyes.”

    The painting he created for Headley Court featured some of the paralympian’s from the 2012 games which also feature as an inspiration to injured soldiers who go to the centre for rehabilitation.

    Matt Rhodes paralympics

    For Matt, painting has become a strong and brilliant new passion, and something that he has uncovered a hidden talent for. After suffering his accident, Matt started to receive free support from our charity, including teaching him how to paint with his sight loss. Blind Veterans UK now supports him and his family for life.

    Matt said “Blind Veterans UK have changed my life. They have been there for me ever since my accident. In 2017 I will be holding a huge auction of many of my paintngs to help raise money for the charity that saved my life. ”

    To find out more about the support we provide to blind veterans please visit: www.blindveterans.org.uk/how-we-help and refer someone for our free support today.

    Blind artist Matthew Rhodes paints scenes from his military past

    The latest painting by blind veteran Matthew Rhodes, took four weeks, dedicating every day to this large canvas. The painting is of particular significance to Matthew because his draws on his experiences serving in Bosnia in 1992. He has aptly named the piece ‘Warrior’.

    Matt Rhodes Painting
    Matt was an army physical training instructor who served in Germany, Canada and Bosnia until a motorcycle accident gave him severe injuries. He became paralysed down the right side of his body and was registered blind due to brain damage he suffered.

    Since losing his sight Matt has received support from Blind Veterans UK. As a part of his training Matt was given a course in painting and has since gone on to produce an stunning collection of artwork. He paints both portraits and landscapes and his latest work was taken from a memory of his experience in Bosnia.

    Matt shares his experiences of Bosnia and this painting is so important to him.

    “I, Matthew Rhodes, was the gunner for Major Barnes, OC for C Company, 1st Battalion the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment whilst in Bosnia. Bosnia, 1995 The Warriors, resplendent in their white United Nations livery, sailed from Emden, via Southampton, to Split. The 1st Battalion flew to Bosnia in late April, assuming responsibility for its duties as ‘BRITBAT 1′ on 4 May 1995.

    A Company (Major Watson) was based at Gornjï Vakuf, B Company (Major McFarlane) and Battalion HQ were at Vitez while C Company (Major Barnes) was at Zepce/Jelah. Liaison responsibilities, so vital with the Battalion dispersed in this way, rested with HQ Fire Support Company. During the first three weeks there was an eerie calm.

    The companies mounted guards and manned checkpoints and they attempted to win ‘hearts and minds’ by, for example, playing football and providing medical assistance. At the end of May relations between the Bosnian Serbs and the UN deteriorated.

    The Serbs attacked UN Safe Areas, the UN responded with air strikes and the Serbs reacted by taking members of the UN hostage. The 1st Battalion reconfigured to become the Bosnia-Herzegovina Command Reserve and concentrated on Vitez, pending new orders. For a week the Battalion waited while the international community wrestled with the issues.

    The Battalion then moved to Tomislavgrad for field-firing exercises, which were as much for demonstration purposes as they were part of a training programme. By early July the Multi-National Brigade was formed; the 1st Battalion became Task Force Alpha while the French Le Deuxième Régiment Etranger d’Infanterie became Task Force Bravo, leading to a lasting relationship, later formalised by a Bond of Friendship between the two Battalions.

    On 23 July 1995 the 1st Battalion, in Warriors now repainted in their traditional black and green camouflage, escorted artillery and engineer equipment onto Mount Igman, where the Serbs had controlled the eleven-mile Mount Igman trail, the only route into, or out of, Sarajevo, for the previous three years.

    At long last this signified a real declaration of intent from the international community. During this period of tension Corporal Harvey of B Company won the MC, having twice extracted his Warrior under fire, using his weapon systems to good effect. The NATO offensive commenced on 30 August with several days of air strikes and artillery bombardments, which eventually brought the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table.

    Throughout September the 1st Battalion was warned, briefed and then stood down for numerous operations, including Op Cygnet 7, the lifting of the siege around Sarajevo. By late September the Serbs at last agreed to allow free UN movement and, from then on, the Battalion’s task was to guarantee safe passage for humanitarian aid coming into Sarajevo. The dreadful living conditions and abject poverty of the local population made a lasting impression on all who participated in these operations. Having been widely praised for the job that they had done, the 1st Battalion returned to Germany in early November.”

    If you would like to see more of Matt’s paintings click here

    To find out more about how Blind Veterans UK supports blind and vision-impaired veterans please visit www.blindveterans.org.uk/how-we-help

    Mother’s Day Arts & Crafts

    Blind and vision impaired veterans at the Brighton centre have been getting crafty in preparation for Mother’s Day. In workshops led by art instructor Kath, participants have made felt broaches and printed silk scarves to sell in the Brighton centre gift shop.

    Brighton arts and crafts centre

    Brighton arts and crafts department

    One blind veteran who has contributed lots of her time to the production of these gifts is Brenda Byron. Brenda is used to being nimble with her hands from her career as a comptometer operator after she was in the Auxiliary Territorial Service in Bournemouth. She greatly enjoyed knitting and crochet before losing her sight in 2012 and thought they were activities that she would have to give up. However with the expert support of instructors like Kath, Brenda produces beautiful craft items and makes materials for others to use.

    Felt Broaches

    Felt Broaches

    Brenda has been busy needle felting to create large felt sheets for fellow veterans to make broaches from. Needle felting is a versatile technique and using needles as a sculpting tool rather than the traditional way using water, fibres are combined to make unique felt sheets. Once these sheets are produced, the felt can be used in many ways to create accessories or decorations. Veterans at the Brighton centre cut flower shapes from the felt, sewing them together and adding attractive adornments such as beads to create colourful broaches.

    Tie-dye silk scarf

    Tie-dye silk scarf

    To accompany the felt broaches, Brenda and co were printing stunning pure silk scarves. The veterans got creative with silk paint – sponging the paint onto the scarves while they were twisted to make a tie-dye effect and then setting the paint in the microwave so that the scarves would be wearable and washable.

    Painted silk scarves

    Painted silk scarves

    The scarves and broaches are being sold in the Brighton Arts and Crafts gift shop. Costing £3 – £6 for a broach and £10 – £12 for a scarf, they would make the perfect present for Mother’s Day or even a gift for yourself. “Once you’ve seen them you won’t be able to help yourself” says arts and crafts supervisor Louise.  As well as a form of rehabilitation, arts and crafts offer blind veterans a new source of income which improves their self-confidence and sense of independence immeasurably.

    If you know of someone eligible for our support and who could benefit from our services, please visit www.noonealone.org.uk for more information or call free 0800 389 7979.

    Blind Painter Derek O’Rourke paints the Tower of London surrounded by poppies

    In 2014 the centenary of the First World War was commemorated by the planting of thousands of red poppies around the Tower of London to remember all those who fought in the Great War. This field of poppies captured the imagination of the country, and also that of blind artist and veteran Derek O’Rouke.

    Derek is former Royal Navy veteran and began serving in 1968 where he trained at HMS St Vincent and qualified as a sonar operator at HMS Vernon. He served in the frigates HMS Sirius, HMS Nubian, HMS Ambuscade and HMS Hermione, operating in the West Indies, Mediterranean and home waters. In 1978 he left the Royal Navy as a Petty Officer and went on to serve in the fire service.

    Since leaving work Derek started to suffer with a rare eye condition, Angioid Streaks, which is a form of blood leaking into his eyes. Now he is registered blind and is supported by Blind Veterans UK.

    After discovering Blind Veterans UK, he signed up to one of our art courses with our in-house qualified art instructor Dave. Within a week Derek discovered a real hidden talent for painting. Now, he can’t put his brush down and has gone on to create an incredible collection of art.

    Although painting for Derek is difficult because of his sight loss he paints through a magnifying glass with a small brush. He finds a reasonably clear spot in the top right hand corner of his right eye which he uses to identify the brush marks on his painting. He said “Sometimes I ask my daughters if they think the colours are right.”

    On painting the Tower of London he said “I can’t just paint something when I am requested to, the process is too mechanical.  When painting I get a sensation or an idea and I just have this urge to paint.”

    You can see his latest work here:

    tower of london
    To read see more artwork by Derek click here.

    On canvas

    If you know an Armed Forces or National Service veteran suffering with sight loss, including age-related sight loss, visit our No One Alone campaign website, or call 0800 389 7979 for free.

    Chain saw artist creates an Owl carving in our new centenary garden

    A brilliant and talented chain saw artist has been creating a beautiful carving for the launch of our new centenary garden.

    The garden is part of a number of exciting projects that we are launching this year to celebrate the charity’s 100 years of service.

    Owl carving 2

    The new garden will be based at our training and rehabilitation centre in Llandudno, and celebrates two years of effort by many volunteers to restore the overgrown woodland to a usable space where veterans can walk, sit and enjoy woodland crafts within a natural environment.

    When we first acquired the Llandudno Centre woodland it was badly overgrown and a struggle to walk through the trees as they were surrounded by cutting brambles, dead wood and thick undergrowth.

    Over the past two and half years it has taken various groups of volunteers to help us clear and open up the woodland so we could create a 1.6m wide path with walking rail, together with benches, gazebos and a wood craft work shop to enable our blind veterans to access, make use of and enjoy the outdoor environment.

    One of these artistic volunteers is local chain saw artist Mark Earp of Hebsta Chain Saw Art who very kindly donated his time to create a beautiful owl on a dead sycamore tree close to the woodland entrance.

    Here is a picture of Mark carving in the detail:

    Owl artist
    And we are delighted to reveal, this stunning final ornament in the photograph below! We really appreciate all the time that Mark has put into creating this piece of art which will be greatly enjoyed by all visitors to the garden for years to come.

    To find out more about how we help blind veterans please visit: www.blindveterans.org.uk/how-we-help

    You can also help us reach out to more veterans. If you know someone who is eligible for our support please contact us today www.noonealone.org.uk or call free 0800 389 7979.

    Seascapes, sonnets and scones – Brighton Arts Week

    At Blind Veterans UK’s Brighton centre, the very first themed week of 2015 was a rousing success. Arts Week, running from 23rd to 27th February was a packed schedule of activities spanning the visual arts, music and literature. Veterans from Devon, Hampshire and Hertforshire came to stay for the week to experience the art of others, as well as making their own pieces.

    Arts week began with the ‘art cart’ – an activity where veterans can explore various artistic mediums and craft techniques, trying out new things under the guidence of Blind Veterans UK staff. The group got well acquanited by making items together that they could keep.

    The group headed out straight after lunch to their first exhibition of the week. At the De La Warr Pavilion, an Iconic modernist building on Bexhill seafront, they relived some beloved books at the ‘Ladybird by Design’ exhibition. The exhibition featured over 200 original designs from 1960s Ladybird books as well as a history of Ladybird.

    ‘War Stories: Voices from the First World War’, a centenary exhibition was in its last week at Brighton Museum and the group were lucky enough to catch it. It depicted diverse and deeply personal experiences of individuals in the First World War. Many of these had a connection to Brighton, including accounts from when Brighton Pavilion was a war hospital!

    Towner Gallery Snip

    Towner Gallery, Eastbourne

    Their next stop was up the coast in Eastbourne, at the Towner Gallery. The veterans were inspired by an exhibition of dramatic seascapes by British artist John Virtue. The Brighton centre has an extensive programme of artistic activity so veterans and staff alike are always searching for new ideas.

    At both Brighton Museum and Towner Gallery, the group were greeted by staff from the venues who offered background information and explanations about the work and the displays. Blind Veterans UK Brighton staff Lou, Esther and Karen also aided the veterans by providing further descriptions of the art.

    Cream TeaSnip

    Cream tea at Blackbird Tearooms

    The group rounded up their exhibition tour back in Brighton. They enjoyed a sunny day with a cream tea and a visit to Hove museum and gallery. Playing a part in the Brighton Photo Biennial, the museum was showing an exhibition exploring analogue photography. Photography is one of the artistic activities offered to veterans. Although it may be a challenge for visually impaired people, it is not impossible. The Sheffield centre even hosted a photography week, exploring various aspects of photography and moving past the challenges blind photographers face.

    Hove Museum Snip

    Hove Museum grounds

    Art by blind veterans was also celebrated during Arts Week in Brighton. Blind Veterans UK’s very own Fred Jefferies hosted a signing for his newly published cartoon book ‘Love Bites’. The signing was well attended by his family, friends and fellow veterans.

    Fred Fefferies Book Signing

    Fred Fefferies Book Signing

    The literary theme continued with a visit from award-winning, East Sussex based author Vanessa Gebbie. Having won several awards for her fiction, Vanessa has now branched out into poetry and regaled the veterans with some of her latest work.


    Arts and crafts really help blind veterans to build their sense of independence. Learning a new skill provides job satisfaction and can even open up a new source of income. To read more about how Blind Veterans UK uses art and craft to support ex-Service men and women with sight loss click here.

    Christmas Arts and Crafts at our centres

    Blind Veterans UK’s team of Christmas elves have been working extra hard over the festive period.

    Christmas crafts

    The arts and crafts made by our blind veterans have reached new heights this year with more than ever being produced to give as gifts to friends and family.

    In Brighton, we have seen decorations, angels and fairies to bedeck your tree with. As well as handmade wreaths to trim your door, all finished off with individually decorated candle holders.

    Christmas crafts 2

    In Llandudno we have been shown that making your own wrapping paper can be a lot harder than you think. Homemade cards and crackers complete the Christmas gift set.

    For many, the arts and crafts are the most fun element of spending time at our centres. Regardless of the severity of vision impairment our blind veterans, and the volunteers and staff they work with, can find a craft that works for them.

    Thank you to all who veterans and helpers who have painted, glued, weaved and carved. A Blind Veterans UK Christmas would not be the same without you!

    Painting tins

    The eye is not the only gateway to the mind. National Theatre’s Touch Tour and audio described performance of War Horse. By Catherine Goodier.

    We watch as Joey initially shies away from Albert when he first arrives at the Narracott farm, and it is enchanting to see how the young boy gradually gains the trust of the frightened foal. Sitting just three rows from the stage a small smile plays across Ted Ellerton’s face as he listens to the audio described performance of War Horse. Ted, who has known horses all his life, can clearly picture the reticent foal and the boy who quietly gains its trust. Soon Joey and Albert are playfully cavorting as Albert blows into Joey’s nose and Joey moves forward, raising his head to blow at Albert, before he swiftly scampers back a few paces. We watch as their friendship evolves until Joey as a foal leaves the stage and a magnificent mature Joey enters. We are entranced as he gallops across the Devon countryside with Albert on his back as they have become inseparable.

    It is the audio described matinee performance of War Horse at the New London Theatre on Saturday 22nd November 2014. I am there with three members of Blind Veterans UK in my role as editor of the charity’s Review magazine. It is a magazine that has been published since the charity was founded in 1915 as St Dunstan’s for those soldiers, sailors and airmen who were blinded by gas, shot or shell during the First World War. In total 3,200 men who lost their sight from the First World War came to us and today we support over 3,500 veterans.

    As I sit through the performance with Ted Ellerton, a World War Two veteran who landed on D-Day+2 who has age related sight loss, and Chris Nowell and Paul Jacobs GM who were both blinded in Afghanistan there are so many similarities between the powerful story that is being played out on stage and the lives of the members of our charity over the last 100 years. Like Albert Narracott many of the first members of our charity were blinded by mustard gas or as they served in the Cavalry or the Royal Horse Artillery working with the horses on the bloody battlefields of the First World War.

    One of the early First World War men to come to our charity was Edward Bates, a Gunner in the Royal Horse Artillery, who had been a soldier since 1911. He was wounded on 22nd October 1914 at Wytschaete, Flanders. He lost his left eye completely and the sight in the other. He entered our Regent’s Park training centre on 21st April 1915. He was in our rowing team and became a masseur, working initially at the 3rd London General hospital, Wandsworth, where some of the war-blinded men would have gone as it was the overflow from the 2nd London General Hospital. He married Ethel, a typist from the RNIB at St Marylebone Church on 8th June 1916.

    But there are other, more recent, similarities. Chris Nowell served in the King’s Royal Hussars from 2001 in the UK, Northern Ireland and Iraq and Afghanistan where he was wounded in 2008 by a mortar, losing most of his sight. The King’s Royal Hussars are a Cavalry Regiment that is now part of the Royal Armoured Corps and although Chris went to war in a tank rather than on a horse he was schooled in the same ceremonial riding duties as the First World War men. Through Blind Veterans UK Chris has retrained as a photographer using the limited vision he has in one eye and he took the photographs that are woven through this article.

    Ted, Chris and Paul said that they could each picture the events on stage as they listened to the audio descriptions. All three said that the pre-performance Touch Tour when they walked around the stage and met the puppeteers and actors and touched the props helped. It is something that they are keen to do again and highly recommend to other vision impaired and blind people, as the eye is not the only gateway to the mind.

    During the Touch Tour we spoke with Jason Langley who plays Captain Nicholls an Officer in an unnamed Regiment that would probably have been the Devonshire Cavalry as we were keen to hear of the research and training he did for his role. He told us “At the National Theatre everything is done to the best that it possibly can be so cast members did lots of research. Someone came in and give us a talk on agriculture at the beginning of the century as that plays a huge part in the play and they also spoke to us about Devon life at the time.

    “We visited the Horse Guards, which gave us a great insight as we spent time with them and a Regimental Sergeant Major came in and drilled us. That was a bit of a shock for 40 actors as we’re not the most disciplined or the most soldierly people in the world, so he had to whip us in to shape. He comes in once a year during the rehearsal process and he drilled us and showed us how to salute properly and how to behave as a soldier would. As I play the highest ranked officer in the play it’s good for me to know how to address the men, and how the men should address me and what the courtesies and formalities would have been. My cousin was in the Army and when she came to the play I was keen to get it right for her!”

    Returning to the play, Captain Nicholls first meets Joey in Devon when war has been declared and Joey is sold to the army by Ted Narracott. Albert unsuccessfully tried to get Joey back but he was assured by Captain Nicholls that he would look after him for the few short months before they return home —after the war has ended. Captain Nicholls is an artist and above the stage there is a gigantic horizontal strip of white sky that is about 30 metres long. It represents a strip of paper that was ripped from his drawing pad and throughout the performance scenes drawn in charcoal are projected on to it. We see the Narracott farm and the surrounding Devon landscape that Albert and Joey ride across, and as the men sail to France the sea behind them and once in France the battle scenes. These are all described during the show.

    In the July 1964 Review our second Chairman Lord Fraser, who was blinded on The Somme by a snipers bullet on 23rd July 1916, recalled those days when he wrote:

    “By the time you read these words we shall be approaching August 4th, 1964, the 50th anniversary of the day when the Kaiser’s War, or the Great War, broke out, and the face of Britain and of the world began to change.

    “Each of us will have his own recollection and I set down mine, not because it was important, but because it might evoke memories. I was just under 18 years of age and was staying with my uncle in Buckinghamshire, who was a famous breeder of racehorses. For those who know anything about racehorses I might mention that he bred Dark Ronald and Son In Law, two of the great sires whose blood still courses in the veins of the stayers of today.

    “We had no radio and when, therefore, we went to bed at midnight on August 3rd, we ordinary people did not know that we should wake to find our country was at war; how different now when the BBC would have stayed awake to tell us.

    “At dawn some gravel was thrown at my window and I put my head out to see a local police inspector who said: “War has been declared. Will you wake Mr Donald Fraser and tell him please.” I did that and within an hour my uncle and I and his stud groom were touring the immediate countryside stopping at each village and buying horses from the farmers for the cavalry, the yeomanry and the gunners. The police had already warned the farmers to bring out their horses for compulsory purchase, and my uncle opened his sealed black box in which was a Government cheque book. By breakfast we had bought 50 horses paying for them on the spot, branding their hooves with a broad arrow and sending them off to the remount depots.

    “A glimpse of a different war where there was no radio and where men went to war with horses.’”

    And it is a very different war that is played out on the stage by sublimely talented actors and puppeteers. We are not spared as we watch, or through the medium of audio descriptions, picture, how men and horses were no match for the might of the tanks, machine guns and mustard gas. The horror of war unfolds on stage and the slaughter of men and animals on a scale never before witnessed. But there are also happy times in War Horse that make us laugh. I loved the Narracott goose. And of course there is a joyful ending.

    It is in France that we meet Topthorn, an Army horse who has been shipped to the war. He is a pure thoroughbred who is taller and more finely built than Joey with a gleaming black coat. He belongs to Captain Stewart who is sadly killed in a Cavalry charge, as is Captain Nicholls who is thrown from Joey by the impact and carried across the stage in slow motion with his arms and legs splayed in the form of a star. Joey and Topthorn have become best friends and when they are captured by the German Army it is Topthorn who comforts Joey. They are looked after by Friedrich Müller, a gentle man who does not want to be at war, and with him they pull the ambulances. But the horses are still afraid and in one scene we watch as Topthorn gently places his head onto Joey’s mane to calm and reassure his dear frightened friend. With the slightest of movements he moves his head to caress Joey and it is a display of friendship and love that is both touching and heartbreaking in equal measure. Again the audio description is clear as Ted, Paul and Chris pictured this.

    Just an hour earlier we had sat with Andy Brunskill, the Resident Director of War Horse, Miles Yekhemi, James Alexander-Taylor and Caroline Bowman, who each bring Topthorn to life, as they are his head, heart and hind. As I watch Topthorn I no longer see them as they make me forget that he is a cage made from aluminium, wood, cane and net. These three supremely skilled puppeteers turn him into a living, breathing strong black thoroughbred. He makes the rich deep sound of a horse, his sinews ripple as he moves, his chest rises as he rests and his ears move at the slightest sound. I am captivated.

    Before the matinee performance I asked Andy Brunskill what it is like to work on Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, especially in the centenary year of the First World War, and if it was difficult to bring fresh ideas to such a well known story.

    “It is an honour to work on War Horse, especially in the centenary year of the First World War. It’s an absolutely incredible show and one that encourages re-examination. So for the actors and puppeteers who join the show we tell them there are basic flag posts that we have to hit in terms of story and staging, but we’re up for reinvestigating it, reanalysing it and mining for different meanings. And that’s interesting and stimulating for the directors, the puppetry directors and the actors.

    “There’s always something different in each performance. There are Joey and Topthorn with three teams of puppeteers per horse so they rotate, because they couldn’t do eight shows a week regularly as they’d end up breaking. As a lot of the guys who come to puppetry are actors, or have acted, they bring their own actorly instincts, which mean that each person who interacts with Joey or Topthorn knows what each team is like. And they say ‘he doesn’t like it when I touch his face’ or ‘he’s much more reticent in this scene.‘ If you are ever backstage before or after a show they’re all talking about ‘that didn’t work’ or ‘maybe we can try that next time.’ Or they’re grabbing another head puppeteer or another heart puppeteer and asking them to watch as they try something new with these hugely complex puppets.”

    Miles Yekhemi, who is Topthorn’s head, gave an insight into what goes through his mind on stage when he said: “When we are in sync together it’s easy to just think ‘OK we’re Topthorn we’re the horse.’ But to be like that it’s a constant negotiation on stage, which is why you never really get the same two shows ever because it also depends on how we are that day as a team.

    “To have you guys here today in the centenary year with all the history you bring is incredible. I’ve found that sometimes I might become complacent and think only of Topthorn, but then I think ‘actually you’re telling a much bigger story. You are just one piece. A very, very small piece of telling this huge story.’ And it’s a privilege to do your small bit in that big story. I don’t ever go out expecting them [the audience] to go ‘Oh the puppets they’re wonderful’ and for that to be all that they came for. We know that they came for the story, they came for what the story represents. One hundred years on, it’s a story that needs to be told, and what’s incredible and an honour is to see people still flooding into the theatre.”

    James: “As there are three teams per horse you have two different teams on stage every night in the horses so the dynamics between the horses will be different every night. I think, for me anyway, that’s the most exciting thing, as it can in a way be unpredictable about how the show will go. You obviously have to get from A to B on stage, but how you get there is different every time and part of being as one as a team is essential in order to make that puppet tell the story. So simple things like breathing together and having the same thought process throughout a scene are essential as you all have your emotional and technical role that you have to nail for each other. These guys are dependent on me, but more importantly I’m dependent on these two [Miles and Caroline] so I can give them what they need from me.”

    Caroline: “You have to learn to trust. Our rehearsal process is two months, which is extraordinarily long and a lot of that is just spent subconsciously learning who the other people are without talking. So every time you get in the horse you feel how the other two people move, how they stop, how they think. We’ve been in War Horse since January [2014] and it might sound absurd but we’re still learning. A massive thing is learning to trust. I’d never worked with Miles or James before and it’s a huge deal trusting people, especially when you’re running round the stage with someone on top of you.”

    James: “If you think about it there’s myself in the heart, Caroline in the hind and Miles on the head who’s outside the horse, which means that he doesn’t have the point of view of the puppet as we do. We’re in a sense fused together by an aluminium frame and you can either go forward or backwards or sideways — you can’t go diagonally and feel comfortable together. So when you’re sprinting around inside a 10 stone puppet if you’re not trusting each other it can be really, really dangerous. And there have been times that it’s been a bit hairy! And Miles has these two people fused together sprinting forward and he’s running backwards. So you need that trust and you need the two months of rehearsal to really get together and make it show ready.”

    To finish Miles, James and Caroline showed us how they become Topthorn when Andy asked: ‘Shall we do one?’ We didn’t know what to expect and are overjoyed as they leant in towards one another on the sofa and made the sound of a horse. They were utterly convincing and it was a taster of what was to come.

    Blind Veterans UK at War Horse.

    Seated front row Paul Jacobs GM who came to Blind Veterans UK after he was blinded in Afghanistan on 20 August 2009 while Serving with 2nd Battalion The Rifles when he attempted to retrieve a mortally wounded colleague. Paul was caught in an IED explosion which has left him totally blind. In recognition of his bravery he was awarded the George Medal by The Queen. He is pictured with Ted Ellerton and behind them are James Alexander Taylor Topthorn heart, Miles Yekhemi Topthorn head and Caroline Bowman Topthorn hind with Andy Brunskill Resident Director.











    Returning to the play when Albert receives Captain Nicholls sketch book with news of his death he joins the Army to go in search of his beloved Joey, tearing one of the charcoal drawings from the book. In France Albert makes a new bestfriend in David Taylor, played by Tony McGeever.

    Albert is soon immersed in the grim reality of war. After another day of bitter fighting and bloodshed, as he walks through a field of ghosts, its soil crimson with the blood of the lifeless soldiers who lie looking up to God; crows descend onto the body of a dead horse. A split second later we see that it is still alive as its skeletal chest raises in the breast of the mortally wounded and ghostly, yet once beautiful beast that has known great suffering and terror. Seeing that it is still alive is too much for Albert to bear and with precision he forces his sword into the wounded horse, swiftly releasing it.

    After the show Ted Ellerton said that as he listened to the audio descriptions he understood just how Albert would have felt. Ted, who is 89, told us of one of the most potent memories in his long life. It was 80 years earlier when he stayed in a stable throughout the night with his Uncle Ted as they delivered a foal. It was the only time that his uncle spoke to him of his time during the First World War when he worked with horses on the gun carriages.

    Ted Ellerton said: “As a young boy I recall riding on a cob with my Uncle Ted to the stables where he worked at J Arthur Rank’s flour mill in the city of Kingston upon Hull. As one of the mares was in labour we spent the night in the stables as he nursed her. He spoke of the time he was in charge of a gun carriage in action and they came under heavy shellfire in deep mud. He said how he tried to get the crippled horse out of its harness in order to keep the gun team moving forward. He would relive those terrible times as he comforted the horses in the stable. He spoke of another time in Ypres when his gun team was blown up. He was knocked unconscious and when he awoke he found that he was lying in a field of dead bodies. As some of the horses were still alive he had to slit their throats to end their suffering. It was something that haunted him for the rest of his life.

    “He lay in the field and hid from the Germans for weeks. Initially he was too weak to even stand and he lived on the turnips that were planted in it. He said that it was a strange feeling to be alive amongst the bodies of the men and the horses. He eventually returned to his Battalion and he was put back to work on the gun carriages. After that night he never spoke to me again of the horrors that he saw. “

    To finish on a light hearted note, we had spoken with Jimmy Grimes, the Assistant Puppetry Director, during the Touch Tour as we stood beside Joey who towered above us and Nicholas Hart who is his head, Gareth Aled his heart and Will Palmer his hind brought him to life. Jimmy told us: “The biggest job for the puppeteers is to make sure that the horse feels alive throughout the show. They have to look like they have real muscle through controlled movement. To achieve this the puppeteers have to be really selective and use really small movements. If each of the puppeteers does a couple of those really small movements it builds up to a picture of a real living horse. They have to be really calm as the horses, apart from when they’re in war scenes, are actually quite still. You start with that and gradually you progress and the puppeteers are galloping as Joey and Topthorn. I came to War Horse just over two years ago and part of the work for me and the puppeteers was to learn as much as we could about horses. We read a lot of books about horse behaviour and horse psychology and the way that horses see the world and we met with people who work with horses in different capacities and went to stables. A funny story is that one of our puppet directors is absolutely terrified of horses. Everyday he’ll come here and work with the Joey and Topthorn puppets and he’ll go to the stable visits, but he’s always a bit nervous to go up and to actually make contact with the horses!”

    We leave the theatre after Albert has been reunited with Joey and they return to their family in Devon. It has been a great day and I have been asked by Ted, Chris and Paul to thank everyone involved in the production, both on and off stage. Our thanks also go to the audio describers Andrew Holland and Roz Chalmers. Reuben Lane and Susan Gregory who demonstrated the audio equipment. Eamonn Byrne, War Horse Company Manager and Ros Hayes, Head of Access at the National Theatre. Thank you. Of course not forgetting Michael Morpurgo for his genius.

    Blind Veterans UK provides free support to ex Armed Forces and National Service personnel with sight loss. Find out how to refer someone.