THE unveiling of Bournemouth’s new memorial wall today will be an emotional occasion for artist Andrew Armstrong, who dreamt up the project to commemorate Dorset victims of Aids.

The wall, at the Pier Approach, is made up of more than 400 tiles, nearly all designed by secondary school students from Bournemouth or Poole.

But among the schoolchildren’s creations is one by Andrew himself. “It just says: ‘Too many friends, too many friends, too many friends’,” he revealed.

Andrew, now 70, found out he was HIV positive in the 1980s, when diagnosis seemed an automatic death sentence. The fear was underlined by a public health campaign featuring a tombstone and the words: ‘Don’t die of ignorance’.

“It was a good thing that people were modifying their behaviour, but at the same time it had a negative effect in that people who were infected were treated as pariahs,” said Andrew. “There still is a lot of stigma and that is something we are trying to overcome.”

He was tested when he went to his doctor with digestive problems, and says his result “wasn’t exactly a surprise.”

“Initially I was in denial, but I began to realise I wasn’t getting any younger and that I might not be around much longer to enjoy myself.”

Andrew, who trained in hotel management, had spent several years living in Rome, where he taught English, ran a travel agency and ended up chairing the Commonwealth Club.

“I thought I would try and go to sunny California. I got a student visa to study art and started finding I was getting A grades in everything. I realised I was an artist.”

Andrew settled in San Francisco and saw at first hand how HIV-Aids was sweeping through the gay community. “People were still dying,” he said.

He became the main carer to a friend. “It was a very traumatic experience to see a young person dying in front of you and know you can’t do anything about it. You can’t help feeling love for somebody who’s so sick.

“Eventually he collapsed and was taken into hospital. I had to come over to England and had a phone call from his mother to say that he had died. By the time I got back, she’d had him cremated and his ashes scattered, so there was no closure.”

Andrew, who suffered symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder after his friend’s death, became involved in voluntary fundraising.

By the mid-1990s, most of his HIV positive friends in the UK had died, but Andrew was lucky. In San Francisco, he spotted a newspaper ad for the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, funded from the proceeds of rock concerts by the likes of Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin.

Andrew was accepted as a patient. “I got the very first of the combination therapies when they were still on trial.

“The drugs made me feel pretty toxic but I knew they were doing something. They would have cost $30,000 a year, yet thanks to the charity, I was getting them free.”

Despite being told he will probably die of old age, Andrew says of his HIV: “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

“Yes, it’s controllable, but you have to be absolutely precise about taking medications at the right time and in the right combination.”

Andrew came back to England in 1999, and settled in Bournemouth. Inspired by a memorial he had seen in California, he spotted a drab-looking wall under the Pier Approach flyover and decided it was the ideal spot for something similar.

He formed the Dorset Aids Memorial Education Trust in 2005 and set about raising funds.

Professional artist Ben Trill was appointed to work with secondary school pupils, who were each given the first name of a Dorset Aids victim to inspire them.

“Even before it opens our memorial has stimulated discussion about Aids among thousands of people. The idea is that people can walk down there and pay their respects,” said Andrew.

“It will be a very proud moment when I see the wall. It’s taken five years to get to this stage. If I had known how much work would be involved, I would probably never have done it, but I’m glad I did.”