Thursday, 1 September 2011

Wootton Bassett Remembered

A behind-the-scenes story of the town of Wootton Bassett, whose tributes to fallen soldiers have earned the community the first royal title awarded in over 100 years. Looks at the repatriation of a fallen soldier from the Afghanistan War. 

THE market town of Wootton Bassett remembered the war dead once again last night – but this time there was no fallen troops passing through.
Since April 2007, its people have stopped to pay their respects as yet another funeral cortege made its way along the high street.
Hundreds gathered each time to mark the passing of a hero from Iraq and Afghanistan, the tenor bell at St Bartholomew’s signalling the approach of another coffin.
But the impending closure of nearby RAF Lyneham means the end of repat­­riations through Wootton Bassett.

And at 7.57pm last night, the town held an emotional sunset ceremony to mark the end of its solemn role.
For a final time the place fell silent in tribute and locals and visitors bowed their heads to reflect on the casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In total, 345 dead servicemen and women passed through the Wiltshire town, the last one Lt Daniel Clack, 24, on August 18.

And each time St Bart’s bell tolled, Angela Adams, 52, closed her card shop Paper Greetings and went outside to pay her respects. Her husband, Flight Sergeant Tony Adams, 52, is stationed at RAF Lyneham and she said: “The grief can be too much. It is hard for me to face, with my husband in the RAF. It is too upsetting to see the pain, it makes it so real.
“But I close the shop each time and stand and pay my respects. It’s eerie. Each time the silence is total. Birds stop singing and dogs stop barking.”

In the Cross Keys pub, Margaret Butterfield, 69, has provided free tea and cakes to the relatives of the fallen and any of the other mourners.
She thinks little of what it has cost her, only of the solace it has provided the grieving.
She said: “Sometimes they like to talk, sometimes not. But we are there to help with a cuppa and a cake if they need it and someone to talk to.”

Olive Spanwick, 69, from nearby Devizes, has been to every repatriation in the past 13 months. But she asked why so many, some just teenagers, are still returning home in coffins. She said: “They said it would be over by now but it’s not.
“David Cameron said they would be home now but still they are dying in a war that can’t be won. I wish these repatriations were not happening but while they were happening here I wanted to pay my respects.”

The Prime Minister also paid tribute to the people of the town, which is to be renamed Royal Wootton Bassett in honour of its role. But he defended the new route – via the Oxfordshire village of Carterton – which, some say, will limit the amount of people who would like to pay their respects.
He said: “The route that’s been chosen has been chosen sensitively and carefully. What happened at Wootton Bassett was spontaneous. It was a very beautiful thing.”
Last night’s ceremony brought together a truly British eclectic mix. Bikers, all shiny tin badges and worn patches, chatted to old soldiers with medals polished for one more parade.
Flagmaster Peter Gray, 72, has lowered and raised the town’s union flag during each repatriation.

And last night the former sapper in the Royal Engineers was overcome with emotion. He said: “It’s a very sad day. It has been very emotional for me and the town. This is the last time the flag will be lowered here in Wootton for the soldiers who died.”
The grey skies gave way to a mackerel sunset as St Bart’s bell began to toll and the high street closed.

As the stoic old soldier lowered the flag for the final time, only quiet sobs could be heard in the silence.

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