How Wootton Bassett became the town that cried
You hear the sound of the engines first. Then the lights of the C-17 military transport aircraft appear as it dips across the evening sky, making ready to land on a runway just out of sight over the hill. Ken Scott is watching through the window of his mobile home. The sight of these planes returning from Afghanistan, often with a tragic cargo, has brought this old soldier to the realisation that wars will continue well beyond his lifetime. Yet he tracks the planes in the sky like an excited boy.
Scott points to a glowing cluster out to the left and says, “That’s RAF Lyneham . . . And see all those headlights there? That’s the M4.” Then the 93-year-old fixes on another flickering row of lamps visible from his living room window. “And that’s the A3102, the road that comes out of Lyneham, through this town and on to the M4.”
There, out of Ken’s window, is the confluence of factors that has resulted in Wootton Bassett becoming known in the press as “the town that weeps”. This is the place that stands and mourns Britain’s war dead as they are driven to the mortuary, and a post-mortem that will determine how their life came to this end. Wootton Bassett keeps a seemingly endless number of silences for the fallen. This morning, the bodies of Lieutenant Douglas Dalzell and Lance Sergeant David Walker will be flown in from Afghanistan to RAF Lyneham – the 120th and 121st repatriations that have come through Wootton Bassett.
RAF Lyneham lies less than five miles from the north Wiltshire town’s centre. But it was not until RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire was closed for runway repairs in April 2007 that the C-17s began to bring the bodies back here instead. To get to the special armed forces department of pathology at Oxford’s John Radcliffe hospital, a hearse has no choice but to drive down Wootton Bassett’s high street before heading east along the M4.
In those first days, there was no pavement vigil or saluting or silences: the coffins passed almost unnoticed. But one afternoon that summer, local members of the Royal British Legion happened to be on the high street when a union flag-draped coffin caught their eye. “The legion had a meeting,” Scott recalls, “and it was decided that we would find out when these soldiers were being repatriated – then we would salute them as they passed through the town.”
And so it grew. Now, there are never fewer than a few hundred people on the high street, and often more than a thousand. Because of this, the legion has appointed a repatriations officer: after almost three years of attending the drive-throughs, Anne Bevis has a list of 150 people she notifies by email and 70 more she calls on the phone.
“People call it a parade but it is not a parade. It’s not organised, it just happens. I ring all these people and it’s up to them if they turn up. That’s the beauty of it; because it’s unorganised, people feel at ease,” Bevis says. “It’s a gathering to pay tribute with a few moments of our lives – a few moments of our lives is nothing compared with what they have given.”
The upgrading work on RAF Brize Norton has now been completed, but the repatriations have not been returned there because, according to a Ministry of Defence spokesperson, “The people of Wootton Bassett had done such a lot to lend their support, it was felt it would be insensitive to transfer the process back to Brize.”
Last month, the radical Islamist group Islam4UK caused nationwide outrage by announcing it wished to stage an anti-war protest in the town (the idea was abandoned, and the group has since been banned under the Terrorism Act). The local Conservative MP, James Gray, a legion member who estimates he attends around three-quarters of the repatriations, says: “It was a publicity stunt and the people of the town don’t want to be used for a publicity stunt. There are no politics here: people are not making any comment as to whether this war is good, bad or indifferent. These are solemn, simple little ceremonies and that’s all the town wants.”
Ken Scott has missed just three of the repatriations that have come through town, and one of those was because he was hospitalised with pneumonia after turning out to pay his respects on a foul and bitter day.
On every “repat” morning, Scott picks a starched and ironed shirt from the dozen that hang in his wardrobe, then his tie and blazer. Unlike “out of town” legion people, he does not wear his medals to the ceremonies – the 1939-45 Star, the Africa Star, the France and Germany Star, the defence medal, the victory medal and a medal given by the Dutch. None of the local legion members do. “We go up there as ordinary ex-servicemen. We don’t wear medals or uniforms. I just wear a blazer or an ordinary anorak if it is cold. We don’t wish to show ourselves off. All we want to do is pay our respects to the fallen.”
Scott was once mayor of the town he has called home for 48 years. In his home, he has dozens of books on Churchill, a pocket collection of the war poets, a knife engraved with a swastika and the town name “Wismar” (taken from a German prisoner of war), and a uniform that Scott had made to resemble the one he did battle in.
“I do know what it is like for these soldiers in Afghanistan, I really do. I spent all of my young life at war, from 21 to 28. I know what it is like to see people die in front of you, for them to be taken off to hospital. People these days don’t have a clue what it’s like to be in a desert, where there’s so many flies and heat and desert storms. This is what these lads experience.”
Scott finds it difficult to walk far and he gets short of breath, but this doesn’t stop him attending the repatriations. “At the end of the exhortation we say, ‘We shall remember them’ – that’s the important part. I feel so sorry for a mum who has lost her son, for a father, for a little boy or girl who won’t have their dad to take them to school or a football or cricket match when they grow up.”
Just before he leaves home for the ceremony, Scott turns the oven on. Already, he has made a casserole – “so I have got a hot meal for when I get back”. On the counter beside the cooker, he lays out a plate of lopsided coconut pyramids and another of rock buns that he has made himself. Then the former sergeant puts on his army hat, which saw him safely through north Africa, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany in the second world war, and closes the door. He sits himself down on his burgundy mobility scooter – number plate KEN S1 – and heads up the hill towards the war memorial.
Wootton Bassett (population 12,000 at the 2001 census) lies five miles west of Swindon. The first recording of its existence under its early name of Wodeton was in a charter dated 681. In around 1690, its striking half-timbered town hall was built atop 15 pillars, so a market could be held underneath. The last monthly cattle market took place in 1939 – the same year the town’s Crimean war gun was carted off to make munitions. These days the stalls on the Wednesday market sell dog chews, budgie seed, bread, cheese, fruit and vegetables.
The town has long had military associations. In The History of Wootton Bassett, A Very Ancient Mayor Towne, published in 1977, PJ Gingell notes: “Wiltshire has always had a friendly feeling for the armed forces, and Wootton Bassett shared that interest. At the end of the century when the last Crimean veteran was laid to rest, the whole town turned out to pay their tribute. The relief of Ladysmith was celebrated with grand torchlight processions, and the news of peace with even greater rejoicings. In 1914-18 the realities of war came closer. Houses were requisitioned, troops billeted on families, the high street lined with horses and vehicles, and camps were everywhere.”
Nearly a century later, support for the troops is almost an obsession. Union flags are prominent, along with collecting tins for the Help4Heroes charity, and shop windows display books such as Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers and Warriors.
Wootton Bassett’s high street is still very old fashioned. It boasts two knitting shops as well as Aunty May’s, whose window displays a mannequin wearing a crimplene dressing gown and a knotted headscarf, and a sign offering “Quality slippers made in England: reduce your carbon footprint.”
Stepping into Trow and Sons is like walking into a time warp. The elderly Miss Mary Trow refuses to divulge her age, though she will tell you the business has been in her family for seven generations. “I have lived here all my life, dear,” Miss Trow (as she is known to all) says, as she tidies balls of wool with hands in fingerless mittens. “The repatriation days are very sad. I stay inside the shop because I can see from in here very well. It is a wonderful thing that the people stand out there. It’s dreadful though.”
On a repatriation day, the numbers are swelled by high-alert police officers and sniffer dogs, soldiers in combat fatigues and caps, coiffed television people busying themselves on mobile phones, and technicians in satellite vans. There are the regulars from other branches of the British Legion, the ones who wear the medals and headgear and bring their standards or flags. Here too are the leathered-up bikers of the Royal British Legion Riders Branch. There are visiting mayors and town criers. And there are those wearing black: the friends and families of the dead soldiers.
The locals, the ones to whom the place is simply known as Bassett, stand further back from the kerbside, as if to acknowledge that, today, their town is given over to something else.
On a bitterly cold January day, the hearses that drive slowly by hold the bodies of Captain Dan Read, 31 (11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps), Corporal Lee Brownson, 30, and Rifleman Luke Farmer, 19 (both of 3rd Battalion The Rifles). Ken Scott and his scooter are up by the war memorial – a bronze-cast sculpture of a globe held aloft by four hands. He takes his place beside other members of the Bassett Legion: Tony Perkins, 77, a former petty officer in the navy who looks, his friends josh, “like Captain Birdseye”, and Danny Kaye, 77, a former chief technician in the RAF.
The chairman of the branch, Tom Blundell, 30 years in the air force, says: “I have stood here on a few occasions and asked myself, ‘Why do I keep coming here and upsetting myself?’ If you watch a little boy being lifted up to put a rose on the top of a hearse, say. I saw one aged 10 who just put his hands over his eyes in tears. That’s what gets you.”
Further down the street, Roger Haydock, a bellringer at St Bartholomew’s and All Saints parish church, is waiting to hear over a police radio that the cortege has left Lyneham. As soon as it is on his way, Haydock nips up the wooden stairs to the bell tower, and waits for a call on his mobile to signal that the cortege has stopped outside the church. Then he pulls on the thick green and gold chord and the tenor bell rings its lament. Haydock says: “I am told it changes the mood on the street as soon as the bells start ringing. The sound they make goes deep into the psyche.”
And so it does. The bell brings a hush that makes the noise of the police motorbikes all the more pronounced. As the cortege comes to a halt alongside the war memorial, the silence settles down, backs straighten like ramrods and, for those who wish to, hands are raised in salute. Almost all of those sitting in mobility buggies have got to their feet. A voice gives the signal “Up”, and the 25 standards brought by the out-of-town legion members are hoisted into the air.
Then comes the wailing, as the shock of seeing the flag-draped coffin for the first time hits family and friends. Mourners step forward to lay roses and other flowers on the roofs of the funeral cars. They grip each other for support, and wail as the cortege moves off towards the M4.
Now the tenor bell is silent again; within a few minutes, people will begin to move off. The Legion Riders get their mounts roaring, and mourners take refuge in the Cross Keys, the pub that has become the unofficial repatriation headquarters. The manager, 38-year-old Kirsty Lambert, says at first there was just the odd person coming in, but now she sees coachloads.
“We are the hosts of Wootton Bassett,” she says, “so we tend to step back and stay out of the way. The town is for the family and friends to pay their respects. I am up early in the morning, making all the tea and coffee and sandwiches. My kids see me dressed in black and say, ‘Another repat, mum?’ It is really emotionally draining.”
Later, when the pub is almost empty, the emotional impact of the day is laid bare as a man explains that he attended purely by accident, but was profoundly moved. “I was in the Falklands,” he says. “I was on HMS Sheffield [the Royal Navy ship that was hit by an Exocet missile in May 1982, causing 20 deaths]. I put it all in a box but seeing this has brought it back.” The man asks for four shots of straight vodka in a glass – shaking her head sympathetically, Kirsty gives him two.
Later that evening, in his mobile home, Ken Scott flicks through a large folder in which he has placed cards and notes left at the side of the war memorial. There are photos of soldiers holding baby children in their arms; of others in dress uniform or in desert camouflage on the battlefield; notes that say “never forget you, you’re my best mate” and “you will truly be missed, you’re a braver man than any of us”.
“These messages are sacred. They shouldn’t be blown away on the high street,” Scott says, as the lights dance and flicker out of his window. “I want the mums and dads and granddads to know that the messages are here, and that when I have passed on they shall go to the museum. History will know that Wootton Bassett respected the fallen that have passed through their town. We just didn’t forget them.”