Welcome to our world - We bought this house for our combined family of 10 children. Although now it seems a little empty as only 5 plus one girlfriend live at home now!
My wife and I have attended too many repatriations, and it has become all too familiar. Whatever the weather we watched the sad conveys travelling through our town. We were slow to realise the national significance of what was happening here: we saw reports on television; or experienced the novelty of someone actually having heard of Wootton Bassett when telling them where we lived.
So when we first heard that there would be a motorcycle rally through the town we were initially cautious, there has already been a lot of publicity and we wondered what this would mean for our town. When the numbers of those who would be on the rally were reported to be exceeding 15000 there was a little concern at what could be expected.
The day began a beautiful spring Sunday morning, the best of the year so far. We had previously received a police notice through the door explaining the organisation and timings - by 11.30 we had heard that the first batch of 500 bikes due from Hullavington had been delayed â€“ but the delay was short and by 12 noon they began to arrive. The traffic had been diverted and the first wave came up the hill past our house and on into the town. The dull roar began as dozens and dozens of bikes passed by.
We live on the High Street just about where the shops end and so we were perfectly positioned to see the spectacle. We stood and watched the seemingly endless procession. As the bikes passed, the horns added to the noise and we joined in waving and clapping. Soon the High Street was full of motorcycles from one end to the other.
So it went on throughout the day. Initially there were breaks between the waves but as the day wore on the breaks got shorter and shorter and by 4pm there just seemed to be one endless river of bikes. As I looked down the hill I could see a faint blue haze of exhaust fumes hanging in the air as a tribute to the masses who had passed by.
There was every kind of bike conceivable, from huge armchair three wheelers to small mopeds. As big throaty mean machines revved we could feel the vibrations in the house. Small noisy high pitched trials bikes, mixed with cruisers and racers of all colours added their own sound to the constant roar. Some of the riders wore Help for Heroes shirts, or had union flags, banners or signs indicating where they were from. Often the High Street further up the road would get blocked and the haphazard formation would grind to a halt - so all we could see was a chaotic ordered queue waiting and all we could hear was a cacophony of engines, horns and applause.
The whole day passed with great good humour. The street was lined with people encouraging the riders and their passengers by holding up signs to thank them and holding out hands for ‘high fives’ to be met by the passing riders. Occasionally a bike would stall and several people would be ready to help with a push and there was great cheering and clapping when it started up again.
So it continued with few breaks for over 5 hours and afterwards it seemed strange to hear normal traffic noise and not the roar of the bikes and feel the passing of a thousand engines.
Was the event worthwhile? During the early days of the war there was a lot of talk about how the troops were not being shown support by the public - at the time I thought the problem was more how to show support in a in a uniquely British way. It seems that Wootton Bassett has found a way, and today over 16000 bikers found their way. If our troops begin to get a sense of the extent of the public support and how proud we are as a nation to have such professional and dedicated men and women serving their country, then this event has been very worthwhile.
Sheridan and I were standing outside Somerfield on a very wintery day last week waiting for the latest repatriation to pass by. There are usually a lot of photographers but there seemed more than usual. We then realised that the photographer nearest to us was one who came to visit us a few months ago to take photos of the teasmade collection so we went over to have a chat. It was true, she told us, that many of the photographers know each other and meet each other regularly at various events. She was from an agency but she was able to point out the those from several national daily newspapers.
The bell began to toll and we moved to the edge of the pavement. It was snowing but not too hard and opposite us in the shelter of the under part of the museum were a group of lads, smartly dressed who must have had something to do with those being repatriated. Down the road to the left the cortege had stopped and the undertaker who leads them along the High Street was in place and beginning his walk.
The silence never fails to have an impact on me. We live on the High Street and there is always traffic noise. Since the snow began the noise has been more intermittent as traffic levels are lower but it never really stops. As the cortege slowly makes it way up the road a hush descends, conversations stop, workmen pause, engines are turned off.
The cortege passes us by and as it approaches the war memorial someone shouts a command to stand to attention. The police, soldiers and ex-servicemen salute and as the procession passes them by the flags of the British legion are lowered by those holding them along the roadside.
The cortege stops to allow relatives to place or throw flowers onto the hearses; there are two today and as we watch there is a lot of movement as people place more flowers on the vehicles. Some crying can be heard and somewhere further up the road some spontaneous clapping begins and the vehicles continue their journey. Once they have passed the order is given to stand at ease and the flags of the British Legion are raised again. From our left we can hear engines as vehicles edge forward wanting to keep a respectful distance and at the same time wanting to contine their journey. A few minutes later an order to dismiss is given but many of the onlookers are already moving due to the freezing weather. We begin to move and I realise my feet are frozen, I stamp them as we walk back home for a cup of tea. When we get back indoors we listened to the news and we hear that we will be back outside Somerfield again next week.
I don’t remember the first repatriation some two and half years ago but I do remember some of the early ones. The first time I saw a repatriation I was in town shopping and noticed the veterans standing by the war memorial. A number of other shoppers stopped on the street and so I stopped too wondering what was going on. After a few minutes along came the hearse with the coffin draped in the Union Jack. The veterans saluted as they went past amongst all the other traffic. There was no road block, no bell tolling, no-one walking in front of the cortege, no police that I particularly remember and no cameras.
Over the following few months I was at a number of the early repatriations and then I then began working away from the town. It was over a year before I saw another, by then it was much more in the form of what we see now. It may well have become a major media event for the town, but I think that is how it should be - it should be reported and we should all be aware of the cost, in human life, of the war. At the beginning Wootton Bassett honoured the repatriated in its own way and had no one reported anything it would have carried on quietly doing so.
Friday 19th November was a terrible milestone. There have been one hundred repatriations bringing back one hundred and thirty five soldiers. Last week we had six coffins passing through the town, this week two and next week at least one more - as I stood outside my house watching I wondered - what if this is a price worth paying? What if their sacrifice really has saved the lives of others? What if, instead of six coffins passing through Wootton Bassett we were watching a dozen coffins after a terrorist bomb, shooting or highjacking? I never supported the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan - war seems to indicate to me a huge political failure, I have always been of the view that when we remember the fallen we should also remember the politicians who failed to prevent war. I still feel the same about Iraq, but Afghanistan is very different. I have a nephew who has served in both, he has a wife and two young children and it’s hard to imagine the trauma to them, and us, if something were to happen to him.
I was watching the news the other day, of the Pakistan army fighting an all out war with the Taliban on their side of the Afgan border. They were in no doubt about why they were fighting. They have had several bombings and shootings and the Taliban seem to using Afghanistan to regroup in their war against Pakistan.
If I join the chorus for troop withdrawal and we begin to see people dying on the streets on Britain what do we tell their partners and children about why they lost a father, mother, sister or brother while on the way to work. But then again maybe a troop withdrawal would make no difference, let Pakistan sort out their own neighbours. But we know they can’t do that alone and if there were no troops in Afghanistan the Taliban would be having a much easier time and not just against the Pakistan army - maybe they would be able to run training camps more effectively and create more havoc by training those who cause terrorist incidents here.
I just don’t know what the answer is and I don’t know which armchair general and ’security’ expert is right. All I know is that as long as the repatriations come through my town I will stand outside as they pass by to pay the respect they are due, and I shall be eternally grateful that I don’t have to make the decisions about their comrades who are still Afghanistan.
Mike and Sheridan were married on 24th October 2009 at Chippenham Register Office, followed by a pizza making party at Pizza Express! We then enjoyed three nights in Jersey with Rebekah and Wilbur. For those who were not there, we would like to share some of our favourite photos and our vows.
I Mike choose you Sheridan to be my wife. I will be your best friend and you will be mine. When I am in your arms, I am home. I loved Sandra will all my heart, when I lost her my heart was broken, I still had a mountain of love to give. I think Sandra must have found the perfect person and sent you to me. You have such fantastic ideas and dreams, I come home from work never knowing what business I may be involved in next. I promise that I will listen to your ideas and try to help you live your dreams (except the totally bizarre or those that may make us bankrupt). In you I saw someone of selflessness and caring who had a lot of love to give… and wasn’t fazed by 6 children. From the start you wanted to know about them, help them and help me love them. I love your children like my own, even when they try to make hopeless points with badly thought through arguments or wake us up at 7 a.m. on a Sunday. I promise to be a shoulder on which you can cry, to have arms ready to hold you and a heart that will always love you.
I, Sheridan, choose you, Mike, to be my husband. I will be your best friend and you will be mine. When I am in your arms, I am home. You are the best thing that ever happened to me. Only two years ago we were two separate people, picking up the pieces and facing the future alone. Now we have found each other and we will always stand together, respectful of each other’s memories, but enjoying a wonderful new chapter in the story of our lives. I will always be there for you to lean on. I will always respect your decisions. I will celebrate with you when things go right and I will help you to sort everything out when things go wrong. I may well have uncontrollable hysterics from time to time, and I may well cry when we’re watching films, but whichever of my many rapidly fluctuating emotions I am wearing on my sleeve I will always appreciate you, because you give me a safe place to be myself. If I ever take you for granted, it will be because I trust you so completely. I love your children as my own. Wherever we live our love will be the foundation stone. Whether it’s in our crazy mansion or a tumbledown cottage, a canal boat or a cruise ship, I will work with you to create a happy place where our children know that they are loved and our family and friends always feel warm and welcome. I promise to laugh at your jokes, however awful, to worry about you, even though you are more than capable of looking after yourself, and to keep on kissing you in car parks, even when we are old and wrinkly. I will love and cherish you until the thousandth anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and beyond.
Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter for the other.
Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other.
Now there will be no loneliness, for each of you will be companion to the other.
Now you are two persons, but there is only one life before you.
May beauty surround you both in the journey ahead and through all the years,
May happiness be your companion and your days together be good and long upon the earth.
Music: ‘Let me call you sweetheart’
I am dreaming dear of you, day by day
Dreaming when the skies are blue, when they’re gray;
When the silvery moonlight gleams, still I wander on in dreams,
In a land of love, it seems, just with you.
Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you.
Let me hear you whisper that you love me too.
Keep the love-light glowing in your eyes so true.
Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you.
Longing for you all the while, more and more;
Longing for the sunny smile, I adore;
Birds are singing far and near, roses blooming everywhere
You, alone, my heart can cheer; you, just you.
Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you.
Let me hear you whisper that you love me too.
Keep the love-light glowing in your eyes so true.
Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you.
I have thought for many years that September feels far more like the beginning of a new year than January. So much changes in September. The weather has that autumnal nip in the air that is not cold but no longer the penetrating warmth of summer. Often (as seems the case this year) the rain stops and we get some consistantly beautiful and dry days - it can get quite warm!
But it’s not just the weather that is changing: school, college and often work starts and with everyone excited about their courses and prospects there is a positive and optimistic feel at home. Wilbur has started school, although it’s only for the morning; it gets quite complicated as he comes home for lunch and goes to pre-school in the afternoon which makes it very busy for Sheridan who has a lot of running around to do. He would be quite happy at school all day but is not allowed until January. We have Toby starting GCSEs and Rebekah in her final year of them. Andrew is starting A-Levels, Ben and Max beginning a mechanics course at Swindon College (both in the same group Ã¢â‚¬â€œ I hope the college are ready for this!!) and Jess has decided to postpone university and is looking for a job. That is all we have at home now, only seven! Lawrence has gone back to university, we only see Martin occasionally (he is still hoping to buy a house later this month) and Tim is over at Claire’s and we see hardly anything of him.
So what am I starting this September? A few years ago while I was looking after Sandra we decided to do a creative writing course. Unfortunately we were not really able to get anywhere with it so I have decided to take it up again. Due to work and other demands it is going to have to be a low key hobby that I will fit in when I can but it should be interesting. When I get time I do enjoy writing, but that’s the trick - how to find time!
So I suppose it’s fair to say that September is my favourite month -Â and not just because it happens to contain my birthday! Happy New Year!
Having seen yet another sad repatriation today, four coffins this time, I wanted to give the point of view of a Wootton Basset local.
I live on the High Street, and if I am at home during a repatriation I always step outside to pay my repects to those who are passing, as do several of my neighbours.
Often the young men who pass my house are a similar age to my own sons and step sons, so my thoughts are almost invariably with their families, especially their mothers. I know several locals who have services connections, for example one local I know lost several comrades in the Falklands, another is an ex-serviceman, another has a son who recently enlisted. For them, I believe that participating in a repatriation is a way to reconnect with those they care about or those they have lost, and to show their solidarity with, and support for, the families and friends of those who died.
When we heard that eight servicemen would be coming through on the 14th of July it didn’t really change our feelings, but it certainly changed the town. It was packed. It was noticeable that the streets all around the town were full of cars - clearly not locals - every car park was heaving - and there were four times as many TV vans as usual and photographers everywhere. For the first time we saw well known TV reporters, familiar faces from local and national news programes. We even had to turf a Sun photographer out of our driveway, where he thought it would be “ok to park”.
I spoke to the operator of a huge gantry crane set up for one of the camera crews. I asked him whether he would be turning off his generator when the cortege passed through. He told me he couldn’t do that. However much I tried to persuade him, he stood his ground. He was polite, but his reaction horrified me. He clearly believed that he was there to do a job, and that nothing else mattered. Thankfully he did turn off the generator in the end. Maybe someone with more authority than me had insisted.
There were several groups of young people waiting for the procession just beyond the church. This is where the funeral director always gets out of the car, doffs his hat, and walks in front of the cortege. Some young people were dressed in black, some in uniform, clearly friends of the deceased, many clutching a single flower. None of the locals around me were carrying flowers, and I doubt that any were further up the High Street.
I was standing near the place where the applause started. A group of young men, some of them carrying flowers, stepped forward to put the flowers on one of the hearses. A few of them spoke a word or two, a few others started to clap quietly. It was obviously a very personal moment for their friend. A moment later the locals standing near these young men began to clap too. Their applause was hesitant and very, very quiet, the sole intention seemed to be to show their support for these young lads. I remember thinking that this group of young men seemed to be showing their appreciation both for the person their friend was, and for the job he had done as a serviceman. Well, I didn’t know their friend, but I did feel that I could thank him too, for giving his life in the service of our country - so I joined in. It was still very quiet around me, so it was easy to hear the ripple of applause heading up the High Street beyond us. Not everyone clapped, and it was very slow, short and gentle applause. It was very moving and very respectful.
After the event lots of locals felt ashamed that the event had become a media circus, as if we were somehow responsible, but the genie is out of the bottle and we cannot go back. There is always a problem when our enviable freedom of the press results in unpleasant, invasive and dominant behaviour. Thankfully, subsequent repatriations have been much quieter.
I am sure we will continue to do what we do here in Wootton Bassett, regardless of what the press choose to do. One way that we know we are justified in doing what we do is that RAF Lyneham put on an Appreciation Parade to thank the people of Wootton Bassett. The Mayor of Wootton Bassett was given a scroll on behalf of all the armed services. The Scroll read as follows:
To the Good People of Wootton Bassett. Let it be known that on this, the twelfth day of October in the Year of our Lord two thousand and eight, representatives from all three of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces did gather in a display of military pomp and pageantry to show their heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to the good people of Wootton Bassett for the dignity and respect they have shown to those that have lost their lives in the service of their country and who have been repatriated under the auspices of Operation Pabbay. The public display of support you have shown upholds the principles of the Military Covenant and further reaffirms the strong bond of friendship that exists between Wootton Bassett and Royal Air Force Lyneham. We salute you.
It was a fantastic day, and very moving. We don’t line the High Street to see ourselves on TV or to get recognition, so it was just a little embarrassing to be thanked, but it was wonderful to find out first hand that what we do makes a difference to those who serve and to their families and friends.
If we in Wootton Bassett can provide a little cushion of warmth to strangers in a time of loss and grief, if the families feel just a little comfort because they are surrounded by caring and supportive people, then it’s worth being there. We cannot feel their pain, but we can show that we care about them as individual human beings, and that, regardless of politics or the rights and wrongs of any war, we do appreciate what all servicemen do for us.
I thought something was missing last Sunday. I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was Father’s Day and the children did very well with cards and wishing me happy father’s day and I loved it even though I am not great fan - my natural cynicism at the real motives behind the commercialism begins to kick in when I think about the cost of the cards.
When I got home from work on Tuesday I was not allowed into the kitchen. Something was going on. When I was allowed in I was met by party poppers, a party tea with cake, balloons etc.. That was it! Jess was missing! She had been in Turkey and had come home at 1.30am Tuesday morning. If anyone is going to organise something it’s the one person who says she can’t organise anything. Once she got them going Ben, Becky and Andrew all chipped in enthusiastically and it was a lovely surprise.
It’s funny how a lot of family things are left to the girls to arrange. I think that is case for most families. Some of the boys would forget to get up in the morning unless they were reminded. I’m not sure why this should be, it could be laziness, but they are always willing to help if asked and that also rules out a lack of desire to want to help. Perhaps it comes down to them not really appreciating the significance of such events or how important these things may be in relationships. The girls are far more active in working at their relationships with others than most of the boys. So as I have warned Jess and Becky, as we all get older and as the children leave home it will fall to them (until the boy’s are married presumably) to remind their brothers of people’s birthdays, anniversaries, parties and other events. But it’s funny how the boys never forget their own birthday!
We are getting towards the end of the school year again - only a few weeks to go unless exams are being taken, in which case it may already all be over. This year we have two boys doing GCSEs, one at college who has finished his exams and the other at school who has a couple to go. So they are now summer job hunting. All those centuries ago when I did my O Levels I had two jobs over the summer. One was a day job on a farm and the other a part time job in the kitchens at the Red Lion pub in Avebury. The farm job convinced me that I never wanted to work on a farm again. Two tasks I vividly recall: One was the cleaning of huge empty grain hoppers, they needed to be brushed down which created huge amounts of dust. I stood on a rather high ladder with a mask which seemed to have no effect at protecting against the thick chocking dust that got everywhere. The other involved walking up and down huge wheat fields pulling up oats that should not be growing there. Oats grow about a foot or so above the wheat and are easy to spot - but the fields were so big (so it seemed at the time) and there was such a lot of walking. I think I would quite like a job like that now!
My very first job was as a paperboy. I did the morning round first in Bath and then in Cherhill after we moved. I would always take my dog with me, a welsh collie called Brecon. We would start very early in Bath, be at the Newsagents by 6.00am usually. It didn’t take long for Brecon to get to know which houses we delivered to and whenever we went out for a walk during the day she would insist on going into the drives where we had delivered papers in the morning. When we moved to Cherhill as it was a small village she could be let off the lead and would run up the all the right drives ahead of me.
One winter it was snowing hard during the Christmas holidays and the papers had been delivered to the village late. It was gone 9.00am and I was finishing the round. A group of boys from the village who were a bit younger began throwing snowballs at me and Brecon, I was outnumbered about 8 to 1 and I was doing a valiant job of trying to finish the round and defending against the onslaught of snowballs when my best friend Andy Govey turned up. That’s all I needed - He provided cover while I finished up the round and we spent the rest of the morning chasing down the perpetrators, wreaking revenge across the whole village and had great fun.
I have had quite a few bizarre jobs over the years - I would take whatever was going. I have built garage doors, sold stone cladding and roofing repairs, worked in pubs, kitchens and hotels, done motorcycle despatch riding and a load of other jobs I have either forgotten or wish I had forgotten. It was great fun but may not always have seemed so at the time. In spite of everything that has happened over the years my philosophy on life has become to try to make the most of and appreciate what is going on now. One day we will look back at today say Ëœthey were the good old days”.
It’s amazing isn’t it! We went to all the trouble buying a huge house for all our little blessings and what do they do by way of gratitude? Go and live somewhere else! Well it had to happen I guess. Much as we love them all, they have to spread their wings and fly off to make their own nest. So why do they keep coming back, without notice, and treat the place like a hotel?
We bought the house for the rooms. We have eight bedrooms on the first floor and two on the ground floor.Â Martin is mostly at his girlfriend’s so we only see him from time to time and they are thinking of getting their own place. Tim has moved to Claire’s and Lawrence is at university. So with only seven children living at home full time it can seem a bit empty (do I mean empty? is there a better word such as quiet?Â peaceful?Â blissful? tranquil? pleasant?).
What happens in practice is that most of the ones that are left disappear off to friends houses, which reduces the numbers further (are they trying to tell us something). We had one night not long ago when Wilbur was the only one at home! Mind you when they are home, they all seem to make up for any lack with an extra special effort of leaving plates and cups around the house, putting bags and shoes in awkward places, not clearing up the kitchen after cooking and leaving lights on everywhere. Still can’t complain â€œ oh, hang on a minute yes I can”.