Page last updated at 22:55 GMT, Thursday, 19 November 2009

Wootton Bassett faces grim milestone

By Jon Kay
BBC News

On Thursday, the 100th cortege will make its way through Wooton Basset

On a normal day Wootton Bassett looks like any British market town. There is the post office, a few independent stores, and plenty of people rushing about their business. But, if you look closely, you will see what makes this place different.

In some of the shop windows there are home-printed union flags - and little hand-written notices advising customers that Friday afternoon will see another repatriation.

Poppies at Wootton Bassett war memorial
Thousands of people have arrived to meet the hearses as they pass

Everyone here knows what that means. There will be more bereaved families. More tears. More cameras. And, once again, Wootton Bassett will turn out in force and do what it sees as its "duty".

The High Street will close to traffic. The church bell will toll. Crowds will gather all the way from the old town hall to the new council offices.

Then, hearses carrying the bodies of the latest servicemen to be killed in Afghanistan will slowly pass through the town on their way from nearby RAF Lyneham to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

'Deathly quiet'

They have done this 99 times - and Friday will bring a milestone that nobody here wanted to see.

"When the bell starts to ring, this whole place turns quiet," says local veteran John Beauchamp, 80, who says he has attended all but one of the repatriation ceremonies.

"No dogs bark. Birds don't sing. It's so deathly quiet. It's like being in a monastery."

These days there can be thousands of people in the crowd, standing 10-deep in places, but it was not always like this.

It's always heart-breaking. I was 17 once. I was in the Army. There but for the grace of God go so many of us
Former mayor Percy Miles

When the bodies started coming into RAF Lyneham in April 2007, there was no organised show of remembrance in Wootton Bassett, just a handful of local British Legion members, standing on a street corner, bowing their heads as the cortege came past.

Former mayor Percy Miles and his wife Sally stood in silence on that very first occasion. They remember it as a small, impromptu gathering - with no indication of what it would eventually become.

Since then, as the crowds have slowly grown, the couple have attended almost every time.

Percy, 80, admits that he still sheds a tear on each occasion: "Last week we were up there all day, waiting for the coffins in the pouring rain. You see grown men cry - and it's heart-breaking.

'When will it stop?'

"It's always heart-breaking. I was 17 once. I was in the Army. My wife was in the Army. There but for the grace of God go so many of us."

"The scale of it now is unbelievable," says Sally. "So many people. And more of them every time. It makes you wonder when it will all stop."

In her spare bedroom on the outskirts of the town, Anne Bevis is typing away on a laptop. As a member of the local Royal British Legion, it is her job to get people out onto the streets when she is informed that a cortege is on its way.

"I've got a list of people to call," she says. "When it started, there were 14 on the list. Now it's 120 on e-mail and 70 more on phone calls. And every time the list gets longer."

I'm immensely proud - and I do my best to be here when I know there's a cortege coming through
Jai Cunningham

Wootton Bassett, with its population of 12,000, has been described by some newspapers as "the most patriotic town in Britain" but local people play down those kind of descriptions. They say they are only doing what any town would do if it was the first community military coffins would pass through.

Ten years ago, they did not even have a war memorial here. It was local teenager Jai Cunningham who campaigned for one - and raised £30,000 to pay for it. It was envisaged to be a monument to past conflicts.

She had no idea that the sandstone and brass structure would end up being the centrepiece for modern-day remembrance.

"It was always my intention that it should be a focal point - and I suppose that's exactly what it is in repatriations," says Jai, who is now a youth worker in the town.

Sandwiches and shelter

"I'm immensely proud - and I do my best to be here when I know there's a cortege coming through. I'm proud to be part of a community that cares."

It is not just the size of the crowds that have changed over the last two and a half years. The whole High Street "ceremony" has evolved.

These days many more grieving families come from all over the UK, some of them holding placards, wearing personalised T-shirts and placing bouquets of flowers on the hearses.

Relatives are offered free coffee, sandwiches and shelter at the Cross Keys by landlady Kirsty Lambert.

Percy and Sally Miles
We're now representing the whole nation, so it's something we'll have to bear with
Anne Bevis

She says: "To me, a pub is part of the community - and we're on the High Street opposite the war memorial, so it seemed natural to look after these people.

"They may never want to come back to this town because of what's happened to their loved ones - but at least we can make them feel welcome."

The media do not always feel so welcome. You will not find anyone in Wootton Bassett who will say that they regret starting the ceremonies - but some local people admit they are increasingly frustrated by the lines of TV satellite trucks and the huge camera lenses which now face them almost every week - sometimes twice a week. Repatriation days can bring major traffic and parking problems to the town's narrow streets.

"Personally, I think it's got like a circus," says Sally Miles. "It's got too big. Yes, bring the families here, by all means, but I think some other people are just getting on the bandwagon."

But there is no sign of the ceremonies getting any smaller. "A lot of people say they'd like to go back to it being just a few of us," says Anne Bevis of the Royal British Legion.

"But we're now representing the whole nation, so it's something we'll have to bear with. It will go on."

RAF Lyneham is due to close in 2012 - and, after that, any repatriations will be at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. But, until then, people in Wootton Bassett say they will carry on fulfilling their "duty".

As he prepares for the 100th repatriation, Percy looks devastated. "One hundred times," he sighs. "It's hard to believe. And it never gets any easier."

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