Note: This article is from the Guardian.
The flags flew and the people of Wootton Bassett and thousands of visitors once again lined the streets of the small Wiltshire market town – this time not to mourn young soldiers killed in a war far away but to celebrate the royal title bestowed by the Queen. The honour came in recognition of the years when the bustle of everyday life stopped on 167 occasions to honour the repatriated bodies driven through its streets.
As bright sunshine followed the bitter cold of early morning, when many spectators arrived to claim the best viewpoints along the main street, the Queen was represented by Princess Anne who brought the Letters Patent with their resplendent giant red seal, making the town Royal Wootton Bassett, a rare honour last conferred on Tunbridge Wells in 1909.
The prime minister, David Cameron, attended, standing beside the new defence secretary Philip Hammond, in his first public engagement since his predecessor Liam Fox was forced to resign over his links to Adam Werritty.
The armed forces delegation was led by Sir Peter Wall, chief of general staff, and the Ministry of Defence contributed £10,000 to the cost of the celebrations.
There were flypasts by a Hercules, a Globemaster and a Vulcan bomber, all aircraft linked to nearby RAF Lyneham, the base whose temporary adoption as the place where casualties were repatriated from Iraq and Afghanistan propelled the town into history.
The parade was unusually short, just 350 paces to the viewing stand, representing the number whose bodies were driven along the same route. The band of the Royal Marines marched to a new composition, Wootton Bassett, written by director of music Captain Pete Curtis.
The town crier, Owen Collier, had a new uniform for the event, and the town’s own band, serving members of the forces and veterans, and local schoolchildren also took part.
The town’s special events over the weekend exemplified the mixture of the formal and the everyday, which made the tributes – originally a spontaneous gesture of respect by a handful of British Legion members – so touching.
As well as the speeches, the new road signs, the flag flown for the first time with the new coat of arms incorporating a golden lion – a symbol of England and royalty since medieval times – there was an exhibition at the library of gifts sent to the town from all over the world, a specially commissioned souvenir tea towel and a baking competition to create a new bun, The Bassett Crown.
The town’s recent place in history began in 2007, when the bodies of fallen servicemen and women began to be repatriated through RAF Lyneham, because runway work was being carried out at Brize Norton. The then mayor, Percy Miles, learned by chance when he was in town shopping that the first cortege carrying a coffin would soon pass through the main the street en route to a hospital in Oxford. He rushed home to fetch his robes and then stood by the road, head bowed. He was quickly joined by shopkeepers and office workers.
The ceremony, never formally organised, was repeated 167 times, for the return of 345 bodies. It grew and grew: the church bell tolled, the flag was lowered, and soon families of the bereaved, along with many curious visitors, were travelling to join the townspeople, until thousands lined the streets each time, throwing flowers on to the passing cars, passing around paper tissues to mop streaming eyes.
The last repatriation was in August, of the body of 24-year-old Daniel Clack, killed by a roadside bomb in Helmand, Afghanistan. The repatriations are now back at Brize Norton.
Wootton Bassett sent the flag lowered on so many occasions to the nearest town to the new route, Carterton in Oxfordshire, where a memorial garden has been created.
The streets of Wootton Bassett will soon be quiet again and RAF Lyneham, which is to close with the loss of many jobs, even quieter.
The present mayor, Paul Heaphy – who said: “We did not ask for recognition and we find the attention rather humbling” – announced that the town’s new motto would be “We honour those who serve”.
He said: “The royal status is a privilege, yet it is received with sadness, mindful of the high price paid by our armed forces.
“I suspect that local people in the town will still call the town just Bassett.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010