Brize bridging the gap between two different worlds

Banbury Cake: Jenny Withers, of the RAF, left, with Carterton Mayor Lynn Little Buy this photo Jenny Withers, of the RAF, left, with Carterton Mayor Lynn Little

THIS week, more than 1,400 people turned out in Carterton to pay their respects to five fallen servicemen in one of the biggest repatriations Oxfordshire has hosted. It symbolised the close bond between RAF Brize Norton and the wider community, but it is just one of many links. DAN ROBINSON reports

TO MOST, RAF Brize Norton is known as Britain’s biggest airbase.

But in neighbouring Carterton, residents call the station “The Wire” as it is surrounded by wired security fencing.

It could represent an insurmountable obstacle between the military and civilian worlds.

But the barriers between the military HQ and its local community are merely physical, with people on both sides bridging the gap between the two very different worlds.

The station helps neighbouring community groups and initiatives through funding and volunteering services, and is invited in return to integrate with the community.

With about 1,000 RAF families living in the town in RAF accommodation – and many more retired servicemen among the 16,000 population – there is a unique mix of people in the area.

Carterton mayor Lynn Little said: “Although you have to have the security there, a lot of the serving personnel come out into the community and engage with us very well.

“In all our schools we have children from RAF families and there’s a good strong link.

“They use all our shops and it’s nice to see them out in the evening enjoying themselves.”

The RAF link has sometimes caused false perceptions from outsiders, according to Mrs Little.

She said: “People’s perception of Carterton is very wrong because they think of it as a type of garrison but it’s not like that.

“We’re also our own town with the widest pavements you will see and trees lining all our streets.

“It’s very well kept and RAF Brize Norton works very well together with Carterton on a lot of things.”

Mrs Little, whose husband Rod Little was an RAF loadmaster for 32 years before he retired, opened a food bank at the Alvescot Road recreation ground last November.

RAF Brize Norton also stepped in, providing food and six volunteers to decorate it.

Mrs Little was also allowed to use the Sergeants’ Mess at the station for the annual Mayor’s St George’s Day dinner, which raised £1,200 for the RAF Benevolent Fund.

The armed forces community covenant, a Government funding scheme aimed at integrating armed forces into communities, has also helped the town.

It gave £130,000 towards an air force-themed play park in Faulder Avenue, Carterton, that opened in 2012.

Carterton Community College was given a £37,000 grant towards providing new courses.

And RAF Brize Norton runs the Airplay Youth Support programme funded by the RAF Benevolent Fund, which helps the families of deployed servicemen and women.

It pays for youth workers at the Allandale Youth Centre, which is used by youngsters from military and civilian backgrounds and offers activities and a creche.

RAF Brize Norton community development officer Jenny Withers said: “It’s very important that when they go to school together they can also socialise with each other.’’ Schools and community groups, such as Witney Women’s Institute, are also invited on site for tours of the station.

Ms Withers said: “It’s really important having good relationships.

“I’ve worked on a number of stations around the UK and this one is the closest to a civilian town so it’s a really vital part of the community here.”

But it is not just the station that helps the community – town residents have been showing their support for fallen soldiers after repatriation ceremonies were switched from Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire to Carterton in 2011.

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  • David Cameron at the opening of the new themed play park in Carterton

During ceremonies, Mrs Little helps grieving families in a private room used by mourners in Monaham Way, Carterton, that doubles as a sports pavilion.

Mrs Little, also a family liaison officer for forces charity SSAFA, said: “We sit with them all day and comfort them while telling them what’s happening.

“The whole of the community realises how important it is as Carterton has a lot of active and retired military personnel who live here.

“I’m very proud as the mayor to see a community that’s focused in volunteering and the respect they give on these very sad occasions.”

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  • Chief Technician Ian Griffiths talks to pupils at Carterton Community College about the RAF as a career

PADDING UP FOR CRICKET

WHEN cricket facilities came under threat at RAF Brize Norton, the game could have been up for the station’s players.

But Sgt Jason Penn, the officer in charge of cricket onsite, decided to integrate the team with his “civilian” club, Kilkenny (Carterton) Cricket Club.

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  • From left, Kilkenny (Carterton) Cricket Club development officer Sgt Jason Penn, chairman Flt Lt Jeff Williams and player Phillip Thorp, who works for AirTanker

The military team now trains and plays its midweek matches at the sports pavilion in Monahan Way, Carterton, while some servicemen also play for the club.

Sgt Penn, who is also vice-chairman and development officer of the cricket club, said: “Since RAF Lyneham closed and brought its fleet here we’ve had to build on space so there’s a threat to our pitches.

“I realised two or three years ago there was potential there because of the car park so I wanted to take it off base. It’s all about creating partnerships and getting us more involved in the community.

“For that to happen I had to take senior roles in the RAF and community cricket.”

Kilkenny players used to train at Carterton Community College because there were no nets at their home ground, and invited the military to train with them.

The club received £50,000 in grants last month from the armed forces community covenant funding scheme, West Oxfordshire District Council and Carterton Town Council. Combined with its own fundraising, that paid for practice nets and an all-weather pitch.

About 20 RAF servicemen are involved with the club in some way and make up about a quarter of the first and second teams.

PERSONNEL GO QUACKERS FOR CHARITY DUCK RACE

ABOUT 35 RAF personnel and 20 members of the 2267 (Brize Norton) Squadron Air Training Corps volunteered at the first Lechlade Duck Race on Bank Holiday Monday.

It was organised by the station’s charities committee and raised £16,500 for the Royal Air Forces Association (RAFA) and Cotswold Water Park Trust.

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More than 6,000 people attended the event, which included a race of 4,000 ducks, a fun fair, inflatable rides, craft tents, and a mobile farm.

Organiser Sgt Ali Hedworth, an air loadmaster on the Hercules C130J, said: “RAF Brize Norton is responsible for about 9,000 personnel who work either on base or in the community.

“If you add all their families to that number we have a huge impact on the area and the local economy.

“From our point of view it’s really important that we engage with local communities and try to stay in touch with what’s going on locally, whilst hopefully providing some fun and raising money.

“Our personnel are based in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, and we chose Lechlade because it’s the meeting point of all three counties.”

TUNING IN

A DIGITAL radio station has been set up to forge links between residents and the station.

The British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) Brize Norton station reports both military and community news, features interviews with people from both worlds and plays music.

It is heard at RAF Benson, RAF Fairford and at forces locations in Abingdon, Didcot and Shrivenham, as well as being available to anyone online.

Presenter Jo Thoenes, 40, from Didcot, said it has been a new experience for her after previously working for BBC Radio Oxford and commercial radio stations.

She said: “It’s open to anyone in West Oxfordshire, whether they are forces or civvie families.

“It keeps them in touch with Brize’s presence and lets them know what’s going on here but also we talk about Oxfordshire life, including local music festivals, cake sales, play groups and activities.

“There’s a military wives choir who come on air and someone from Carterton talking about the farmer’s market.

“We have a foot in each camp and it’s a reflection of life for people around here.”

Pupils from Carterton Community College have also visited the studio, based in Stanmore Crescent, Carterton.

Ms Thoenes said: “It was great fun doing some recording and showing them the studio.

“It’s really important for us to engage with the community.”

BOXING CLEVER

WINDRUSH Valley Amateur Boxing Club, based at the Old School Community Centre in Bampton, welcomes RAF Brize Norton servicemen to train.

They also take part in tournaments at Carterton’s Brownes Hall social centre, joining the 100 other registered members who come from the surrounding area.

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Club secretary Ann Setch said: “The base has a training facility but it’s not always manned with coaches and there’s not enough people there for them to spar with, so they come to train with us.

“They come as and when it suits them because they can obviously be deployed, but we get up to about 12 people a year.

“Because they are RAF, they are well-disciplined people and they work hard with our boxers and coaches. We’re grateful to have them.”

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