The Chronicles of Dartmouth - The Band on the Hill
A standard fixture at Mayoral Parades, Regatta events and important funerals, the band gave a sense of significance to every occasion they graced.
From the first moment the marines arrived in the town, it seemed as though Dartmouth took the band and its members to its heart and never let go.
They were referred to as ‘our’ band.
For fifty years ‘bandies’ came to Dartmouth and were welcomed with open arms, moved to the town and made their lives here.
But economics and the changing political situation meant that fears began to circulate in the late 1960s and early 1970s that the Naval College would shut – taking the band with it.
During every round of spending cuts the town held its collective breath waiting for the axe to fall on its beloved band, and heaved a huge sigh of relief when it survived.
Her Majesty’s Band of the Royal Marines, Dartmouth, became the first and only Royal Marines band to receive the ‘Freedom’ of a town or borough in 2003. They were presented with a special scroll declaring their right to march through the town ‘with bayonets fixed and drums playing’. They had a special event to celebrate the honour, and people began to relax about the future of the Naval College and its band.
But then in February 2008 it was announced that the band would be ‘suspended’ for eight months as members of the band were redeployed to provide ‘strategic support’ for troops in Afghanistan.
The MoD pointedly refused to answer questions on whether the band would return.
As details of the ‘redeployment’ came to light it became clear this was a permanent move: most of the band members were in fact being shared between the other naval bands around the country.
Of the 36 band members, only six were being sent to Afghanistan initially, and in total only 16 were to be sent there.
It came as no surprise when the MoD finally announced that the Dartmouth Band would ‘disband’ in November 2008. It was the long-dreaded end of the town’s proud association with these musicians.
But there was to be a last hurrah. In the same press release the MoD announced there would be a ‘proper goodbye’ in May 2009.
The day came round and careful planning seemed destined to be ruined by terrible weather. The forecast was for torrential downpours, and everyone prayed the day would not be ruined.
Someone must have been listening.
The special day of events on Wednesday May 20 was bathed in glorious sunshine which lent a special lustre to a terribly sad day for the town. Everywhere the band marched they were clapped and cheered.
The sun shone down as the band marched out under the college gates for the last time, switched to play ‘Colonel Bogey’ as it passed the Ship in Dock Pub – in memory of its former landlord Bob Downes.
More than a thousand people watched them Beat Retreat on Coronation Park. The band gave a performance to be proud of as they marched in perfect time. All of them had called Dartmouth their home at some time or another, including Band Leader Capt Jon Ridley, who was married in the Britannia Royal Naval College Chapel in 2006.
They performed faultlessly under blue skies, under the gaze of the college’s clock tower, and in front of the town’s residents who had taken the band to their hearts for more than half a century.
Capt Ridley then asked the town’s mayor, Debbie Morris, for permission to march around the town, as per their right given in the Freedom Declaration.
Sid Davis, ex-band leader and Dartmouth resident, carried the scroll ahead as they marched around the town one last time, and into the Royal Avenue Gardens. There the scroll was handed back to the town and then immediately given to the official museum of the Royal Marines for posterity.
‘A terrible loss - but what a wonderful goodbye’ was how the Mayor summed up the day, and few would have contradicted her. The route the band followed was packed: people fell over each other to catch a final glimpse of the group.
As the Band marched out of the Royal Avenue Gardens and down Duke Street, into Victoria Road and up to the Guildhall, every person felt the tide of history rolling past, and onwards.
As the Mayor led three cheers for the band, and they were told to finally stand at ease, there was not one person among the crowd who didn’t feel the emotion of the moment, and more than one person had tears in their eyes.
It was the end, but what a glorious end to have.
First Published May/June 2012 By The Dart