Swansong for town's warship
By Craig RobinsonHUNDREDS of well-wishers lined the banks of the River Orwell for the emotional homecoming of HMS Grafton.The type 23 frigate returned yesterday afternoon to its adopted home of Ipswich for five days for its last visit before being decommissioned in March.
By Craig Robinson
HUNDREDS of well-wishers lined the banks of the River Orwell for the emotional homecoming of HMS Grafton.
The type 23 frigate returned yesterday afternoon to its adopted home of Ipswich for five days for its last visit before being decommissioned in March.
Residents braved the cold and blustery winds to turn out in force and welcome HMS Grafton back in style after a two-year absence.
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The warship's final swansong into Ipswich port was nothing if not spectacular, escorted by six low-flying helicopters from 4 Regiment Army Air Corps, based at Wattisham Airfield, that brought traffic on the Orwell Bridge and along the B1453 Shotley road to a standstill.
Although there were no gun salutes, out of respect for the terrorist attacks in London, it did nothing to dampen the sprits of spectators, who cheered and waved as the 4,900-ton vessel weaved its way through the icy waters.
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There was also a traditional naval salute from members of the Royal British Legion and representatives from local Sea Cadets and a brass band from Stoke High School.
In charge for the homecoming was Suffolk-born Commander Rob Bellfield, who said: “I'm absolutely delighted to bring HMS Grafton back to Ipswich in what is a celebration of our excellent relationship.
“It's extra special because I was brought up in the area and I feel very honoured that I'm at the helm for what is almost certainly her last visit before she is decommissioned.
“When I looked along the banks of the Orwell and saw the saw hundreds of people waving and cheering, I don't mind admitting that I was quite choked.
“I don't know of any other ship that has this sort of reception from the people of her affiliated town. It is the golden standard.”
Cdr Bellfield, who was raised in Clopton and educated at Farlingaye High School, Woodbridge, and Framlingham College, was appointed the ship's captain in December.
He learned to sail on the River Deben as a member of the 5th Woodbridge Sea Scouts, and it was this that partly inspired him to join the Royal Navy.
The 39-year-old added: “We've got some busy days ahead of us and of course it will be sad when we have to leave Ipswich for the last time.
“The ship is still young at nine years old and it's a great pity that she could no longer be of use to the Royal Navy.
“However, I'm pleased that she will still have an operational future because it looks as if she will be sold to the Chilean navy. Needless to say that we will do our best to keep her in tip-top condition until that time arrives.”
The ship's personnel's links with East Anglia did not just end with the captain - operator mechanic Jason Kidd, 19, is from Diss, leading operator mechanic Nicholas Stephens, 24, went to Royal Hospital School in Holbrook, and leading operator mechanic Stu Flack, 24, is from Kessingland.
OM Kidd said: “The reception we had was amazing. I've not seen anything like it. I was on HMS Norfolk before HMS Grafton and we never had anything like this - it's just great.”
LOM Flack added: “We're looking forward to getting to shore. We've all been to Ipswich before and we can't wait to see how it's changed since the last time we were here.”
HMS Grafton was commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1994 and formally entered service in 1996.
It has had six commanding officers, has travelled more than 250,000 miles and been involved in operations all over the world, taking the name of Ipswich to 25 countries.
n The crew of HMS Grafton will be taking part in a Freedom of the Borough Parade through Ipswich tomorrow, starting at 4pm from the car park next to the Regent Theatre.
There will also be two public open days on Sunday and Monday between 10am and 3pm. Access to the HMS Grafton site by the public will be by shuttle bus only from Sandyhill Lane, Duke Street and the Cricketers layby stop opposite the Tower Ramparts Bus Station.