Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Posted to RAF Saxa Vord – Corporal Bob Abbott, RAF PTI - 1962-64

From Jun 1962 until Jul 1964 Cpl Bob Abbott served as the Physical Training Instructor at RAF Saxa Vord. His tour of duty was to coincide with some of Saxa Vords best sporting achievements, particularly in Basketball, Badminton & Soccer. An Admin Officer, known as Flt Lt  "Dickie" Bird, took a number of the photos used in this account and presented copies to Bob. The intention was to record the typical overland journey as experienced by RAF personnel posted to Saxa in the early 60's. The pictures in this account would have been taken in the first half of 1964, "Dickie" Bird being posted in as the Adjutant in Feb '64. "Dickie" used his own motor scooter to keep ahead of the "overland" and to preposition himself to take the photos. If anyone can identify individuals in the pictures I would be pleased to hear from them and the names will be included in a future amendment.

 Bob Abbott has already drafted the second instalment of the story of his tour on Unst and I look forward to issuing more of his material. My thanks to Bob for this very interesting chronicle of the trip to the most northerly inhabited island in the UK!

"In June 1962 the telephone rang in the Physical Fitness Flight at RAF Upavon, HQ Transport Command.  “You’re posted” said Jock Brown, the national service clerk in Station HQ.  “Where to?” I responded; “RAF Saxa Vord” says Jock; “Where’s that?” I said.  Jock retorts: “Come over and I’ll show you.”  Arriving at Station HQ Jock brings a chair around the counter and placed it in front of a map of the UK which stretched from the floor to the ceiling.

 Standing on the chair Jock reaches up and points to a group of islands away north of Scotland, where the wall met the ceiling.  Looking at me with a quizzical smile he tells me: “RAF Saxa Vord is near the north end of the island of Unst.”

The journey from Upavon to Unst was to take three days.  An RAF travel publication detailed three travel warrants required: the first one was for the train from Pewsey to Aberdeen; the second warrant for the North of Scotland, Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company's MV St Clair’s 13 hour overnight ferry crossing from Aberdeen to Lerwick on a Monday or a Thursday; and the third warrant was for the John Leask & Son overland bus journey from Lerwick to Unst.

 Arriving in Aberdeen on the overnight train from Kings Cross I spent the day getting to know the granite city of the north, before heading to Matthews Quay to board the MV St Clair at the timetable sailing time, which varied depending on the tides.  The 13 hour crossing is the longest domestic ferry crossing in the UK.  The berth bunk bed with a blanket was a welcome respite from the rough sea journey to Lerwick.

Arriving in Lerwick,

I made my way to the John Leask & Son car park for the bus to Toft, the mainland ferry point to cross to Ulsta, on the island of Yell.  Around the bus was a hive of activity as mail, bread, milk, and a variety of parcels and luggage was loaded aboard.  This included numerous mail bags stacked on the seats of the bus, with just about enough seats for the number of passengers heading north.

The journey north was on single track roads with passing places.  The bus stopped along the way to deliver mail bags to various mail sheds, where postmen awaited their arrival.  One of the scenic places on the journey was Voe.
Arriving at Toft we piled into a nearby café for a welcome bowl of oatmeal broth soup, while the luggage was loaded onto the ferry.
 I often would assist with the loading and it was always a pleasure to meet and chat with other travellers, like my RAF colleague Dave Mawson, and the Methodist Minister, Rev Wesley Crocker, who was going to Unst to conduct the Sunday services at Haroldswick, the most northerly Methodist Church in the UK. 

Once the loading was complete the passengers boarded the ferry for the crossing to Ulsta, where the luggage continuing north was loaded onto the next bus.
The bus followed a route up the east side of the island, making deliveries as it travelled north: 

Eventually reaching  Mid Yell for a change of bus:

Then the journey then continued  to the Gutcher ferry point for Unst.  Yell is noted for its untold acres of peat.

Arriving at Gutcher the remains of the luggage and remnant of passengers boarded the ferry for the short crossing to Belmont on Unst. 

We were met by the bus for the final leg of the journey through Unst, calling in at the three main communities on the island: Uyeasound in the south, Baltasound mid isle, and Haroldswick in the north.

En route we passed the Loch of Snarravoe, with Yell visible in the distance:
and Numerous Shetland Ponies:
The view as we descended Setters Hill into Haroldswick was particularly memorable:
We stopped at the Haroldswick Post Office, the most northerly one in the UK, to deliver the mail:
After three days travel by train from Salisbury Plain to Aberdeen, an overnight ferry to
Lerwick, a nearly five hour journey, by four buses and two ferries to Unst, I finally arrive at RAF Saxa Vord, my home for the next two years.  It was to turn out to be one of my most memorable postings, as the lone Cpl PTI for the circa 120 personnel stationed there. "