On Tuesday I received one of the most exciting calls I have ever had in my life. My boyfriend, Chris, rang me from the college on his lunch break, to inform me he had managed to get me a ticket to watch his Pass Out ceremony. My reaction was gravity defying; there was much jumping and enthusiastic squealing. Chris told me to be the details so I could get some form of plan together to get there on time. The college is in Dartmouth, about an hours drive from Plymouth, but given I don’t own a vehicle, nor know how to drive one, I had to rely on local transport, which is never a great feeling when time is of the essence. Especially for someone who likes to be prompt.
My day began at 5:00am. I had spent the night with a friend who lived just a two minute walk from the train station, giving me an hour to get myself ready before I needed to get to the station. I was filled with an excited energy and rose quickly despite having had only about four-five hours sleep. I donned a layer of make-up to hide the dark circles (I’m really not very good), pulled on a smart, comfortable outfit and headed down to the station. By 6:15 I was sat on an almost empty train, waiting for the departure to Totnes, where I would hop a bus the rest of the journey to the little riverside town of Dartmouth, home of the Royal Britannia Naval College.
The bus journey took me through the Devon countryside, via narrow lands and hedge lined roads. For a while it appeared we were driving to nowhere, and then suddenly the river rose up from behind the hilly landscape, and the bus drove downwards towards the docks. No one had stopped to get on or off for the entire trip, meaning I arrived at the riverside station far earlier than scheduled, which was nothing but a boon as far as I was concerned.
The morning was heating up quickly, with a gentle breeze keeping the edge off. A bright, early sun gleamed off the river as boats and ferries conveyed workers and tourists merrily to the other bank. School children walked the front and elderly people sat on benches taking in the light. With an hour to spare, I took in the atmosphere; not knowing my way around, I didn’t wonder far, but found a shaded spot to sit calmly and get some air. A promising, cloudless sky created an azure backdrop. I was so pleased the day was so pleasant. I had been shown pass out parades where it rained heavily the entire time. Reams of rainwater poured off the hats of the assembled officers, while the guests watching huddled together trying to see through umbrellas. The experience was sullied by the terrible weather, so I was happy, Chris, would be bathed in beautiful summer sunshine. Everything was going so well.
After a while, Chris’ sister came to meet me where I waited, so we could walk to the college together. Meeting the family of your significant other is always a little nerve wracking, but I wasn’t too worried. Not only did she have a glowing report as far as Chris was concerned, but she and I had conversed briefly via text message to arrange the meeting. Fortunately, we got on instantly. We shared a similar sense of humour, laughing at ourselves as we climbed the serpentine hills up to where the college sits at the top of the village, in heals. At the entrance to the college, I met their father, who was also instantly welcoming. After a quick bag check, and the presentation of our tickets, we continued to mount, known by the officer cadets who attend the college as, Cardio Hill. Breathless and a little sweaty we reached the top.
Britannia Royal Naval College is an impressive building. The architecture is astounding, with beautiful little details, like a tiny gold
ship adorning the highest spire, and high arched windows. From the parade ground, you can see all the way down to the river. Chris was waiting for us, donned in his Number 1 uniform, complete with the traditional button down jacket, cap, and sword. He looked so handsome, I could barely stand it. I’d seen photographs of him dressed this way before, but it didn’t compare with actually seeing him, standing proud and smiling with the college behind him. On his lapels were his Midshipman rank tabs. As we entered the building, he was saluted, to which I was so overwhelmed and happy I started giggling. The poor cadet who presented the salute actually went slightly red; he must have thought I was laughing a little at him. I wasn’t. My brain was just adjusting to seeing Chris in his role as an officer, which wasn’t something I had really been able to imagine accurately.
The first order of business was attending the church service at the astonishingly gorgeous college chapel. We accepted the request to sit on the balcony tier, where we could see the faces of seven hand carved angels on the rafters, each one unique. From above we could clearly see the alter and the crowded pews below. The service was well presented, humorous and enjoyable. The chaplain commended the newly commissioned officers on their accomplishments, reminding them they are never far from God, and asked them to raise. Before God they promised to be courageous in their leadership and selfless in their service, respectful to all regardless of colour and creed, and to remain loyal to their superiors and dedicated to those who looked to them for leadership. On the way back to his seat, Chris caught his heel and stumbled, which caused myself and the gentleman sitting behind us to laugh. He’s going to an incredible leader, but he’ll always be a goofball. There were some apt hymns sung and blessings given, and I left feeling warm and happy.
Chris left to prepare for the parade. Meanwhile, I met the remainder of his intimidate relatives, his mother and brother. Along with the other guests, we assembled on the ramps surrounding the parade ground, and waited for the parade to begin. Being short, Chris’ mum ensured I was near the front, where I could actually see what was happening. The air of excitement was inescapable. It was bright, hot and crowded, and all of a sudden, it began.
One thing about Chris and his family: they are all very tall. Meanwhile, I am very short, and struggled to stand against them even in heals, therefore I refused to change to my flats for the entire day. Seriously, I am a foot shorter than Chris. It was like being among giants.
The band started playing. The band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Plymouth, that is. I’d never heard them play live before, and I wasn’t prepared for the regimented perfection of it all. Seriously, playing an instrument while keeping in step and doing checkerboard turns is impressive.
They did their parade around the square, and then continued to play all sorts of awesome tunes throughout the ceremony, including The Imperial March and the Indiana Jones theme tune. Once they had taken their residence for the remainder of the service, the officers marched on in their divisions. One squadron went left, and Chris’ squadron (Cunningham) marched to the right, nearer to where we were standing on the ramps above.
A sea if white caps covered the parade ground, segmented and lined up in perfect order. As well as those passing out, there was another group, and the guard, who donned a blue seaman’s uniform and rifles. The March of the Colour was performed. The guard shifted their rifles around in perfect sync, while the officers stood, swords rested on their shoulders, amazingly still in the blazing heat. Once this was finished, the guest of honour, General Houghton inspected the officers in their divisions. This took a while. The man began with the far right division (one over from Chris’) and went from one officer to the next, marching down the rows, while the assembled officers remained statue like, right arm parallel to the ground holding their swords against their shoulders. Just prior to the guest of honour moving to their division, the …. oh gosh, I forgot the name… um, I’m going to run with… ‘division leader’ instructs the division to separate out slightly to allow some room to be inspected. They then resume their stance, sword on shoulder, and stare straight ahead.
By the time they are inspected, Chris and his companions of Westminster Division have been standing in the same position for about twenty minutes. The division leader walks with the general as he inspects. He occasionally addresses an officer personally, but he decided to speak with the officer next to Chris, rather than to Chris (a silly decision in my humble, bias opinion – why would you not want to talk to Chris?). In any case, he doesn’t raise any concerns about the newly commissioned group of young men, and proceeds to move on to the next. And then, the best thing ever happens. At least the best thing while they’re standing in their rows. I was informed what it was they were doing, but I don’t remember the name, and so I call it ‘The shoulder bro-fist, get in line, shuffle’. Please note, that is 100% not what it is called, but it is awesome.
My brief description of ‘The shoulder bro-fist get in line shuffle‘
This bares little importance to the day, and can be skipped. I’m sorry if this is highly incorrect; I could be remembering incorrectly or misjudging what was going on. Please, feel free to comment and inform me if you have knowledge of the truth of events, and what it is actually named.
In a division, there are three rows of officers, now separated enough to allow a man to walk through. The gap now needs to be closed again, to create a nice tight division who can march in tow. The first row, turn their heads to the left, extend their arm and plant a fist on the side of the shoulder of the officer to their left. They then proceed to shuffle into a perfect line using their arms as a guide – note, not walk, or step, shuffle. Meanwhile, the rows behind close in from behind using the front row as a guide. Bam. Everyone together in nice, neat, close rows. It’s amazing.
Anyway. The inspection of the officers took 45 minutes in total, and for the entirety of that time, other than the ‘The shoulder bro-fist get in line shuffle’, the officers stand, not moving, in the same position. Baring in mind, the day is particularly hot, and the uniforms are fashioned from a thick, heavy material. At one point, someone from the guard fainted, just went down where they stood. The poor cadet needed a stretcher. While no one else just collapsed, there were a few more heat victims afterwards. I was informed that officers on parade who felt faint were told not to be heroes. If they had the feeling of lightheadedness or other symptoms associated with heat stroke, they are to go down on one knee,
remove their caps and await rescue from a superior officer carrying a stick. With heavy hearts they would be helped from the ground to shade and water. Of about seven fainters, only one returned to stand again. Fortunately, no one from Chris’ division suffered under the sunlight. Cloud cover offered some relief a little later on.
It’s so strange to think the celebration of their hard work and effort was almost in itself another test of their stamina. They made it look so simple, easy to stand motionless, head proud for so long without so much as twitching, while those of us watching, able to move and in much lighter garments, fanned ourselves and sighed. Of course, to me, Chris was particularly dignified.
I knew he wouldn’t faint, because I knew just how much he had been through to be able to stand there having never been back-phased, and I knew just what that meant to him.
After the inspection, the parade were addressed by the captain of the college, and the guest gave a short speech. The chaplain returned to offer a prayer for those passing out both in the Royal Navy and as part of extended navies across the world, some of which would be returning to areas of conflict. This was a grounding thought. Prizes were given to the best cadets (now officers).
A Merlin helicopter flew out from behind the college and gave a turn over the parade grounds, finalizing the standing part of the ceremony. The divisions took to marching once more, swords held up perpendicular to the floor, and marched around the ramps, where we were standing. I caught Chris’ eye as he passed, and he gave me a quick smile. They reformed into two lines on the parade ground, and prepared for their final march, up the steps of the college and through the doors. Once they passed those doors, they would, by all accounts, be official Navy officers. My heart fluttered in my chest on their behalf. I can only imagine how it must feel to stand at the threshold after all the training they had to get through. And if you know anything about Royal Navy Officer training, you know it’s not easy, and includes a four day, task laden, sleep deprived stay on the rainy throws of Dartmoor. I was so proud of Chris, just watching him approaching the steps as part of the two lines, and I willed him to enjoy this moment more than anything else, because he had earned it.
Prior to passing out, Officer cadets are not allowed to use the stairs outside the college front, leading down to the parade ground; they are made to walk the ramps instead. Two rows of officers joined together at the foot of the steps to become rows of four, marching in perfect synchronization up towards the doors. Their shoes echoed off the stone as each step was taken. Half way up, the stairway splits into two, and the rows separate to accommodate the change, before meeting again at the top. Back in their lines of four they finally marched through the majestic double doors to the tear inducing tune Auld Lang Syne. Once everyone was inside, the doors were slammed shut, and a momentary quiet fell upon us.
Through the walls we heard the final command “Naval Officers …. …. …. Carry …. On!”
Cheering reverberated through the windows. Inside, caps were thrown into the air in celebration. The pass out parade was over. Chris was an officer. Hazaa!
We met with Chris when he returned to join us outside, where he received a big hug and many congratulations. He was beaming.
We stood outside the college and took photographs, before heading into the Junior Gun Room (I think) to enjoy a buffet, which didn’t turn out to be a buffet, but continuous hors d’oeuvres. Happy as I was to have watched the parade, I had been up since five in the morning, had skipped breakfast, and was now all kinds of starving. Frustration set in when those carrying the trays kept missing us, so Chris’ sister and I went on the attack, swooping in for food whenever it came into view. I was able to get to know the family better throughout the rest of the afternoon, and it was much nicer to have Chris present. We were greeted by the DO of Westminster Division while dining, a very nice, american officer, easy to spot due to his white uniform.
Things quickly wrapped up after lunch. Chris had a professional picture taken and we had a few more photographs outside the college doors, after which we decided it was time to depart.
I bid goodbye to Chris at the bus, which would take us down the hill, thank goodness. I hope he knew just how proud I was of him, and how lucky I felt, not only to have been able to be there, but to be the one kissing him afterwards. The whole day was driven by a silent dignity, upheld by the college, the officers passing out and everyone involved. Everything was done with poise and meaning. Pomp and circumstance wasn’t necessary, because nobody was trying to glorify anything. I was so glad to be part of Chris’ big day, just so thankful that circumstances allowed for my presence on what was one of the most important days of Chris’ life. I would have been deeply sad if I hadn’t been there with him, cheering him on. I didn’t want to let him go.
In the bus, I finally changed shoes, and as expected, I was indeed a dwarf, but my feet breathed a sigh of relief. We stopped for a drink on the way back to Totnes, where they kindly dropped me off at the station, before returning to their journey back to the North. I’m glad I was finally able to meet them and all at the same time. Thank goodness they all seem to like me and I them.
I’m back home now, preparing for the excitement of tomorrow: the long awaited ball.
Chris, if you read this, and I’m not sure if you do, well done. I am so proud of you, and I can’t wait to watch you continue your career as part of the Royal Navy.