Light Dragoons to be offered ‘holding crosses’ at service at All Saints’ Church, Swanton Morley

You may be far from home, soldier, but you are far from alone...

Light Dragoons heading off soon on their next tour of duty to Afghanistan can take with them a symbol of faith to clutch in those moments when they feel the need for quiet, spiritual reflection.

At a service for them tomorrow at All Saints' Church, Swanton Morley, a brisk march away from their Robertson Barracks HQ, 'holding crosses' crafted by churchgoer Fred Beckett will be presented to a contingent from the dragoons to distribute among those officers and men who would like one.

In his workshop at his home in Union Drift, Dereham, he has sawn and sanded and shaped 150 of them out of fallen and salvaged timber.

Each is about the length of a forefinger and unique in its own small way, Some have the light, virginal hue of an ash that came down in the grounds of the old vicarage garden in Dereham; others are the robust, dark colours of oak from discarded church pews – 'When people throw wood out, I'll grab it,' says Fred, 70, a former cabinet maker and care worker.

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The rest of the crosses are the fiery, speckled red of wood from a yew tree in the churchyard at Yaxham.

According to Fred, the offer of giving holding crosses to dragoons deploying overseas arose from the involvement some years ago of the then rector of Dereham, Canon Richard Ames-Lewis, and the padre at Robertson Barracks.

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'Troops were asked whether they would like anything of a spiritual or religious nature to take with them,' he said. 'Several said they would like to have a cross.'

About 300 crosses were made the first time. Also, Christians at Shipdham gave crosses for soldiers to wear.

The number this time is smaller, although Fred pointed out that many of the dragoons heading for Afghanistan would have their crosses from their previous service there.

If past experience is anything to go by, some crosses will be cherished by serving soldiers' partners and children back home.

And, while the dragoons are away, anyone can visit St Nicholas's Church, Dereham, or All Saints' at Swanton, hold one of the crosses and say a prayer.

But can a wooden symbol of faith deliver them from evil? That is definitely not the point, stresses Fred.

'Given the choice between a flak-jacket and a cross, I would always say to them: 'Take the flak-jacket,'' he says. 'They are not good-luck charms.

'The idea is that, when you are out in Kandahar or somewhere and you've got this lumpy piece of wood in your pocket, you can remember that there's an old, grey-haired bloke like me working in his shed who has not forgotten you; that there is a family back home who is thinking of you; that you are not alone; that Jesus knows about pain and he has not forgotten you.'

The goodwill gesture by mid-Norfolk people is welcomed by the dragoons, who only recently spoke of the 'fantastic' support they received from the local civilian community.

Tomorrow's service at All Saints', Swanton Morley, starts at 2pm and is open to all denominations.

Money being collected in sponsorship for crosses will go to the dragoons' benevolent fund; contact the Rev Adrian Aubrey-Jones on 01362 638378.

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