An enterprising crew of North East volunteers, dedicated to supporting military veterans, has embarked on an unlikely challenge – to build a full-size, seaworthy Viking longboat. 

THE history books might show that Darlington is best known for giving the world the railways, but who would have thought it would also lay claim to being the birthplace of a magnificent Viking longboat?

It has been a difficult voyage at times, but Stormbird – as she is destined to be known – has finally arrived in the market town, ready to be made shipshape by a passionate team of volunteers.

She’s got a tall mast for a sail, and there’ll be oars too. But Bob Marshall, the mastermind behind the unlikely mission, says she’ll be powered by something much stronger than wind or mere elbow grease.

“She’ll sail on love,” declares the spirited Grandpa, who has lived in Darlington for the past 25 years.

By that, he means the countless hours of devotion that will have gone into her construction by the time she goes to sea, hopefully sometime next year.

The launch of this most epic and romantic of journeys began at Catterick Garrison, where Bob was employed by Help for Heroes as woodshop manager at the Phoenix House recovery centre.

Part of the mental health and wellbeing team, his job was to use the simple beauty of wood to support the recovery of those who’d suffered traumas in war zones.

Bob grew up on a Yorkshire Dales farm, where part of life was “making stuff”. By the time he was a teenager, he had experience at welding, building drystone walls, and joinery.

His carpentry skills were taken to a higher level after he got married to Lyn, a partnership that has now lasted 40 years.

“We couldn’t afford furniture, so I went to the library to learn how to do it, and made furniture that lasted us for decades,” he recalls.

While he went on to earn a living as a commercial finance broker, woodwork was always a passion. In 2015, that led to a voluntary role in the Phoenix House woodshop, which was so well received, it turned into full-time employment.

Furniture restoration was combined with woodcarving, woodturning and even making Fender Telecaster guitars.

Three of the veterans completed a course and became lifetime members of the Guild of Rocking Horse Makers, with one going on to make traditional rocking horses professionally.

But Bob saw the need to engage the veterans in something on a grander scale: a project that would be bold and captivating enough to keep them at the centre, so they would benefit fully from wider mental health support services.

“It’s not about the wood, it’s about the person, and connecting with them in an empathetic way; taking the time with them to prove their worth,” explains Bob.

“Don’t ask me where it came from, but I suddenly had a flash of inspiration. I thought to myself ‘Bloody hell, what about a Viking longboat?’”

Bob contacted Jorvik Viking Centre, in York, and was advised to get in touch with The Maritime Museum in the Danish city of Roskilde. Experts there obliged by sending him plans for a 30-feet-long Viking ship called a Skuldelev.

In the meantime, Bob had another stroke of luck when he went to The Woodworking Show, at Harrogate, and got chatting to a man called Mike Holtham, who happened to be a qualified boat-builder and was happy to help.

Bob had the plans, he had expert assistance, and when a friend donated a chopped down oak tree to be transported to Catterick on a trailer, he suddenly had the timber.

With up to 120 veterans involved in the project – employing a whole range of woodworking skills – construction work started in the spring of 2019, with the original target of finishing in time for York’s Viking Festival a year later.

That target became impossible when disaster struck in March 2020 with the onset of Covid-19. By then, about 40 per cent of the longboat had been built, including the keel, stern and prow.

Work had also started on the rudder, and a beautiful figurehead had been hand-carved in the shape of a winged phoenix.

However, like all charities, Help for Heroes was hit hard by the pandemic. Phoenix House was among the casualties, and Bob was one of the many who lost their jobs when the centre closed.

“It was a very tough time,” recalls Bob. “Several veterans lost their lives to suicide, and I knew four of them personally. That's the tragic reality at the sharp end.”

Bob decided he had to return to volunteering to fill the gap. Along with his boat-builder friend, Mike Holtham, he launched a community interest company, called Plane Sailing for Heroes.

Bob has been getting his wood for years from Darlington Timber Supplies, and that relationship paid dividends when the company provided him with a joinery shop and training hangar on a lease arrangement.

The next step was to get the half-built Viking longship up the road to Darlington. It took four hours of hard work to lift her onto a trailer at Phoenix House last Friday, but Stormbird eventually made the journey to her new home.

With Bob and Mike acting as co-directors, the aim is to make Plane Sailing for Heroes self-sustainable by making and selling a range of wood products.

Woodworking courses will be on offer from the New Year, with up to ten veterans a day being accommodated.

The business, launched last month, is up and running with a contract to make educational toys, as well as an early commission for a bed.

There has also been some bespoke work for roofers and a local engineering firm, while a design company in Newcastle has even ordered a Santa’s Grotto.

However, completing the Viking longboat remains the main challenge, and veterans will be coming from far and wide to play their part.

“I suppose you could call it a Viking invasion of Darlington, except we haven’t got long grey beards and axes,” laughs Bob.

“This might well be the first Viking longboat to ever be built in Darlington, and I want it to be part of the town, a symbol of how it cares for veterans.”

The tide may have been against him along the way, but Bob Marshall is a man on an inspirational voyage – determined that Stormbird will one day set sail.

And when she does, she’ll be powered by love. God speed.

  • Plane Sailing for Heroes is appealing for financial donations to help cover the costs of tools and timber. It also needs a volunteer administrator to help with applications for grant funding. If anyone can help, please email