The driving force behind an ambitious project to build a Viking longboat in Darlington was honoured with a special surprise on national TV last night. PETER BARRON reports


IT’S not every day a life-sized wooden statue of a Viking warrior is presented to someone as a surprise gift.

But, for Bob Marshall, whose passion for woodwork has helped countless military veterans to combat mental health problems, it’s the perfect tribute.

The sculpture – inevitably dubbed Bob, The Viking – has been given pride of place alongside a traditional longboat that’s slowly but surely taking shape in a hidden corner of Darlington.

“He’s fantastic, isn’t he? I absolutely love him!” says Bob as he admires his Viking namesake, lovingly sculpted out of a yew tree by chainsaw artist Ella Fielding.

Ella is one of the stars of The Woodland Workshop television programme, which featured the story about Bob and his Plane Sailing charity on the Quest channel last night.

Bob’s wonderfully eccentric mission to build a Viking longboat as a way of supporting veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), first featured in this column in November 2021, and regular progress reports have followed.

As a result, the producers of The Woodland Workshop got in touch with one of the beneficiaries of Plane Sailing, former soldier Alun “Taff” Watkins, to discuss the possibility of paying tribute to Bob on the programme.

Without Bob knowing, Taff travelled to the New Forest, where the programme is made, to be interviewed about the impact of the charity on the lives of veterans like himself. Three weeks later, Bob was driven down to the national park, in Hampshire, for the surprise unveiling of the statue.

“When the hessian cover was lifted off to reveal the statue underneath, I’ve never seen Bob so stunned,” laughs Taff. “It was quite a moment, but it’s so well deserved for everything he’s done.”

Taff is one of many veterans whose lives have been transformed by Plane Sailing. “I might not be here now if it wasn’t for this place,” he says before going on to tell his story...

Taff joined the Army at 16, serving in the Royal Logistics Corps as a chef and a dog handler. His service included  a tour of Iraq, and he suffers from PTSD after being on the receiving end of petrol bomb attacks in Northern Ireland.

He was medically discharged in 2017 with a debilitating condition called sarcoidosis, which attacks the immune system. It meant he was laid up for two years and unable to work.

“I’d been very active in The Army, playing rugby and running half-marathons and, suddenly, I felt useless,” explains Taff. “I didn’t know what to do with myself, and my mental health suffered.”

He found solace when he was sent to the Phoenix House rehabilitation centre, funded by Help For Heroes at Catterick Garrison, and walked into a woodcraft workshop

Bob, who’d taught himself carpentry skills, had set up the workshop as a volunteer but, as its popularity and impact grew, he was employed full-time as manager.

“I was shown how to make a goblet, and that was it – I was hooked,” Taff recalls.

Sadly, Phoenix House was shut down after the Covid-19 pandemic struck and, although Bob did his best to keep the support and camaraderie going via Zoom meetings, the closure hit Taff hard.

At the same time, his wife, Kate, was working as a nurse at Friarage Hospital, in Northallerton, and had to live in a caravan in the back garden to protect her husband from infection.

It all became too much. One day, Taff went upstairs and tried to commit suicide with a massive overdose of tablets that left him in a coma, in hospital, for four weeks.

“When I came round, I hadn’t a clue what had happened, but Bob was one of the first people to call,” he says.

Plane Sailing is Bob’s way of filling the gap left by the closure of Phoenix House, and the charity has established a base behind Darlington Timber Supplies, in Barton Street.

Taff, who has two daughters, is now part of the furniture at Plane Sailing, describing Bob, along with the other volunteers and beneficiaries, as his “extended family”.

“I’m still going through counselling, so I’m not out of the woods, but Plane Sailing is priceless to me,” he says. “You have to talk about mental health to break the stigma. You need a friendship group that listens and is non-judgmental. That’s what I’ve got here.”

Taff has honed his woodworking skills to the extent that he’s gone into business with another veteran by launching The Mad Veterans Pen Club, making and selling high-quality, bespoke wooden pens. He’s also learned to make beautiful rocking horses and is raffling off one of them in aid of his daughter’s football team, Bedale Under-13 Girls.

Meanwhile, Bob the Viking has been transported from the New Forest to Darlington, and hopes are high that the charity's longboat – named Stormbird – will be finished by the end of the year.

“One day, I’d like to see the statue go on a tour of schools, along with the boat, to inspire kids – wouldn’t that be brilliant?” says Taff.

The speed of progress depends on funding to cover the costs of timber and tools, and increasing the size of the volunteer crew. Three new volunteers joined up recently but there’s room for more skilled people to come on board.

Veterans, who’ve enjoyed their first experience with Plane Sailing, are returning for more sessions, and the facilities have been extended, with a rest room and toilets being built adjacent to the workshop

Bob Marshall smiles beneath his twirly Windsor Davies moustache, and runs his hand along the gleaming wood of his Viking statue.

“We could always do with more help but we’re in decent shape,” he declares. “It’s full steam ahead.”

  • If anyone can help the charity in any way, please email
  • To find out more about the Mad Veterans Pen Club, search for the name on Facebook.
  • The Woodland Workshop airs Tuesdays at 9pm on Quest and is available to stream on discovery+