Glenn Gowling has served the Royal Navy with distinction, been honoured by The Queen, and survived a near-fatal bout of coronavirus. Now, he's embarking on a new mission. PETER BARRON reports

AS he looks back on an illustrious career in the Royal Navy, Glenn Gowling easily recalls the moment he knew he was destined for a life at sea.

He was at Haughton Comprehensive School, in Darlington, attending a careers event, when a man in uniform showed pictures of a ship breaking waves, and a submarine emerging through a Polar ice cap.

“I want some of that,” was the instant reaction in Glenn’s mind – and his course was set.

Thirty-seven years later, having been awarded the MBE for services to his country in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, he is finally hanging up his uniform. But he remains a man with a clear sense of direction – certainly not a case of sailing off into the sunset.

“I’ve had a wonderful career that’s taken me all over the world. Now it’s time to put something back into my hometown community,” he says.

As a newly appointed advisor for the National Careers Service, at a time of economic turmoil, he’ll be guiding adults into apprenticeships, further education, and jobs.

And he is also passionate about breathing new life into the Darlington branch of the Royal Naval Association, the country’s biggest supporter of Royal Navy veterans and serving personnel. That new mission will include taking part in the Virtual Land’s End To John O'Groats Walk or Run over the next year to raise funds for the branch.

“I was saddened to see that the branch was on the point of folding, and I can’t let that happen,” he says.

But first, it’s worth reflecting on what has been quite a voyage for the youngest of six children, who grew up in Darlington, with no obvious maritime connections, and unremarkable grades at school. Dad Tommy was a crane driver, mum Audrey a barmaid, and home was a council house in Lyonette Road – 25 miles from the North Sea.

Fresh from that fateful school careers evening, Glenn cadged a lift to Hartlepool to take the Royal Navy recruitment test. After a year’s delay due to the Falklands War, he joined up at 17, initially based in Portsmouth, before going to sea aboard HMS Glamorgan, a county class guided missile destroyer.

The first port of call was Barbados, and young Glenn sent his history teacher, Mrs Noble, a postcard, saying: “Look at me now, Miss!”

Several appointments followed – on land and sea – with highlights that included seeing the Pyramids, the space shuttle launch, the northern lights, whales and flying fish.

He also served in Kosovo, first during the conflict, then in a peace-keeping role. “It was shocking to see what was happening in that part of Europe, but I’ll always be proud to be part of a force for good,” he says.

Providing disaster relief after a hurricane hit the Dominican Republic is another source of pride, but there were also lighter duties.

As a tennis fan, he was thrilled to represent the Navy at 21 Wimbledons, showing fans to their seats, and meeting many of the stars.

Four years ago, he spotted one of his favourite celebrities, BBC weather presenter, Carol Kirkwood, with Andy Murray’s mum. He approached Judy Murray and asked if she’d mind…taking a photo of him with Carol.

“I don’t think she was too happy – but she took the picture,” he laughs.

The biggest highlight of all came in 2003 when he was presented with the MBE by The Queen. By then he was working in Whitehall and was honoured “for services to defence intelligence” following the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Wife, Sue, and children, Michael and Gemma, joined him at Buckingham Palace for what he describes as “an unforgettable moment”.

Glenn left “the regulars” in 2005 to join the Naval Careers Service and has spent the last 15 years visiting schools, while fitting in a degree in careers guidance and development.

But just as he was preparing to hang up his uniform, there was an almost fatal twist to the story. His last official duty, in March, was to attend the inaugural visit of Britain’s newest aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, to Liverpool.

It involved shaking lots of hands and, within days, he “went down like a sack of spuds.” Coronavirus was confirmed, leading to him spending a week in Darlington Memorial Hospital, including four days on a ventilator. Thankfully, he became the first Covid patient to leave the intensive care unit “the right way”.

“I was given a round of applause by the hospital staff when I came out, but it could so easily have gone the other way,” he says.

Warrant Officer Gowling officially “leaves the uniform” this week and admits to mixed emotions. “It’s sad, but I know I’ll be making room for another young hopeful to come in on the bottom rung with a chance to climb the promotion ladder like I did,” he says.

Naturally, he wants to enjoy time with grandchildren, Ava and Lola, but his campaign to revive the Darlington branch of the Royal Naval Association will be high on the agenda. He’ll be writing to all 31 care homes in Darlington to check if any residents served in the Navy or Marines.

And, after a lifetime at sea, there’s also the little matter of 837.7 miles of dry land to cover from one end of the country to the other.

“I was a council house kid who had a football of opportunity and kicked it hard, all the way to the top, but I haven’t finished yet – there’s more in the tank,” he says.

Glenn Gowling – born in Darlington. Made in the Royal Navy.

SHAMEFULLY, the local paper failed to publish news of Glenn’s MBE back in 2002. I was going to blame the editor before realising it was me. Anyway, it’s nice to have the chance to put the record straight.

AS expected, taking Mike Amos to bed with me each night is proving to be a joy.

For clarity, I’m halfway through Mike’s highly recommended autobiography, Unconsidered Trifles, gleaned from his 50-plus years writing for The Northern Echo.

My favourite trifle so far is the one from the Darlington and District Cricket League Division D.

A Trimdon Colliery and Deaf Hill batsman was about to smash a gentle delivery from a Yarm bowler when the ball deviated and uprooted his middle stump.The ball, it transpired, had struck a swallow in flight and the poor creature lay dead on the wicket.

Amos was duly alerted to the debate about what the umpire’s decision should be. Who did he call for advice? Celebrated test match umpire Dickie Bird. Who else?

FINALLY, headline of the week comes from The Times of India, on a report about the Goa State Commission for Women appointing a new chairperson...

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