IF ever there was a sign of approval from the heavens, this must surely be it.
The sun poked out from behind the clouds just as 160 sailors from HMS Ark Royal marched out of Leeds’s Millennium Square to exercise their Freedom of the City.
And as they saluted the Lord Mayor on their return to Leeds City Museum, the sun once again came out to dazzle the crowds.
Hundreds of people lined the streets to bid an emotional farewell to the HMS Ark Royal sailors before the aircraft carrier is decommissioned next month.
The city’s links to the vessel began during the Second World War, when the people of Leeds raised around £9m for Ark Royal IV after her predecessor was torpedoed and sunk.
The ship has remained close to the city’s heart ever since – and it was with immense pride that her sailors were welcomed to Leeds for Saturday’s parade.
The senior naval officer, Commander Robert Bellfield, told the YEP: “This weekend celebrates the very close affiliation that the Ark Royal has had, over many years, with the city of Leeds.
“The Freedom of the City was given to the Ark Royal in 1973 and it’s a great honour and a privilege for us to exercise that freedom again today, for the last time by this ship’s company. But let’s hope that future Ark Royals can do it for years to come.”
Before leaving Leeds City Museum at the start of the march, the sailors and the crowds were addressed by Commander Bellfield and the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Coun Jim McKenna.
In his speech, Coun McKenna told how personnel delivering two ceremonial chairs from HMS Ark Royal to Leeds Parish Church on Friday were left with a gift of their own – a parking ticket.
The crowd gasped as the Lord Mayor quipped: “It just goes to show that even though you may have the Freedom of the City, you can’t escape the staff in parking services.”
He added: “Because of recent events, this is likely to be the last occasion of this kind for the forseeable future.
“Although there is no certainty that another ship will actually bear the name Ark Royal, I know Leeds will continue to hold dear the genuine affection for the very special links shared.”
Commander Bellfield talked about marching onto the pitch at Leeds United’s away match against Portsmouth, where HMS Ark Royal is based.
He said: “We marched out at the beginning of the match to tremendous applause. The announcer then said Leeds was the affiliated city of the HMS Ark Royal and 3,000 Leeds supporters started chanting to the Portsmouth fans, ‘they’re ours, not yours’.”
He added: “Today is not sad, it’s a celebration. A celebration of the 25 years of links between this Ark Royal and the city of Leeds.
“The generosity of the city over many years is much appreciated and we look forward to this happening again in the future.”
The sailors marched with bayonets fixed and colours flying in time to the drum beat of the Royal Marines Band of Scotland, carrying the ship’s Freedom Scroll.
The parade went from Leeds City Museum, along The Headrow, down Vicar Lane and onto Briggate before returning to Millennium Square.
On their return, the sailors saluted the Lord Mayor and marched to the Civic Hall, where the ship’s bell, scroll and ‘hanging grab’ were presented at a civic reception.
On Friday, the sailors went to Elland Road, where they were presented with a special Leeds United kit to wear for the semi-finals of the Navy Cup.
The crew was also involved in a number of sporting events, including a rugby match at Moortown Rugby Club and netball and football matches at the University of Leeds.
The celebrations came to an end yesterday with a special service at Leeds Parish Church, where the chairs from the chapel of HMS Ark Royal – made by Yorkshire carpenter Robert ‘Mousey’ Thompson – were dedicated and placed in the church.
There are now plans to form an Ark Royal Society to keep the name going in Leeds, while it is hoped another Royal Navy vessel will take the name Ark Royal in the future.