Suffolk commander at Grafton's helm

A SUFFOLK seaman today spoke of his pride at the prospect of being the first and last commander from the county to skipper Ipswich's adopted warship.Robert Bellfield, raised in Clopton, was appointed to the position on HMS Grafton this month and is likely to be the last man at the helm of type 23 frigate.

A SUFFOLK seaman today spoke of his pride at the prospect of being the first and last commander from the county to skipper Ipswich's adopted warship.

Robert Bellfield, raised in Clopton, was appointed to the position on HMS Grafton this month and is likely to be the last man at the helm of type 23 frigate.

It is due to be decommissioned in 2006 after more than ten years in service.

The 39-year-old said: "To command your local ship is a great honour and it was a great surprise she was available at the right time.

"It's very sad she's being decommissioned, but it's also a very big honour to probably be her last captain.

"I saw her when she was being built in Glasgow. I said to a friend at the time I'd like to command her one day. Little did I know it would come through."

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Mr Bellfield, 39, attended Woodbridge's Farlingaye High School, from 1978 to 1981, before moving on to Framlingham College, between 1981 and 1983. He then joined the Royal Navy as a warfare officer.

He had spells on various frigates, serving all around the world, before joining HMS Sutherland in 2001. During this time, he worked on anti-drug operations in the Caribbean.

In May 2003, he was promoted to commander and gained a masters degree in Defence Studies from Kings College London.

He now lives in Dorset, with his wife, Zoe, and daughters, Eleanor and Imogen, but still returns to Suffolk on a regular basis to his parents' home in Clopton.

One of his next trips to his home county will be in July, when HMS Grafton makes a week-long visit to the town.

He said: "I did all my growing up around here and I'm looking forward to bringing her up the River Orwell in July.

"The ship has a very strong affiliation with the town. We've got very good links with all sorts of different organisations in Ipswich, from the sea cadets, to the council to the football club.

"We do a lot of charity work for the area too. It's good to give the ship a focus. When we're raising money for something, it's important it has an appropriate link."

A keen Ipswich Town fan, Mr Bellfield attended the Blues' match against Leeds this season.

And he is constantly reminded of his allegiance by the strip worn by the ship's football team – a blue and white kit donated by Ipswich Town.

Although the decommissioning will mean the end of the navy's links with the town, Mr Bellfield hopes the bond can be extended.

He said "It's very important. What we want to do is make sure the relationship is kept going, although I don't what form it will be in at this stage."

FASTfacts HMS Grafton

N HMS Grafton first came to Ipswich in 1997.

N It has a 187-strong company.

N It is the eight in a long line of Royal Navy warships to carry the name.

N It is named after the Duke of Grafton's estate near Euston, near Thetford.

N The first HMS Grafton was launched in 1679.

N HMS Grafton is the ship to be affiliated with Ipswich since 1989, when the submarine HMS Olympus was decommissioned.

N When the frigate first visited Ipswich, in 1997, more than 4,000 people queued to see her.

N The ship's football team plays in the blue and white of Ipswich

Source: Ipswich Borough Council

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