Why the King's coronation is in safe hands with Telford's own Garrison Sergeant Major

Andrew ‘Vern’ Stokes could be forgiven for having sleepless nights on a regular basis.

After all, when most of us struggle to drift off into the land of nod, we can count sheep, probably imagining them in the calm and serenity of Shropshire’s beautiful countryside.

But for Garrison Sergeant Major Stokes – the man behind so much of the ceremonial splendour we are privileged to enjoy in the UK – things are very different. He finds himself running through military drills in his mind.

It’s probably not quite so relaxing trying to fall asleep to the rhythmical sound of marching feet, hundreds of trotting horses, and the stirring sounds of a military band.

Never mind sleep. For most of us, the thought of calculating distances and timings at a global event such as the King’s Coronation sounds more like a nightmare.

The complexity, precision and detail that goes into something of such magnitude seems unimaginable.

But for Garrison Sergeant Major Stokes, who grew up in Madeley and has a home in Coalbrookdale, involvement in such royal occasions has become the ‘norm’. In fact, he must wonder what a ‘normal year’ feels like right now.

Since taking on the role, he has played a leading part in the Platinum Jubilee, Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday and royal weddings to name but a few momentous occasions. And, of course, on a more sombre note, he was a key figure in Her Majesty’s funeral and that of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, before.

Garrison Sergeant Major Andrew ‘Vern’ Stokes with (from left) Tony Roden, Rachel Waterson and Ironbridge Rotary president Steve Evans at an Ironbridge Rotary Club dinner at The Valley Hotel where he was guest speaker. Photo: Dave Bagnall

And he has even thrown in two London Marathons in the past 12 months. He ran a personal best earlier this month to raise funds for ABF The Soldiers’ charity – “When I go running, I find a bit of headspace to think about what needs to be done,” he says.

For most of us, involvement in such a world-renowned event would lead to nerves and it wouldn’t be a few butterflies floating softly and delicately in the stomach. They’d be flapping furiously.

But while GSM Stokes no doubt has nerves, they are superseded by a determination to make sure the military aspects of such grandiose affairs run like clockwork. And, with a BAFTA win behind him and such vast experience, you know, the coronation is in safe hands.

“We are showcasing the country, the Commonwealth as well,” he says. “It all has to be right. There is an awful amount of pressure in making it right.

“But in typical British fashion,” he says, determinedly, “We will pull it off and it will be absolutely fantastic.

“We will fill London with military music and marching troops and there will be gun salutes in the capital and across the country, as well as ships placed abroad and a flypast,” he says.

“It will be spectacular, a fantastic day and it all culminates on the Sunday with an incredible concert in the grounds of Windsor Castle where the military will be providing the orchestra, playing the backing music for some of Britain and the world’s best-known artists.”

GSM Andrew Stokes

For GSM Stokes, a member of the Coldstream Guards, the opportunity to play a major role in another key moment in British and world history is something he’s immensely proud of.

“I was the sixth Garrison Sergeant Major in The Queen’s 70-year reign,” he reflects. “For context, that compares to 15 Prime Ministers. Those other Garrison Sergeant Majors would have all wished to have had the sort of exposure I have. In fact, they’d have just wanted one of the events.

"I have managed to capture all of those moments in my eight years of service so it’s been the job that keeps on giving in many ways.

“It’s kept me incredibly busy and I’m not sure what life looks like after the coronation in terms of a normal year because I don’t think I have had one in this job. But I have been incredibly blessed and privileged to have been part of all those massive national occasions. It’s something I am proud of.”

Something which must make the planning of such occasions a challenge is the whole gamut of emotions organisers go through. Some events – weddings, the coronation, the Jubilee – are joyous, others – Remembrance Day and funerals – are reflective.

“It’s difficult to manage our emotions,” GSM Stokes says. “When it comes to all of them, whether happy, sad or celebratory, you invest so much time and effort into the planning and the delivery of the events that you are completely in the zone.

“It’s only afterwards that you take a step back and think ‘that was something quite special’. Then you can allow your brain to catch up and understand the emotion of what happened.

“You have to be in that mindset to make sure that these events go as they should. You are in a position to influence and you can’t get tied up in the emotions at the time.”

That was certainly the case with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in September.

Now he has had a chance to reflect fully, the Garrison Sergeant Major says he looks back with ‘intense pride’.

Last year Vern collected a BAFTA at the TV Craft Awards, for Entertainment Craft Team for The Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance. Photo: Dave Bagnall

“Not because of what was achieved,” he adds “I feel pride to think about what The Queen represented and how those 11 days unfolded. As sad as it was and as incredible as it was, it was also a moment where the nation – in fact the world – stood still and respectfully mourned and celebrated the life of an incredible Queen.”

“To be a part of that made me feel proud but also to assist in the nation’s ability to reflect and mourn was special,” he reflects.

“It wasn’t just a tearful mourning but a celebratory mourning and it was really something. It will live with me for a long time.”

It was an incredible chapter in GSM Stokes’ military career. Now his focus is on his next monumental event, delivering the kind of ceremonial excellence we have become accustomed to witnessing.

Once it’s over, no one would begrudge one of the key men behind it a few restful nights’ sleep.

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