“Set their compass to Castle Features and they will always find their way”

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

When you pick up a daily national newspaper, or switch on the lunchtime or evening news, or even listen to the radio, one of the saddest epidemics currently blighting our country is regarding the care our country gives our veterans.

You will read about homelessness, poor mental health, poverty or a variety of other problems that many of our bravest soldiers get caught up in as they leave their respective forces. It was both an honour and a pleasure then, for this edition of TM2, to be able to interview two former Royal Marines who have not only grabbed their post-service life by the horns, but are hoping to help others do the same.

Tom Scott and Oliver Whitby are the two men behind a company called Castle Features – the company’s aim is to restore old buildings and ruins back to their former glory and make them habitable again, all whilst remaining sympathetic to traditional building methods, local vernacular and environmental sustainability.

The two men met during their service, crossing paths for the first time at Lympstone Barracks near Exeter. I started by asking them how the idea of Castle Features came about:

“In 2011 I was fortunate to be selected for Young Officer training and completed Commando training for a second time,” Tom said. “This is where I met my future business partner Oliver, a physicist from Oxford University who shared my interest in historical architecture, bespoke woodwork and chasing female Exeter university students.

‘In 2018, when we both had finished our service, I tracked down my old mate Oli and, with our shared passion for old buildings, properties with historical significance and a strong environmental conscience, we forged a plan to start a company together.

‘In order to get us started and up to speed Oli managed to persuade a very trusting family member to allow us to build his future house from foundation to fittings. We are currently halfway through the build with me, Oli and Geoffrey the dog currently living in a drafty shed in the field behind the site, fully committed to the project.”

In what I imagine is true hardened-marine style, the shed in question could easily fit in any kind of warzone around the world and not placed in one of the most picturesque places in Somerset. On one side it contains all the tools two builders could possibly need and, on the other, two camp beds huddled around a wood burner and a large portrait of Her Majesty The Queen. Cue the salute.

To say their accommodation emphasises their dedication would be an understatement.

The company is about more than just them, however.  “One of the worst parts of leaving the Marines is the challenge to match a Marine salary and stay living in the place that you love and has become your home, namely Devon,” Tom continued. “Therefore, we developed our business plan to help recruit like-minded former military people in the South West and transition them into the construction and restoration industry, providing trustworthy and motivated restoration teams capable of doing justice to the buildings that the buildings deserve.”

I asked Tom why the name ‘Castle Features’. The answer was very telling. “Castle Features is what the Marines call Woodbury Castle which is the prominent high point on Woodbury Common that can be seen from almost all of the training area, even at night. All Marines know that, when they’re lost, they can set their compass to Castle Features and they will always find their way, thus castlefeatures.com was born.”

It is in this anecdote that you can see what being in the armed forces means. An unwavering loyalty to your fellow soldiers, whether it be on the battlefield when you have each other’s lives in your hand, or in the post-service civilian life as you all try and accustom yourself to ‘normal life’.

It is at this point that I wanted to dig deeper into their early life and decision to join the Marines, starting with Tom:

“Probably the most lasting memory, because we were new troop commandoes, we were the new guys. There was a tradition to get us on what is called a ‘bite’. You turn up and you are shown all sorts of things that are completely false and, because we don’t know any better, we believe them. Mine was – they managed to convince me that I had failed a drugs test! They said I was going to be on a helicopter back home. I was pleased to find out it was all a joke.”

After returning home from his first tour in 2007, it was a chance for Tom to “party hard” before returning to Afghanistan as a sniper for his second tour.

“I got in a bit of trouble after my first tour and, as a result, I spent nine months as 42 Commandos storeman down in Bickleigh Barracks.”

He went on to tell me that after this he applied to join sniper training. It was at this point that something clicked in his head that, if he were to become a specialist in something, eventually people would look-up to him. His bad boy days were now behind him.

“My second tour was Operation HERRICK 09 as a sniper operating in small teams of specialists delivering precision strike and providing overwatch support to close combat infantry. I was no longer a nervous 19-year-old but someone that the company would look to to protect them when they were on the ground.

‘This all took place while conducting six months of mobile helicopter strike assaults tasked with the destruction of IED factories all over Southern Afghanistan. HERRICK 09 was the highest casualty rate that the British forces took and it was almost all IEDs. So doing that job was really rewarding.”

With all the experiences that Royal Marines must go through in a single day during a tour, let alone across six months, I asked Tom what his abiding memory was of his second time in Afghanistan:  “Toward the end of the tour we were tasked with flying into a place called Marja, which was perceived as the centre of mass, at the time, for the Taliban.

‘The idea was to do a probing attack, the whole unit, for the US
Marines who would come in behind us and then try and sweep through the whole area. We came in on a helicopter at dawn and all the lads were humming the tune to Ride of the Valkyries as we were coming in! For us, that was a particularly good day.”

The difference in experience between Tom and Oli was quite stark, considering the fact that they were involved in the same war. In fact, for Oli, there was to be no luxury of a second tour.

“Everything dried up. There wasn’t the same opportunities and it was a very different place to be, really. So, I did a specialisation and went and did the mountain leader course. You had a month or so of climbing and training in Cornwall, and some Observation Posts on Dartmoor before spending time in Norway for three months. Skiing, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, with just the aurora borealis in the sky. That was the highlight of my career.”

This type of course allows troops to become proficient in mountain warfare, particularly in the Artic. The aim, which reminds us about the different threats we continue to face, would be to help the Norwegians should the Russians invade. Oli then left the Marines and go on to mountain rescue in Tanzania on Mount Kilimanjaro, where he helped establish the highest helicopter landing site in Africa.

Tom’s second job as a newly promoted Captain was to return to Lympstone Commando and command a Recruit Training Team which successfully passed three Recruit Troops for service.

“This was a very fulfilling and rewarding job with a significant
proportion being on Dartmoor. There is no better place to harden Commando recruits to soldiering than in ‘inclement’ weather
conditions.” Following this, Tom’s experience would move away from a war setting but to a place in which the circumstances were still akin to being in one: “In 2017 I commanded force Protection elements during Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief on Operations RUMAN and OLYMPUS in the Caribbean in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. It was like nothing else I had seen before. I had seen completely destroyed towns in Afghanistan but this was another level. It was like a nuclear bomb had landed on some of these islands.

‘I commanded a 30-man troop responsible for repairing infrastructure, distribution of aid and liaising with local national police to provide security. In Dominica we provided aid to isolated communities, established helicopter landing sites and provided personal security to representatives of the Department for International Development.

‘In 2018 I was the Operations Officer for a US Special Forces Battalion based in Jordan for Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. During this time, I was within the Coalition Special Operations Joint Task Force helping to command tactical and strategic level operations in which the US and local partner forces conducted the final defeat of ISIS ground forces in Syria. This was my last post in the Royal Marines.”

Having now both left the Royal Marines, it was time for both Oli and Tom to start adapting to life outside of the forces. This is how Castle Features would be born but that wasn’t the original plan, as Oli explained: “We were both in Norway together and we were discussing what to do when we would both inevitably leave. The initial plan was to ski across North America. It’s not been done before but, in the end, we didn’t do that, but started a building company instead!”

I asked Oli and Tom if Castle Features was always going to be working on historic buildings:  “It was always going to have to be historic buildings and places of interest for us. One of things I have always been really keen on,” Tom explained, “when you walk in an old house or an old building, you can sit in a sitting room and you know this has been here for 350 years. People were sat around in this room at the same time the Spanish Armada were floating around. I am quite passionate about it.

‘There are a lot of these properties around which have just gone into a state of disrepair. We have seen a lot on Dartmoor actually. Some of the training areas the Marines use are these old farm buildings that have been abandoned on Dartmoor and now used for MoD training.
This is what we are really interested in: restoring these to their former glory.”

I found it quite inspiring to hear that, despite having built their careers serving their country, they now want to continue giving back to local communities and future generations through Castle Features.
The dedication to this is typical marine style:  “We will pick the projects we want to do and, if it means living in a shed, we’ll live in a shed.”
This was one of the most enjoyable interviews that I have conducted and, as you would expect when you sit with two Marines, there was a lot of laughing and joking. But at the end of the day, this can have a serious impact on many people’s lives: “I know from experience there are other guys like me who have spent their whole career in the South West and they don’t want to leave. What we hope is we can find these guys, we can get them interested in the same things as us, and  can run a bit like a military organisation.”

If, through their work, they can help just one veteran transition from their service to civilian life – someone that might otherwise fall on hard times – this business in many ways has already done its job for it could have saved someone’s life.

If you want to find out more about the work Oli and Tom do, visit www.castlefeatures.com or if you are a veteran who needs help, please visit www.ssafa.org.uk

“My path was very different to Oli’s. I got two Ds and an E at A-level, so I always knew I wasn’t going to go to university. I was working as a hospital porter pushing beds around and my girlfriend at the time basically said that she was going to dump me if I didn’t do something with my life.

‘The next day, slightly hungover, I told my dad I was thinking about joining the Royal Marines and he basically dragged me down to the recruitment office!

‘So, I joined the Royal Marines in September 2005 and on passing recruit training immediately experienced combat during multiple combat tours in Afghanistan with 42 Commando based in Bickleigh, Plymouth.”

Oli, on the other hand, had a very different path – joining the Marines seven years after Tom.

“I spent a lot of time travelling, including cycling from the bottom to top of South America. My brother was supposed to join me for it but then he pulled out. I told so many people I was going to do it, so I had to do it and off I went!

‘I then got to the same point that Tom did in which I felt I had to do something with my life but I didn’t have any military history in my family so it was a bit more of a jump. I spoke with my uncle about it and he thought it was a great idea and I felt like it would offer the adventure I wanted.”

Tom’s first tour came long before Oli’s, in the midst of one of Britain’s most controversial wars in recent decades. “My first tour was in Afghanistan as part of Operation HERRICK 05 in 2006 as a Machine Gunner tasked with clear and hold missions in highly contested built up areas in the Helmand province.

‘It was a bit of a baptism of fire. I was only 19 when I got there and it wasn’t as I expected. I knew there would be combat and there would be a lot of running around and shooting. What I wasn’t prepared for was the brutal routine. We were in a place called Nauzad, completely surrounded, and we did a two hour on, four hours off sentry routine – which was essentially just two hours of staring into the darkness at night for four months straight.

‘It was -12  at night and it really did feel like you were on the frontline in Stalingrad or something.”

In a line that really hit at the stark reality of what they were facing at the time, Tom continued: “I was quite lucky in the fact that none of my close friends were killed but, in my company, we had a one in three casualty rate.”

Oli’s first tour came quite a bit later after Tom’s and in what can be considered as completely different circumstances: “I joined in a different era, 2011, HERRICK 17 in 2012. I was lucky to get on it. It was the last proper tour that the Marines did. I got out there for the last half as soon as I finished training. The tour was nowhere near as kinetic as Tom’s – a lot of it was liaising with the locals. It was nowhere near as hard, the food was amazing!

‘I didn’t get a huge sense of fulfilment. It was a massive adventure – I was somewhere where no one else could be unless you were in the forces, meeting all these phenomenal locals who had fought the Russians .”

It wasn’t all intense combat missions, however. As I am sure we can all guess, there was some fun to be had.

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