IN 1970 Sergeant Bob Nicholls was a 17-year-old lad signing up to the Territorial Army at Bolton Artillery.

Fast forward 43 years and he is set to retire on his 60th birthday next week — and although it is a milestone birthday for many, for Sgt Nicholls it will be the end of an era.

He has travelled all around Europe with his regiment and as far as the Falkland Islands, training with weapons systems and servicing armour.

He fondly refers to the TA as his “hobby”, and talks of weekends “out with the lads” as if it is a holiday rather than a job.

Now, as he turns 60 on June 12, Sgt Nicholls admits he is sad to leave behind the life he loved, but wants to continue supporting the “old boys’ club” — the Artillery Association.

The dad-of-three, from Great Lever, said: “I am upset to have to leave, but rules are rules and they say that you have to go when you’re 60.

“I would have liked the opportunity to do another nine months so I could get another service clasp, which shows 43 years of service, but I’m not allowed sadly.

“You get them depending on how many years you have worked. They all add up together and I’m four-and-a-half years into getting the next clasp which I’d get after five years, so it’s a shame I can’t get it.”

Despite his sorrow about leaving, Bob looks back on his time at the artillery with joy.

Bob said: “I signed up when I’d just turned 17 years old, but I couldn’t be listed until I was 17-and-a-half — so I actually didn’t begin working there until 1971. I couldn’t wait to start.

“I was busy at night school at the time training to work in accounts so I guess I wanted to do something else that was more fun and active.

“Basically I wanted to go away with the lads and live a little at the weekends. It was just another part time hobby really.”

Sgt Nicholls, who works in the distribution warehouse at Parcel2Go for his day job, loves nothing more than heading off on a “lads’ weekend” — and his supportive wife of 38 years, Joan, is happy to see him off on his travels.

He said: “I love going away. There’s nothing like getting your green gear on and heading out somewhere new. I love the army way of life.

“I met my wife Joan when I was working in Little Lever in 1968 and we got married in 1975. She’s always supported my hobby.

“We make it work because she has her group of friends at her church and I have my weekend away with the lads.

“It’s a mutual respect for each other and our hobbies. After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

His “hobby” has taken him all over the world, from Germany to the “bleak” Falkland Islands — maintaining weapons and working with the regular army.

He said: “In the Falklands we would service the guns and fire a few rounds too. It is a bleak place.

“We’d be on the battlefields in the morning but we’d usually have the evenings to ourselves, so we could see the place we were staying in as well as working.

“We’d get up in the morning for breakfast with the regular army and then work a 9 to 5 day.

“We do our own colonel and major training too, as well as map routings and first aid.”

It’s not all travelling though — Sgt Nicholls says there is nothing like taking part in an Armistice Day parade in Bolton or Manchester.

He said: “As well as going away we also do parades, such as the Armistice Day parade or when a new mayor is inaugurated both of which are an honour to be involved in.”

Over the years Sgt Nicholls has worked his way all the way up from gunner to Troop Sgt Major — but rather than leave when he was 48, he took a step back to Pay Sergeant.

He says that although there is always the knowledge that you may be called up to serve the country in a war, his time was less troubling than it is now.

He said: “We could have been called up in the ‘70s when there was a bomb scare in Catterick, for example, but it’s much scarier now, what with conflicts we’re involved in like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The TA are currently doing a big surge for new recruits to join ahead of us pulling out of Afghanistan in 2015 and I’d encourage anyone to sign up if they want to do something exciting and different.

“Most companies leave your position open for you when you go away on trips so you don’t need to worry about being out of a job.”

Looking to the future Sgt Nicholls says that he will still continue to support the troops and is looking forward to the annual armed forces dance later this month.

Bob said: “I’ve always been a member of the old boys’ club, the Artillery Association, and I will continue doing that on the first Tuesday of each month to keep my hand in.

“I suppose with all this free time I better spend it with my wife.”