Probationer Training

1966: Probationer Training: Dave Vigar: When I joined the regular force in 1966, probationer training consisted of three residential courses – a ten week initial course, followed at roughly nine month intervals by two separate continuation courses. I was fortunate to be sent to the 'overflow' District Training Centre at Nutfield for my initial training for two reasons – firstly, this was only about two miles from my home and, secondly, that amazing 1966 World Cup was on the television and we were allowed to watch the key games.

Continuation training took place at Shorncliffe Barracks in Kent, near Folkestone and not far from where the Eurotunnel terminal stands today. I think the site has been levelled now and a trading estate has been built in its place.

Officers from all over the south east of England shared courses then, so we attended with such exotic forces as Brighton, Hastings, Bournemouth, Southampton, Portsmouth, Berkshire and Reading. Shorncliffe Barracks was, as the name suggests, an old army camp – the military had long since moved on to more salubrious premises.

Travel for most officers in those days was by train, then a ride in the green Home Office Bedford coach to the camp, sited on the rising ground behind Shorncliffe and the sea.

That is to say that most went by train – a notable exception was Ginger, one of our Surrey men, who rejoiced in the ownership of a gorgeous, new red 2.4 Jaguar. I don't remember Ginger's real name, but his car instantly became an object of envy for all of us – and a very effective tool in persuading young ladies that their immediate future lay in testing out those comfy leather seats. More on Ginger later.

The camp buildings were an assortment of wooden barrack huts around a small parade square. At the entrance to each hut was an ablutions area with, as I recall, only cold water in the taps – very character-forming. Once inside the hut proper, there were two rows of iron bedsteads facing one another, about a dozen each side. Each bed space had a metal locker and chair and that was about it.

Two coke-fired heating stoves stood in the centre of the hut, but we were forbidden to light more than one, so the other had the fire bars removed from the grate. Coke was shovelled from a big heap outside and carried into the hut.

One stove, however, was totally inadequate to heat the hut in winter, so we quickly 'obtained' another set of fire bars from an empty hut and stoked up both stoves until they glowed white-hot – too hot, in fact, for anyone to get near enough to take back the extra fire bars. By this means, we kept the hut tolerably warm throughout the icy depths of winter – I remember that there was snow lying on the ground both times I was there. Trouble was the beds in the centre of the room almost melted with the heat!

The whole Shorncliffe experience was identical to Army National Service, I would guess. We were roused early by the duty Sergeant and first had to make a 'blanket box' of our bedding. One blue bedspread, two pillows and two sheets had to be crisply folded and made into a neat pack for inspection – woe betides you if the sheets were crinkled or the whole thing not precisely folded and totally symmetrical.

The thinkers amongst us took a sleeping bag from home on our second visit – jump out of bed, stow the sleeping bag in the locker and carefully lift the unused and immaculate blanket box onto the bed!

Then it was invariably on with the 'bulled' boots (also a spare pair kept only for parades, if possible) and outside for a drill parade on the square, snow or no snow; physical training sessions also took place outdoors.

There were no sports facilities as such, so PE or cross-country running were the norm, unless a visit to the Folkestone open air, sea-water swimming pool was arranged. The water here was usually so perishing that a run along the shingle beach and up into the steep hills behind the town became suddenly attractive, even if you loathed running. Caesar's Hill, the highest one, figured in all Shorncliffe and Sandgate runs, so many of you will remember it with affection!

Unlike initial training, where to leave the Centre in the evenings was almost a capital offence, Shorncliffe was more relaxed and we were allowed to go out and explore the fleshpots of the district a couple of nights a week, subject to a strict 10 pm curfew. The staff could afford to adopt this liberal approach for the simple reason that there weren't any fleshpots within sensible walking distance!

The Centre bar and TV lounge thus became the sole focus of enjoyment for nearly all students. You will remember, however, that Ginger had that lovely red Jaguar.

Off we all went in the Jag, down the hill to Hythe at the earliest opportunity, where Ginger said he knew a Bad Woman. Sure enough, after a few beers somewhere, we all had to wait in the car whilst he said his fond farewells on her doorstep, before racing back to beat the curfew. The car, by the way, wasn't actually allowed into the camp and had to be tucked away out of sight, just down the road.

The Ginger/Bad Woman scenario quickly developed and on subsequent evenings they became harder and harder to separate on that doorstep, to the extent that he hatched a plan to stay down in Hythe overnight. We would all go back to the camp for the 10 pm curfew and be innocently tucked up in bed when the duty sergeant checked each room for absentees and gave the order for 'lights out'.

As soon as the coast was clear, Ginger and I would pull on a coat over our pyjamas and creep out of the hut. I would then drive him down to Hythe and bring his car back. Very early in the morning I would go back and collect him, so we were back in bed by the time the sergeant came round to rouse us all. Perfect!

Perfect, that is, until the day I was stopped by a Kent traffic patrol, driving the Jaguar along the sea front to our early morning rendezvous. You try explaining what you are doing, with no ID whatsoever; driving someone else's posh Jaguar at dawn and dressed just in pyjamas and a coat! Luckily, I was (almost) believed and allowed to collect Ginger and drive back to the camp, whilst being closely shadowed by the patrol car. We made it back just before reveille, being too scared to try this again.

Even staying in camp sometimes had its drawbacks. After lights out, if you had to go to the bathroom, you found your bed again in the pitch dark by feeling along until you found yours. One night, I thought I had miscalculated, as there was a drunken shape in the bed. Back I went to the door and felt the beds again – one, two, three etc. – this was definitely my bed, so I roused the sleeping figure. " I'm going to be sick in a minute, and I'm not being sick in my own bed" was the explanation!

Lessons at the school were intended to build on what we had learnt in the previous months back at our forces and to try and cram into us some of the more esoteric subjects we might need. Needless to say, I remember very little of this aspect of the place! Within a few years, continuation training was completely revamped and moved, firstly to Nutfield. Then to vastly superior premises at Grosvenor Hall, Ashford and then Shotley in Essex – somehow it wouldn't be the same.

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