Colourful recollections of Penrith’s “thin blue line”

Date: Tuesday 11th July 2017
The control room in the Cumbria police headquarters at Carleton Hall, Penrith, in the days before computerisation
The control room in the Cumbria police headquarters at Carleton Hall, Penrith, in the days before computerisation

A SELECTION of fascinating and sometimes highly colourful characters from Penrith’s not too distant past feature in a new book by local author John Sharpe, who writes about the 30 years he spent with the police service, largely in and around the town.

The Police and Me: As The Thin Blue Line Got Thinner is a very readable book which is often highly amusing, but also has many serious points to make about the changing nature of law enforcement, and the Penrith area itself.

Even when such messages are conveyed, however, this is often done in a humorous way, as in the tale of the elderly farmer who, when reprimanded by the author for ignoring a “give way” sign, responded: “Aye, well lad, Ah’ve driven out of there like that for t’last 30 years and Ah’s gonna continue to do so as long as thoo’s nut watching me!”

Equally idiosyncratic were some of Mr. Sharpe’s fellow officers, including a former chief constable — himself fond of gin and tonic — whose advice to an underling who had to conduct an interview of candidates for a fairly senior post was to take them to Penrith’s George Hotel, ply them with drink and see how they reacted.

This relaxed attitude towards alcohol, now difficult to understand, extended to the way officers dealt with suspected drink-drivers. Basically, a motorist had to be virtually comatose at the wheel before the prospect of prosecution arose.

Another “character” covered in the early part of the book is the first motorcycle issued to Mr. Sharpe when he started on traffic patrol duty in the Penrith area — an already well-used BSA machine that vibrated so much at higher speeds that when it finally reached 70mph its rider’s vision was impaired.

Additionally, it took some time for the battery powering the police radio to warm up, and at higher speeds the radio often failed completely.

However, Mr. Sharp was obviously more fond of this machine than its more powerful successor, particularly when he had to remove splatters of tar from the white paintwork of the latter.

Later in the book, he writes about the many magistrates’ courts which used to be dotted around the Penrith area, each with a unique character, including one where the man whose task it was to collect fines and keep papers in order often fell asleep when things got quiet. At another, the chairman of the Bench always took at least 10 minutes to consider cases — so he could smoke a Senior Service cigarette — leaving those guilty of sometimes very minor offences wondering what terrible fate awaited them.

Other subjects covered in the book include the purchase of the first computer system for Cumbria police — seemingly not a highly organised process — and Mr. Sharpe’s role in the miners’ strike of 1984, when he was involved in organising officers sent from Cumbria to areas hit by this industrial strife.

The book also includes a number of atmospheric photographs, some relating to the days before the opening of the M6 in Cumbria in 1971, when the county’s roads were much more dangerous than they are today.

The Police and Me: As The Thin Blue Line Got Thinner is published by Hayloft Publishing, runs to 208 pages and is priced at £12 in softback. It is available from good bookshops and on-line.