Celtic Illumination, part 87, team rover
Saint Athan is a huge base in South Welsh Wales, in the Vale of Glamorgan. It’s a lovely part of the world and quite close to Barry Island, a very popular seaside resort. Unfortunately Saint Athan was a large training depot. Anyone who needed to drive, as part of their standard trade duties, would be sent to St Athan. This meant that the place was heaving with baby policemen, rock apes, clerks, and store men and women.
It was a bit of a let-down to arrive and see hundreds of military type people marching about. My accommodation was in a huge room with perhaps twenty men in it. I decided to keep my head down and get through my six weeks as quickly as possible. I wasn’t impressed as it was announced we would be having block inspection ever two weeks. I noticed one fellow, who like myself had a rucksack, same make and model. I remarked on their likeness and he informed me that he was from the Stafford mountain rescue team. We shook hands and relaxed a little, as to have an ally in such an environment was a definite bonus.
The first morning we were quite amazed to see all these fellows running about and being very military. With my new friend we approached the day in a more relaxed mode and sauntered over to the mess. We had hardly sat down with our meal when the majority of guys were racing outside and lining up in ranks of three. A Corporal appeared.
“Are you two here for a driving course?”
We both nodded but continued eating.
“Then why aren’t you outside lining up with the rest of the guys?”
“Cause we’re eating our fecking breakfast!”
He wasn’t a very tall person, so he leaned in. “If you don’t put your knives and forks down this very moment and get outside, I will call someone over here who will make you get outside.”
We ignored him and he called his friend over. The friend was too a Corporal but quite thick set, unlike the first chap. The little fellow left and the large chap leaned on the side of the table, we of course had continued to eat.
“Get outside now, or after I’ve finished with you, I’ll send you back to your unit and you won’t be able to become proper little policemen.”
“Policemen!” we both shrieked. “We’re mountain rescue.”
“Why didn’t you say lads,” he laughed, as he sat down and offered to shake our hands. “Have you just arrived?”
We both explained that we had arrived the day before and had been told to contact the St Athan team.
“Right!” he says. “There’s no way mountain rescue men are living with fecking students. I’ll get in touch with the Saints team and we will move you over there this evening.” We did finish our breakfast in a leisurely way and then sauntered over to the main training unit, enjoying a cigarette as we went, because life seemed to be getting better
First of all I had to join the Highway Code class. This was a class room where men and women sat studying the Highway Code. It was a revolving situation; you find an empty desk, sat down and read the Highway Code. At the head of the class sat a civilian. When you felt ready you could approach him and he would quiz you. If you answered his questions correctly you had passed the Highway Code section of the course.
I went and sat at the civilian’s desk.
“You haven’t studied your highway code sonny!” he said, showing his keen powers of observation.
“I began reading it the moment I knew I was coming on this course.” I said. I think every person in that room nodded to themselves and thought ‘Oh that would have been a good idea.’ He asked me about a dozen questions. As I waited for him to ask the hard question, he announced that in his opinion I could move on, I had passed.
Next was the Calculation and Navigation class, here each desk had a large UK map on the desk which was covered and protected with a large sheet of Perspex. There was a series of questions printed on a couple of sheets of paper that you had to answer. Once you had managed to answer the questions correctly, you would have passed this section of the course and could proceed to the next section.
The instructor was amazed that I didn’t ask to use his calculator. The questions were basic mathematics, if point A is sixty miles away from point B how long will it take to drive between the two points at thirty miles an hour? If you consumed one gallon of fuel every thirty miles how much fuel would you use? Before first morning tea break I had passed through both sections, but now must proceed through the driving simulators.
I know I said that I had found air traffic embarrassing but this was horrific. Imagine if you will a large room, I was going to be flippant and say imagine ten large cardboard boxes but, it’s true, just make them grey. It was like an all in one school desk, except this had a steering wheel, oh yeah, and a gear stick. All the desks faced the large screen at the front of the room on which was played a film, from a driver’s perspective, of a motor car moving along a road.
Instructions were shouted, prepare to stop, indicate left, double de-clutch. All that was missing was us vibrating our lips and making motor car noises like six year olds. After lunch on the Monday I was ready to be allocated an instructor. Some of the trainees thought I had been cheating as on average it was taking two, to two and a half, days for a trainee to get through the first three stages.
I was given the name of an instructor. I can’t really remember it, but I was told to go out to hanger number two where I would find my new instructor. There must have been one hundred land rovers parked up in lovely neat rows inside the hangar. I could only see one person, who was checking the oil on a land rover. I went over and having established that it was the correct person introduced myself, to my new civilian instructor.
“Ah!” he says. “You’re an Irishman?”
“Yes.” I said.
“Good,” says he. “I’m sick of these moaning English bastards.”
I could see we were going to get on very well.
Each instructor was given two trainees. One trainee would drive in the morning while the other sat in the rear of the land rover, observing. After lunch you changed places. So for six weeks I drove around South Wales with a local Welsh chap given me a fantastic account of the area and its history. It was really a very pleasant time.
My test date came and we drove into Cardiff to the test centre. We used a café that was close by to have a brew and a final pep talk. It was leaving the café that I nipped a light off a parked car but it didn’t unsettle me. I took the test and returned to St Athan. Of course I passed, what did you expect?
At St Athan I was told to go and have my tea and report back at eight o clock that evening. “What for?” I asked, impatient to get away. “Oh, now that you have passed your test, you can move on to the advanced part of the course. Tonight you will be given instruction in motorway driving, convoy driving and night driving.” So that evening a convoy set off from St Athan to Brize Norton. It was just over one hundred miles away and a great bit of fun.
The next morning I was allowed to leave and return to Valley. I managed an event free return trip. I stowed my kit in my new room and was about to go over to headquarters when Chris Burrell stopped me as I came out of the accommodation block.
Chris was a large fellow and quite a senior member of the team. “You owe me fifteen quid, he said holding out a set of keys. “How or why do I owe you fifteen quid?” I asked, aware that I hadn’t broken anything and would never have placed a bet.
“You’ve just passed your driving course?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well I’ve been posted to Cyprus and you are now the proud keeper of the team car.” He jingled the keys. “You owe me fifteen quid.”
The team car was a Rover 2000. Basically any car on camp had to be registered to one person. Anyone on the team could use it, the keys were left in it, and the only rule was, that if the fuel was low you put some in.
I handed over the money and Chris gave me the keys. Somehow or other Rochdale had suddenly got a lot closer.