In September 1969, I packed my suitcase and made my way to Bristol Temple Meads Railway Station. This was to be the start of a four year Apprenticeship with the CEGB (Central Electricity Generationg Board), and the first of those years would be spent at their own Traing School on the grounds of East Yelland Power Station, midway between Barnstale and Bideford in North Devon. There were to be around forty eight of us from all over the South West. From up as far as Berkley across to Southampton and down as far as Cornwall, and all points in between. Many had never been away from home before for any significant period – it was going to be an eye opener. Now, over fifty years many of us have retired – and we look back with a great deal of pleasure on that “Year at Yelland”
Looking back after so many years now it is difficult to recreate the obvious fears and level of apprehension that many of the intake had during those first days and weeks. For me I wasn’t that uncomfortable about being away from “home”, however, what was it going to be like living in lodgings with five others?
We had been met at Barnstaple Railways Station by a member of the Training School staff, who it was is now a distant memory. I travelled from Bristol, and a lad called David Lloyd (not the tennis player) from the same school was making the same journey. I didn’t know this beforehand which is a pretty good indicator of the lack of any contact we had during our schooldays! I can remember quite clearly from looking around the train that there was quite a few of us of a similar age, making the same journey, which was endorsed when we changed trains at Exeter St. David’s and a large group of 16-17years olds with suitcases all changed platforms to get the train to Barnstaple. Of course, in 1969 we would have all been guaranteed a seat – it would be rather different some fifty years on.
I was being l was going to be in lodgings in Fremington, three miles outside of Barnstaple. It might as well have been Mars to me as I had never heard of the place – and “Google Maps” hadn’t been invented then, we didn’t even have a home telephone. Our landlady was to be a Mrs Becklake, and the early indications was she was going to be pretty “formidable, and certainly not backward in laying down the law with her new intake of lodgers. There was six of us – two to a bedroom. I was going to be sharing a bedroom with Graham Parry (Plymouth). Colin Miller (Fawley) and Derek Jenkins (Porishead) were in one of the other bedrooms, and then two older Engineering lads, Steve and Malcolm in the third. Mrs Becklakes long suffering husband was the diminutive Stanley, and to make the whole thing more interesting they had a sixteen year old daughter, and a younger son. Mrs Becklake (Phyllis) was the ultimate matriarch, which was probably exactly what was required.
It was comforting to know that all of us were pretty much in the same boat, and the first morning we were all in the same “bus” as the Yelland Bus picked us all up on its route from Barnstaple to the Training School on the grounds of East Yelland Power Station.
If I thought that moving from school to a work environment was going to be a huge change then a certain Joe Kemp, Head of the Training School, was going to shatter that illusion. I had visited a few Borstals, or “Approved Schools” as some were called in previous years (educational visits I might add), and the disciplined environment of my new work base mirrored elements of those establishments. I have to admit that having 48 or so young adults in that one environment needed some controlling, and Joe Kemp, Alan Fisher and the team ensured that happened. It was “Mr Kemp” and “Mr Fisher”, there were no “first names”. If you forgot your locker key you were sent back to your lodgings to get them, and they would deduct your pay, although I am sure this was just a threat as I can’t remember it ever happening. Our starting pay was £6 4s 8d – funny what useless information you can store in your head isn’t it. We paid our land ladies £3 10s per week, which was paid separately into your weekly wage packet.
At the end of the first week I started to think “who is going to our washing”, after all “my mum always did it”. We weren’t going home at the end of every week, none of us had cars, well not any of the Craft Apprentices anyway. We had been told that arrangements would be made to take us home about every eight weeks or so, which meant one weekend between now and Christmas. The answer to my washing dilemma was through a local lady who had an arrangement with Mrs Becklake to do our washing, at a cost. Every item was charged individually, socks, pants (this was pre-boxer shorts), shirts, and trousers – our washing was returned with a slip of paper detailing the payment required.
The backgrounds and “worldly experience” of the group was as diverse as it could be. There was the loud gregarious, confident ones, the quiet ones, and the slightly devious ones. When it came to money there was those that would always run out by the end of the week, and those that “still hadn’t opened last week’s packet”. There was some that ran a good “money lending side-line”. There was those that drank and those that didn’t. there was some that had never been in a pub – which was no more obvious in the first week when a few of us went into the The Fox & Hounds in Fremington (is now just called “The Fox”?) and somebody asked for “ half of brown-split!”.
And so we began our “Year at Yelland”, for many of us it was our first year as a member of Great Britain’s industrious workforce. We bonded as much as any large group could. We had a football team – and good one that we kept going throughout the four years of our apprenticeship. The dire nights of a winter in Barnstaple were eased by visits to The Regal and The Classic, Barnstaple’s two cinemas. Watching “dirty films “ at these venues wasted some time. I slept through 2001: A Space Odyssey, and when ten or so of us went to see “Oliver – the Musical”, we were all thrown out for “sobbing” as Oliver sat on a coffin singing “Where is Love”. And “where was love”, well two of our intake must have found it as at the end of our first year they announce their girlfriends were pregnant, and there was also a story of one of group managing to get his leg over the landlady”.
There is no doubt that our “year in Yelland” gave us knowledge and skills that would never leave us. Whether everyone was comfortable in that environment I couldn’t say – I was, I loved it. At the end of that first years we all gathered again every three months, to attend North Devon College. On the odd occasion I drive through that area I pass the Wrey Arms Hotel, as it was called then, at the top of Sticklepath Hill, and I smile. Joe Kemp used to drink their – a pint and whiskey chasers, accompanied by a fag or two.
Yes, Yelland was a good year.