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The Heartbeat of Whitby

Nicholas Rhea on the Heartbeat set

Regular viewers of Heartbeat will be familiar with the interior of the duty room of Ashfordly Police Station. It features in every episode, usually filled with bobbies working on their reports, drinking tea or simply gossiping. Sometimes members of the public might appear at the hatch to complain or speak to one of the officers, and ex-PC Alf Ventress fills the place with cigarette smoke if the sergeant isn't around. It's a well-used and rather battered office but it is the nerve-centre for police operations in Aidensfield, Ashfordly and district.

What is not generally known is that this famous duty room is modelled on an original in Whitby Police Station. I am not referring to the present office below Whitby Hospital, but its predecessor at the foot of Spring Hill, almost opposite Bagdale Old Hall. It was pulled down long ago and not a sign remains, but it was a Victorian pile of red brick, especially constructed for its role as a busy police station. It contained a bewildering array of dark alleys, passages, staircases and offices, not to mention cells, CID office, a billiard and snooker room, a superintendent's office, an inspector's office and other rooms, some of which had formerly been bedrooms. In the past, some single officers slept at the police station but by the mid-1960s, (the Heartbeat era) this was no longer the case. My first acquaintance with Spring Hill police station was in 1952 when I was posted there as a cadet. Later, after a spell in the RAF for my National Service, I was again posted to Whitby, this time as a constable. That was in 1956 and I remained until 1959 when I was transferred to Northallerton, consequently I spent many working hours in that duty room. It was then called the Enquiry Office.

In 1990, when my Constable books were under consideration by Yorkshire TV as a possible drama series, I began to receive telephone calls from the then producer, Stuart Doughty. He was very keen to learn as much as possible about policing in the North Riding of Yorkshire during the mid-1960s, everything from the style of uniform, the rank structure, the jargon used by the officers especially over the radio, the types of vehicles, the procedure in the police station, the laws currently in force, the restrictions on the life of a police officer and much, much more.

It was about this time that my wife persuaded me to try and cook the evening meal, beginning on a Tuesday which was her long day at work. By then, I had left the police to become a full-time author and so I set to work on my first culinary effort. I can't remember what it was, but it involved minced beef in a frying pan. As I placed my pan of meat on the hot ring of the oven, the telephone rang. It was Stuart Doughty and he asked if I could provide him with an idea of the appearance and furnishings of the duty room in a small 1960s police station. And so I set about describing my memories of the enquiry office in Whitby's former Police Station.

It took a long time, about an hour so far as I recall, and I ended by promising Stuart I would send him a written description, just to confirm what I had told him. When I returned to the kitchen, my wonderful first meal was nothing more than heavily charred scraps; the frying pan was ruined and at that moment my wife returned, expecting to find a lovingly prepared meal. I think we went out for fish-and-chips and later bought a new frying pan.

Whilst the first series of Heartbeat was in production, my wife and I were invited to the duty room which had been specially created for the drama. It was in a disused police station in Otley, West Yorkshire, and as I entered, filming was in progress with cameras, microphones and wires all over the place. But it was so realistic it was breathtaking. I was truly staggered by its authentic atmosphere. That old police station was used until the Ashfordly duty room was re-created in a studio near Leeds. That is where it is today but it still reminds me of my days at Whitby Police Station - and a burnt offering.

Helmsley Police Station

Although the duty room of Ashfordly police station is based on that of Whitby, the exterior is in Helmsley!

Read about Constable Nick's first visit to Ashfordly Police Station.

Photo of Nicholas Rhea in the Heartbeat police station © Rhoda Walker
Photo of Helmsley police station © Roger Cornwell
Text © Peter N. Walker (Nicholas Rhea)
First published in the Whitby Gazette supplement, 4th August 2006.

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