At Bishop's Cleeve, near Cheltenham, villagers are helping police with their inquiries. Martin Whittaker pays a visit
William Goldsbrough has just come to the end of his first shift at the village police station. He admits this wasn't the most eventful afternoon of his life. "It's been very quiet," he says. "I had several phone calls, people wanting to speak to t he sergeant. One was a wrong number."

Mr Goldsbrough, 79, isn't in it for the excitement. A former GCHQ worker and chief radio officer with the Merchant Navy, he is one of 23 unpaid volunteers now helping to run the village nick at Bishop's Cleeve, near Cheltenham, in a new scheme to help tomake a policeman's lot a happier one. Helpers come in to take phone calls, run the front desk and do those irritating bits of paperwork often blamed for keeping bobbies off the beat.

Bishop's Cleeve is a sprawling commuter village, said to be one of the fastest-growing in the country. The police station, a small drab building sandwiched between two former police houses, dates from the 1950s and inside little seems to have changed.

Rooms are spartan, with gun- metal filing cabinets and grey venetian blinds. In the main office there is a noticeboard scribbled with crime details, including a sketch of a shoeprint left after a recent burglary; in another room is a bike propped againsta wall, waiting to be claimed. "This area is not as quiet as it seems," he says. "We suffer the same problems as the majority of other places."

The idea for civilian volunteers came after villagers complained about not being able to catch the police at home at the part-time local station. A similar scheme had been tried in Lincolnshire, so the police put adverts in the Gloucestershire Echo calling on volunteers (with no criminal record) to help. Out of 54 applicants, 23 were chosen, many of them retired. The scheme is now on a three-month trial. If successful, it will be brought in at other rural stations in the county.

"We were looking for good communication skills, mature people able to work alone and learn fairly quickly," says Sgt Collicott. "At first we had certain reservations, such as the security aspect, and whether the scheme would be accepted by the public. But so far I'm impressed at the way it's working. It's definitely allowing us to do the things that need to be done. We have more time to go out on patrol around the village.

"There's no such thing as a typical day. First thing this morning we had a severe frost and they're talking about getting the same tonight. The chances are we are going to have atrocious weather conditions with fog. People will start bumping into each other in their cars."

There has been one serious incident since the volunteer scheme began a fortnight ago. "The week before last a young lady had what was either paint stripper or acid thrown in her face, on her doorstep. Inquiries are still going on. Because we had someone here, we were able to go straight out to her. But another volunteer had an evening when the phone didn't ring and nobody came to the door. We sat and chatted - that was about it."

Most of the work is paperwork - accident forms, lost property, lost dogs, logging phone calls. But that did not put off William Goldsbrough. He is the oldest volunteer and the sergeant calls him "the station's old retainer".

Mr Goldsbrough says he fancied a change from digging his allotment and mending the car. "I enjoy it. We have to answer the phone, take a note of the time of the message and take whatever action is required on that. There's a form you fill in for the messages. Anybody might come in and say they've lost their dog - something like that. I think the public like to feel there's someone here all the time."

At 6pm Jacqueline West takes over. She's a 29-year-old sales rep who lives in the village and arrives for her shift straight from work. Sgt Collicott briefs her on some of the necessary message and incident forms while PCs Paul Edwards and Terry Short swap banter before going out on the beat.

She says: "I think it's nice that we have a police station in the village. I saw the advert and thought it would be a good idea to do something to help. It's my local community and it's good to think the police are out there on the streets more."

She and the other volunteers have had an initial training session. If a serious incident happened while she was there on her own, she would radio through to police headquarters in Cheltenham.

"The first time I was here two people came through the door, one to let us know there was an accident at the traffic lights, another was about a lady who had a forged £20 note, and the bank wouldn't replace it without a form from the police.

"And we had a phone call from a lady wanting to know if her boyfriend was locked in the cells so she could go home. I just refer the calls through to the sergeant if he's here, or the main control room if not. They don't expect you to perform miracles."

She sits waiting for the first call of the evening. Picking up the volunteer training manual, she flicks through it and stops at a page of phonetics, reading through the list of Alphas, Foxtrots, Tangos and Charlies. "I think I'd better use my time wisely and read up on this," she says, eyeing the police radio.