Inside Plymouth's red-light district on patrol with the police
THERE are back alleys and hideaways in parts of Plymouth that only police know. Or rather, only the police and those they're looking for.
Narrow alleys, dark archways, unlit doorways and scraggy bits of rough forgotten ground – all the hiding places where you like to think you can get a few minutes peace from the watchful eye of the law and the public.
They're the kind of places you go to when you have a desire to indulge in the oldest profession known to man. And to women, when you come to think about it.
Trundling up Martin Street in Stonehouse, Pc Chris May turns up a cloistered alley. As we reach the end, we're enclosed on all sides by tall, rangy buildings. It's dark and feels particularly seedy, almost Victorian, so much so that I expect to see Oliver Reed shouting "Bullseye?" and walloping the Artful Dodger for good measure.
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Pc May is the neighbourhood beat manager for Stonehouse, which includes both the historic, the trendy and the salacious parts of Millbay. Needless to say, his work includes dealing with one of the city's oldest industries.
Over the past few years different approaches have been employed to deal with prostitution in the UK, dependent on which way the theoretical or political wind is blowing.
A few years ago the focus was on enforcement – cracking down on punters and working girls in an effort to clean the streets. Then it was embarrassment with the menfolk having letters sent to where their car number plates were registered – whether it was their car, their work's car or their wife's car. There has also been the stint of "encouragement", with girls given every opportunity to get shot of the need to hit the streets – offers of drug rehab, benefit assistance, loan-shark avoidance – before the final threat of a court case is put on the table.
Despite the thoughts of some in Plymouth, the city's red-light district is hardly jam-packed like those in Hamburg or Amsterdam.
It's not raining tonight, for a change, which means business might be good for the girls. The clock shows 7.56pm and at first we see only two, huddled together in a doorway, but a few hours later they are replaced by three different girls. The usual uniform of short skirt, knee high boots and a waist-length jacket coat appears to be out-of-fashion tonight. One sports leather hotpants while another chooses skin-tight jeans with sturdy boots. Pc May explains that most of the girl's business does not insist upon a skirt. The deal is usually a tenner or a twenty for the two most popular services to be rendered.
If a punter does require something more of a missionary bent, then a hotel room is required, although some girls will still risk a visit to a secluded spot, hoping to avoid the likes of Pc May.
We debate the ability of police to truly deal with this 'crime', with me arguing it falls into the Sisyphus rule – it's always going to be with us, like the legendary ball pushed up a hill and rolling down, for ever and ever without end. Pc May gives me a look which says "hark at you and the classical education".
Pc May turns the wheel of the unmarked car up and down Stonehouse Street, Durnford Street, Millbay docks, Devil's Point, Emma Place, Admiralty Street, George Place, Union Street and into Royal William Yard. We also keep tabs on 'Johnny Steps' and the 'Tunnel of Love' among other amusingly-titled haunts.
Shortly after 8.15pm we encounter a very un-amusing Staffordshire cross dog, barking like billyho at a Pc and PCSO at the far end of Admiralty Street. Pc May knows the owner and 'encourages' her to go down the road and retrieve the mutt.
As it spits and snarls – the dog, not the owner – the Pc and PCSO explain the dog has been on the loose as far away as Stonehouse bridge. The owner is reminded by Pc May of the options available to police if the dog runs wild again. The message appears to fall on deaf – or rather alcohol-addled – ears.
The patrol continues and we're off to Devil's Point. It's a favourite haunt of many city folk and the panoramic view, even at night, is undeniably romantic. As a result it's a font of shockingly funny tales. Pc May regales me with stories of the late night away-from-parent trysts, the working girls and their clients, the enthusiastic doggers. Then there's the nearby public toilets which have a different set of tales of the not-so-unexpected. Who said romance was dead? The devil indeed makes work for idle hands. And other extremities.
Pc May argues that social networking sites, the internet and mobile phones have changed the landscape, but not the industry.
"There are sites which let the punters know where the girls, or boys, are. They can meet up, all pre-arranged, at locations away from the public and police's gaze. It's why you see the older guys trawling around in their cars looking for the working girls – they're not up with the new technology so they're still doing it the old fashioned way."
After requests from control for us to help with a missing person seen somewhere between Stonehouse Bridge and the Hoe waterfront we track along Madeira Road, which has a night-time reputation akin to Devil's Point all of its own.
We spot double parked taxis waiting for the well-dressed ladies and gents exiting the newly-opened Rhodes at the Dome restaurant in the old Plymouth Dome. Around 200 yards further on another restaurant is opening for business, but no taxis are waiting. The soup kitchen is busy tonight with around 30 guests all hoping for starters of soup and a sarnie out the back of a Christian-owned hatchback. Pc May notes it's one of three locations in the city which offers a simple and much needed meal on cold nights for the homeless and dispossessed.
It's past 10pm and the girls have disappeared from their usual pitches. Either they've gone home or are working hard. Either way, Pc May's shift has now finished and I'm yawning too, so we take our leave.