Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

The murder of two women in a quiet village has revealed violence and tension in the Norfolk Fens
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The Independent Culture
They'll never solve it, never," says Mally, the local coalman, sitting with a bottle of brown ale in the corner of The Globe Inn in Upwell, Norfolk. "How can they? They've got no evidence."

He is talking about the brutal double murder of a spinster dog-breeder and her ageing mother which shocked this Fenland community when it was discovered two weeks ago this weekend. The women were repeatedly stabbed with a six-to-eight-inch knife, and left lying on the floor of their front parlour at their home on the outskirts of the village. It was up to three days before they were discovered.

Outside the room, 14 of the prized pedigree whippets bred by Janice Sheridan, 45, had been left to pine for their dead mistress. Nothing of value had apparently been taken.

Even though about 70 police officers are working on the case, Mally's fatalistic view is shared by many of the locals. Such attitudes speak volumes about the women and the place where they lived and died.

Strangely, few people seem that bothered by the event. "It sounds terrible, but it's like it never happened," says Duncan, the Globe's landlord, a former Royal Navy sailor from the area. "I tell you, if it hadn't been on the telly and in the newspapers, no one would even know about it."

Jan lived with her mother Connie, 79, in almost total seclusion. Their nearest neighbour, also a dog-breeder, says she was probably their best friend, and was the last person to see them alive. But she admits that she knew nothing of their personal lives. The murders were discovered only after Jan failed to turn up for work two days running at the local kennels where she used to help out.

The general view was that the murderer had some kind of grudge against Jan Sheridan, and that her mother was killed as a potential witness. Whoever it was had now slipped back into the normal rhythm of village life or left long ago.

The story, then, is a real murder mystery, worthy of the PD James crime novels set in this eerily flat part of the country. It is in the dark undercurrents of the place itself that clues as to how all this could have happened, and why it may never be solved, can best be found.

Upwell, and the adjoining village of Outwell, are known for being the longest settlement in the country. For anyone brought up in a remotely hilly part of the UK, this is an astonishing place to see. Upwell lies exactly 3ft above sea level. Three Holes, a couple of miles south, is also 3ft above the waves.

Above this area of huge, black, fertile fields arch enormous skies - one day a soul-lifting, piercing blue, the next a grey-black canopy. They emit either pink sunsets or driving, unremitting rain.

Upwell was the birthplace of the Rev WV Awdry, and arguably the inspiration for his creation of Thomas the Tank Engine. The village used to have large tram marshalling yards, recently visited by Awdry's son in the company of Andrew Lloyd Webber - he'd come to study two spectacular churches that stand by the river.

The Rev Robin Blackwall, who is in charge of both, says: "There is a sense of shock and distress that such a tragedy should take place within our village community." Special prayers were said for both women at services last Sunday.

Graham Mallet, chairman of the parish council and a society steward at the local Methodist church, is also shocked. "It is a terrible blot on the reputation of the village," he says. "I can't remember anything of this sort of scale happening here before. Violence like this is unheard of."

On paper, at least, this is true. The last murder in the village was in the Seventies, when a local farmer was bludgeoned to death during a burglary, and it was quickly solved. The son of a former Globe landlord (coincidentally called Sheridan, but no relation) was also killed, about 20 years ago, by a drug-crazed flatmate in Peterborough.

But current Globe regulars paint a very different picture of village life. Where once you knew everybody, they say, many people are now strangers. Wisbech, just four miles up the road, was recently said to have the highest per capita crime rate in the country, outside London and Liverpool.

"It's gun law round here. Lots of people have got guns - handguns, shotguns, sawn-offs," said one.

Duncan tells of an occasion when someone was in the bar recovering from shotgun wounds, and a group of eight men came charging across the bridge outside, intent on dealing out more punishment. "I had to go outside and stop them. Me! I'm only 5ft 7in," he says cheerfully.

On New Year's Day, a gang of local travellers set about a man with baseball bats because he had threatened to "glass" one of their daughters. The police did arrive in force, but no complaint was made and no one was arrested or charged.

Behind it all is the grievance that the police presence here is almost non-existent. One officer does live in the village, but all the local stations close at night. "The coppers are bloody hopeless. If you ring them up they will arrive six weeks later," says a local.

Another local resident even arms himself. "If you want to go out round here, you have to go tooled up, because if you get into trouble there is no one to help you," he says, producing a six-inch-long flick knife to prove his point.

A sense of lawlessness prevails. The policeman trying to solve the current murders is Detective Superintendent Steve Swain, head of Norfolk CID. Clearly exhausted after many late nights on this case, he still has few leads.

"Usually you can tell right away why a murder happened. But at this stage we can't see an obvious motive," he says. "It doesn't appear to have been a burglary; it doesn't appear to be because someone was disturbed. It seems that it was either a person known to them or a person who had a legitimate reason for being there and being let in."

Many of his hopes seem to be pinned on forensic tests conducted at the murder scene, yet to be processed. One early line of inquiry was that the murders might have had something to do with professional jealousy in the dog-breeding world. Jan was well known in this community, had been a dog-show judge, and had qualified for an entry to Cruft's this March. But a trip by officers to a whippet show over the weekend found only people saying nice things about her, apart from her having an occasional bad temper.

The nearest thing to a lead that The Independent turned up was a shopkeeper who said that in the days before she was killed Jan appeared to have had a dramatic change of character.

"Normally she could be, well, almost rude. But on that day she was all smiles and chat. It was very different. It is the only conversation I remember having with her," he says. "Maybe she thought she was on to something good, which turned out wrong."

Another theory was that Jan may have had a secret lover. One story did appear last week, but even that was about a supposed relationship that finished four years ago. At the moment, no significant current relationships have been unearthed, says Det Supt Swain.

And so the investigation continues. In the meantime, life in Upwell goes on as normal - or something that passes for it.