Though it was eerily quiet by early morning, the hours before must have been very different: police guards at the entrance of the cemetery, the rumble of a mechanical earth digger, a concentrated focus of activity carried out under bright arc lights, with white tents raised over the graves.
This wasn't the first and may not be the last of these discreet early- morning operations. The first exhumation took place on 1 August when the body of 82-year-old Kathleen Grundy was excavated. She had died in June, and Dr Shipman, 52, now charged with murdering six of his patients, had given "old age" as a cause of death on her death certificate. Her family had then questioned a will, drawn up just before she died, that named Dr Shipman as the main beneficiary. At that point detectives said that they might be looking into the deaths of as many as 28 patients.
The number of cases under investigation then spiralled rapidly. Police indicated that the inquiry would cover 90 deaths, but in the last four weeks that figure has been reported as 116. This week the bodies of three more women have been exhumed: Irene Turner, 67, on Tuesday; Alice Kitchen, 70, on Wednesday; and Jean Lilley, 58, on Thursday.
The sheer scale of the investigation has left the small town of Hyde reeling, not to mention the police. As a spokesman for Greater Manchester Police said while trying to clarify the chronology of this week's activities, "We're getting a bit confused this end... I don't think any police force has had to deal with anything of this nature before."
Initially it was described as the largest investigation of its type in Britain. Now it's commonly reported as Europe's biggest murder inquiry. Not a particularly enviable claim to fame for the market town already described as an S-bend with chip shops. Except that this isn't the first time residents of Hyde have endured the media glare. Thirty-two years ago, the world's press were focused on Hyde's magistrates' court, with its panelled walls and white, domed ceiling: the committal proceedings were held here against Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
As you wander around the streets of red-brick terraced houses, it's hard to forget the proximity of the couples' crimes. Look above the roofs and there are the moors, stark and strikingly green, dominating the horizon. Settled in its shadow is Hyde's small town centre, and a soulless shopping centre with Halford's, Kwik Save and discount carpet shops. It has a population of around 35,000, and it's hard to imagine how younger people spend their time here, and harder still to believe that Manchester's lively student areas, such as Chorlton and Didsbury, are only 15-20 minutes away.
The concrete rows of shops seem to cater for a distinctly ageing population: Age Concern, Clippets, a dog grooming "salon", numerous dental and medical practices. There's no cinema, and the few pubs, like everywhere else in the town, appear to attract a much older crowd. In the town centre residents seem muted and the atmosphere is gloomy.
On the one hand residents are clearly jaded by recent events and the ensuing media attention; on the other they find it hard to think of anything else - especially when their local cemetery is the focus of so much nocturnal activity.
John Bell, a councillor, says, "My initial reaction was one of shock when they dug up the first grave. We knew that something untoward was going on - people had seen the arc lights late at night - then we found out about it in the press."
What has really irritated Bell lately is the negative image so often given by the press. Words such as "grim" and "bleak" have begun to irk him - especially, he says, because they're so often penned by southerners. "Hyde is often described in an appalling way. We're proud of the market town and the people here are strong enough to sustain anything that's thrown at them."
It's what isn't thrown at them that make the experience so frustrating, though; residents have lived among the activities of recent weeks in a state of virtual ignorance. Like everyone else, they glean their information from the media. Police say they are unable to keep people informed as they are bound by the rules of sub judice, so many people in Hyde seem to have even more questions than the press who pursue them. "Why here? How long will it go on? Is it only women patients?"
"It's so upsetting not knowing what's going to happen", says 75-year- old Alice Lawrence, shopping in the market square. One of her friends used to be a patient in Dr Shipman's surgery. "You don't hear a bad word about him round here."
"He was so well liked by patients," adds Bell later. "Everyone revered him; for his attention to detail, the way he talked to people and remembered things. Some of his patients still don't believe this is happening."
Outside Age Concern, opposite Dr Shipman's surgery, which is open for business as usual, Ivy Teale, 68, voices a widely felt grievance. "It's the not being told anything new that's the worst," she says. "Nobody bothers to tell you anything - you have to see it on the telly. You just wonder how long it can all go on for," she adds gloomily.
"So many people are worried. So many questions are being raised about their relatives. There's so much anxiety and stress", says Father Denis Mahern, of St Paul's Church, who was close friends with Kathleen Grundy. "Lots of people are sharing their doubts with me. There's nothing worse than having doubts and questions that can't be answered. It's going to cause a lot of long-term problems. People feel guilty about what's happening."
Hyde, he says, is an unusually tight-knit community, and one that treats outsiders with suspicion. "We recently had a funeral for a 76-year-old woman and the church was full. They turn out for things like that round here. There's great support. Very few people here wouldn't be connected to each other by blood or marriage. If you hurt one, you hurt a hundred."
Father Denis also worries that other past associations will inevitably resurface. "The Moors murders are always in people's minds. But they were just getting over that. This may bring it up again."
Mr Bell agrees. "It's one of the great tragedies - everyone associates this place with those awful deeds, but they shouldn't."
In The Wheatsheaf pub, though, it's pretty clear which case still lingers in the town's psyche - or, at least, it does for now. Pete Matthews, who works for the council, says, "It's just strange after 30 years that everyone's interested in us again. But ask anyone in this pub and they'll say more about the Moors murderers. What they did to those kids must be worse than anything that may have happened since.
"They came to that Town Hall over there," he says, pointing in the direction of the magistrates' court. "That's what we remember still."
Whether those memories are about to be overshadowed, we'll know soon enough.
(Some names have been changed at interviewees' request)Reuse content