Today, Lacey Green is indistinguishable from so many other Buckinghamshire villages. Little flint-and-brick cottages line the road that straggles through it. There's a big house, a Thirties Georgian mansion called Widmer Lodge, where Sir Nigel and Lady Mobbs live. There's the Pink & Lily, opposite, where a short poem on the wall still honours Brooke's memory and the village hall down the road where, this afternoon, Lacey Green Productions, the local amateur dramatics group, will stage Mother Goose.
On weekday mornings, City businessmen drive the three miles to High Wycombe and catch trains to London. Local workers mend barns and tend the sheep that dot the hillside from which, they say, you can see west to Wales. Small children bump by on fat ponies. Busy women in gumboots pop into the single tiny village shop. Only when they venture to Princes Risborough, or Oxford even, do they leave their dogleads at home.
Despite the occasional For Sale signs - some of them posted as a result of losses at Lloyd's - there is still an air of prosperity about Lacey Green. Visitors who come to enjoy the view rarely notice that there's no real centre to it, no actual green or cricket pitch. But they couldn't fail to miss that it has lost its heart, its easy country confidence.
On 2 January, Lady Mobbs's Irish draught horse Nell was found dazed and bleeding in the Mobbs's barn, opposite the pub. Nell's injuries - and those of two more horses found bleeding during the next fortnight - have left this small Home Counties village distressed, fearful and confused. In a matter of weeks, its inhabitants have imagined all manner of reasons why horses are being attacked. No longer able to distinguish fact from fiction, pub gossip from stories of similar slashings in Hampshire (a serial horse slasher?), their fears of what might come have grown hysterical.
WITH HIS little pointed beard, gold earring and long hippy hair, Christian Davies looks more like a cross between Trotsky and Father Christmas than a purveyor of pet foods. He certainly doesn't look like a horseman. And he doesn't talk like one either.
'The police must have 14 or 15 people working on this investigation,' he says, shaking his head with a small smile of disbelief. 'And that's just round here. It's the most ridiculous waste of resources I think I've ever seen. We're only talking about three grand's worth of horsemeat, you know.'
As he speaks, Davies looks about furtively, dropping his voice to a whisper. The animal feed business he runs from his Lacey Green farm is very successful. On the shelves of his long warehouse are rat bait, hoof oil, guinea pig hutches and furry dog baskets that retail for less than pounds 10. Outside, he has llamas, ostriches and fresh little piglets with which to amuse the children of his customers.
A sizeable chunk of his turnover comes from being the agent for a special high-grade type of birdseed imported from Belgium ('If people pay a thousand quid for a parrot, what's another two quid for food?'). But Davies knows he can't take sales for granted. Like many others, he is a newcomer to these parts - he took over running Widmer Feeds when his kitchen fitting company in London failed - and his ideas haven't always met with the approval of the more established locals. To the people of north Buckinghamshire, to talk of ponies as horsemeat at any time is the height of political incorrectness. To talk like that now is pure heresy.
When, one morning early last month, the rangy, down-to-earth local vet Michael Godsal stepped into Lady Mobbs's small barn over straw steeped a foot deep in blood, he expected to find a horse with gynaecological problems. Nell, he knew, had developed a blood clot the size of a rugby ball after her second foal. The clot had remained fixed in the birth canal ever since. Instead, Godsal found a dazed old brood mare that had been cut through the vulva, apparently with a sharp knife. She needed a general anaesthetic, 90 minutes of surgery and 30 stitches to put her right. Both the kindly Lady Mobbs and the groom who found Nell were deeply upset.
Lady Mobbs and her husband, Sir Nigel, both grandchildren of High Sheriffs of Buckinghamshire, moved to Lacey Green when they first married. To Lady Mobbs this crime is an attack, not just on an animal, but on the sanctity of the English countryside. 'How could anybody do this? Here, for goodness sake? We were told that if we hadn't found her for another hour, she would have been dead,' she says.
Two weeks later, another vet was summoned, this time by Christian Davies, to attend to a little chestnut mare with a white star that had also apparently been cut with a knife, in this case, just above the hoof. Within the same week, one of Michael Godsal's partners, Nicholas Snookes, was called out to examine another vulval injury to a grey piebald that had been standing in a field three miles away from the Mobbs's land.
The three injuries - all of them within a four-mile radius of Lacey Green - have thrown Buckinghamshire into a panic: this is the kind of violence many of its inhabitants came here to get away from. In response, the police have set up a round-the-clock incident room in Thame, hooked up to the Home Office computer and has 11 full-time staff to investigate. The Thame police effort may, as Davies says, seem 'ridiculous'. But, adds Detective Inspector Peter Jones, who is running the investigation, 'the public demands it. This is a very emotive issue. We have already had more than 120 calls over this'.
'Feelings are running very, very, high here,' explains Clive Mason, who moved to Lacey Green seven years ago when he sold his computer business and set about restoring the Pink & Lily. 'Everyone's running around talking about setting up 'horsewatch' groups. They're supposed to act as a deterrent, but they are really vigilante groups. If these people end up catching someone, he might not make it into court. Or if he does, then he risks having a very high voice.'
There is no evidence to link the injuries with more than two dozen similar cases in Hampshire (though to call them 'injuries' is to risk the scorn of horse-owners throughout the Home Counties, who prefer to believe every injury is the result of a vicious 'attack'). But rural horse-owners have come to believe that their family pets are being stalked by a single vicious sadist who gets his rocks off slashing horses up the behind. Just in case owners' fears have not been stoked up enough, the RSPCA carries an advertisement in the latest edition of the Bucks Herald, that says: 'Don't Let Your Horse Become The Next Victim.' Jo Summers, who runs the local riding school, speaks for many when she says, 'This attacker's just a pervert, that's what he is.'
With each retelling, the stories become more gruesome. (That the attacker is a man is just one of the many assumptions that are accepted as fact.) He uses an axe or a pointed saw with a jagged edge. When a syringe is found in a field he is immediately accused of using drugs to overpower his victims. Mention a horse's rear end and it's a sex attacker. The next thing you hear is that bestiality is involved; that human semen has been found. However over- the-top this might sound, simply to suggest the horse lovers of Buckinghamshire might be exaggerating is regarded as unacceptable.
Christian Davies retains a certain credibility because he actually owns one of the three Buckinghamshire horses injured, but nobody's interested in his scepticism. In fact some say his attitude is quite definitely off. 'I think he's a bit odd,' says the owner of the farm where one of the other injured horses is stabled.
Bob Baskerville, the senior partner in one of the two veterinary practices that have treated the injured Buckinghamshire horses, is subject to similar disdain. Baskerville is just brushed aside when he ventures that in all the years he has been practising he's never seen a sex attack on a horse, or that horses (especially mares in season) can and often do perpetrate the most horrible injuries on one another.
It's an indication of the mood that even Baskerville - known in the area as a 'real horse vet' to distinguish him from ordinary cat-and- dog doctors - is pooh-poohed in this way. Baskerville's scepticism, like Davies's, is simply ignored by other locals who want to believe the more colourful unsubstantiated rumours. The rising din of anguished horse lovers around the county has made it virtually impossible for the inhabitants of Lacey Green to do otherwise.
IN ORDER to attempt some understanding of what is going on, it's important to re-examine the circumstances surrounding the three injured horses. The first injury involved Lady Mobbs's brood mare, Nell and was by far the most vicious. It is also the one most likely to have been caused by a human attacker with a knife, although Nell was in a barn with another horse and Michael Godsal admits it's not impossible that she was kicked.
Either way, the injury was so bad the horse was put under general anaesthetic for the subsequent operation. According to Godsal, and his partner John Parker who performed the operation, the slash started on the left of the clitoris and passed across the vulva and through the bottom of the vagina and into the right buttock. It was four inches deep and a foot long, he says, adding that curiously for a knife wound, it was very jagged.
The clitoris was so damaged it had to be completely excised during the 90-minute operation. Parker believes he put in about 30 stitches (not the 100 that is usually quoted). And although the horse is rumoured to have lost half her blood - about 60 litres - blood volume in an animal the size of a horse is notoriously difficult to estimate. Neither vet considered a transfusion or intravenous drip.
Nell was injured at night, when any attacker could have entered the outside barn by simply climbing over one of its partition walls. But just how someone could have got close enough to inflict such a wound, without being seriously injured themselves is a mystery. Neither Nell, nor any of the other Buckinghamshire horses was tested for drugs.
The other two injuries, though quite different, were far less serious. First, there was Christian Davies's chestnut mare. Alone in a stable with floor-to-ceiling walls, she was found early one morning with a deep gash straight across the coronet band of her left hind leg, above the hoof. Bob Baskerville's partner,
Peter Fennelly stitched it up and set it
in plaster. Only 24 hours later, when he returned for a second visit, did he realise that the horse had suffered bruising to the anal area. Again, she could have been kicked, but there remained a suspicion that she may have been molested. It was then that he advised Davies to contact the police.
At first, Fennelly felt the cut may have been done with an axe or heavy chopping knife. 'Perhaps she kicked out and the attacker hit her to defend himself,' Davies says the vet told him. But in his report to the police, Fennelly is much less certain. According to Baskerville, his boss, horses frequently injure one another. Baskerville says he sees five or six such injuries every year in the course of his stud work. 'There could be any number of reasons for them. Another horse kicking. If it's a front leg, this sort of injury is the classic sort of thing you get slipping under a horse box. If it's a back leg, he could have kicked against a door. It's impossible to tell,' he told Davies.
Two days later, Christine Huneburg's grey piebald, Ragtime Blues, was hurt in broad daylight while in a field. The vet, Nicholas Snookes believes the horse was probably cut with a knife, although again it could have been caused by another horse kicking. The cut, again to the left side of the vulva and through the vagina wall, was treated with three internal stitches and four outside. Huneburg is sceptical about why someone would choose to attack a horse, during daylight hours, so close to a house from which it could be seen. However, a gelding on the same farm had been found last summer with an inexplicable razor-clean cut on top of his rump. 'At the time,' says the farm's owner Georgie Caldwell, 'we didn't understand what had happened.' What's more, a horse collar belonging to the Caldwells had been found in a field nearby, with deep knife marks in it. 'We got the feeling it had been cut up out out of frustration, perhaps by someone who thought he'd caught a mare but found it was a gelding.'
If the owners have no answers to what happened, neither yet do the police. Three weeks after setting up the incident room, progress is slow. There are five computer monitors in a room under the eaves in Thame's brand-new police station; a neat tray with mugs, milk and Nescafe is stashed under the window. Peter Jones, the senior detective running the inquiry, is a little defensive. His team has followed every lead - 'As of last Tuesday afternoon we had 121 calls logged, of which 70 have been actioned'- but he knows the public will grow increasingly angry if nobody is arrested.
The police, however, are no closer to catching someone than they were when they started. They are in touch with the Hampshire police, but still don't know for sure if there is any link. They believe that at least one of the attacks - the first one on the Mobbs's horse - is a knife attack, but they remain uncertain about the other two. Nor do they have a clear idea of what could have motivated the attack. Revenge? Malice? Witchcraft? A simple copycat job? Sex, too, cannot be ruled out as a motive. According to the police, four people have been either convicted or cautioned about sexual offences involving horses in the Thames Valley over the past five years. In Hampshire the
figure is 22.
All Detective Inspector Jones will say is: 'Everyone in the incident room has a set function. Everything that comes in goes into the receiver's tray. Then it gets distributed to the right person. I am trying to direct our lines of inquiry in specific directions, so that we can eliminate these one by one. I think that's better than having inquiry teams flying all over the country. Meanwhile we are asking horse owners to be specially vigilant. But we would not encourage them to take the law into their own hands.'
THE VILLAGERS' craving for an arrest is more than simply wanting to bring a criminal to justice. The slashings represent their worst fears, the flip-side of the country idyll; the rural nightmare of unknown forces far more disturbing than recognised urban violence.
'This is a very emotive subject,' says DI Jones. 'It stirs up the public to a far greater degree than an armed robbery.'
Buckinghamshire has always been attractive. So close to London and yet so far: Rupert Brooke, country pubs, big houses, green fields, dogs, cats, ponies. The people who moved to Lacey Green were, like all evacuees, in search of safety. Now they worry that it's no safer than London: mugging, molestation and murder. There is no reason why the country should be safer than the city, but somehow it should be. You can get used to the dark, to the sometimes eerie silence, to the small domestic round and the busybodies. But somebody who could attack a horse with a knife, a senseless thing, conjures up a kind of rural voodoo, a gypsy curse. People who like horses are by nature good. Those who don't . . .
'The thing that frightens me most,' says riding teacher Jo Summers, 'is that for someone to get this close to a horse means they really know horses.' She doesn't add the obvious, but it is there nonetheless. Anyone who knows horses enough to get this close to them, possibly is one of them.
MIKE GOMME, like Christian Davies, is a feed merchant and lives near Lacey Green. Deliverymen come in and out of his yard. So do shoppers, riding teachers, local farmers and busy mothers, all dropping in for a chat. Gomme's warehouse is so busy the police have asked him to be a co-ordinator of the local Horsewatch scheme. He sits - hugging a jersey round himself, for there is no central heating - in the midst of VAT receipts and bulk orders for carrots. 'People think of their horses as their 'other child'. These people are very frightened. You've got people who are sleeping in their stables with their horses, or visiting their stables every hour through the night. You can't ask these people if they're exaggerating. Their fears are so real to them. They feel
outraged. And they need a reason, an outlet,
to feel more outraged. We've all got the
feeling it's a psychopath and we want to
reinforce that. Of course we exaggerate. Anything that makes it all sound more psychopathic is OK for us. We've decided what sort of person this is, and now we're trying to make the crimes fit that person. So we exaggerate. I've done it myself.'-
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