Rape victim who came out of the dark: Muriel Harvey scorned anonymity after her Christmas ordeal. She tells Harry Pugh why

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THERE was a drama in Muriel Harvey's household. Her part-Persian cat, Pyrha, had just killed a nuthatch, one of a pair that regularly visited her garden. Mrs Harvey was highly displeased but was able to stay quite calm towards the cat, who was punished by temporary banishment from the house.

Mrs Harvey had shown the same calmness in handling another, more serious crisis: she was dragged into bushes and raped on her way home from Midnight Mass early on Christmas Day last year.

The attack stunned the market town of Ludlow, Shropshire, where Mrs Harvey, 67 - a churchwarden, a former magistrate, chair of Ludlow's annual arts and drama festival committee, and a prominent businesswoman - is known to just about every one of the town's 7,600 inhabitants.

The rapist has not been caught, but the town is now getting over the fear that has kept elderly ladies from stepping out at night. The first to get over it was Mrs Harvey. She has become something of a celebrity, called in for television chat shows and interviews when the subject of rape is on the agenda.

She is relishing her new role. 'Wanting to help to catch the perpetrator was my first thought,' she said, 'but after I'd given interviews and appeared on television, I realised my experience could be useful to others. I must admit I began to enjoy it. We've had great fun on some of the TV debates.'

She has been on a new Granada magazine programme, This Sunday. She has done chat shows with the former police chief John Stalker, and Jill Saward, the 'vicarage rape' victim. Crimewatch highlighted her case and the Times devoted a leading article to applauding her stance.

'Just because a woman has been raped does not mean that she should feel ashamed and go and bury herself in a hole in the ground,' she says. 'It should be talked about openly and frankly, and if women can cope with the pressure I think more of them should go public.'

She counts herself fortunate that her injuries were slight. 'It could have been much worse. He could have been more violent or used a weapon.' She was seized from behind and dragged into the grounds of Dinham House, once the town dwelling of local gentry. Her ordeal lasted nearly 30 minutes. Her neck and ribs were bruised. When she stumbled into her home just a few paces away she did not know what to do first: wake her daughter, asleep upstairs, or telephone the police.

'I felt angry but very calm,' she says. 'There was no shame or disgust and, surprisingly, no real shock. I remember saying silly things to my daughter like: 'Good] I won't have to cook the turkey after all.' People seemed to think I was shocked and kept trying to get me to drink hot sweet tea. I'd have thrown up. Whisky, yes. But what I really wanted to do was to jump into the police car and go and find the bugger.'

As the police hunt began she was persuaded to appear on a Central TV news bulletin with her features masked. She thought anonymity was pointless as everyone in the town knew she was the victim, but her identity, as in nearly all rape cases, was not divulged.

The deciding factor in going public was an irritating headline in a local evening newspaper, the Shropshire Star, which stated: 'Pensioner raped.' She was indignant. 'I'm not a pensioner. I'm a hard- working businesswoman. I've paid my pension money back in taxes time after time.'

She went to the editor of the Ludlow Advertiser, Vince Bufton, an old friend, and said: 'Vince, what are we going to do about this? It's silly. Everyone knows it's me.' Mr Bufton helped her with the wording of a statement naming herself as the victim. There was a deluge of media interest. Fleet Street writers and television crews beat a path to her cottage near the town centre and to her business, the ladies' and gents' outfitter F J Bodenham, founded by her great-grandfather in 1860. The story of the raped churchwarden even appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Her family and friends were amazed at how quickly she recovered from her ordeal. Her son-in- law proposed a toast to her at Boxing Day lunch. She looked around the table at her three children and six grandchildren and thought: 'Aren't I blessed? What about that poor oaf that did this to me? His life must be a tragic case.'

Mrs Harvey believes that a younger woman without her experience of life would not have coped so well. She saw her first husband die in front of her from an embolism while sitting in his armchair. Her second husband died after just five weeks of marriage. These events, she says, helped to strengthen her.

'At my age I know what life's about,' she says. 'My body is not important. I can wash that. He hasn't touched the inner me. It would have been much worse had I been a young woman.'

She has said that when her attacker is caught she would like him to be flogged and then treated. For 21 years she was a magistrate. During that time she never heard a rape case. 'There hadn't been a rape in Ludlow until mine,' she says. 'It's the first, so far as I am aware, in the town's history.'

The other factor that helped her was her faith. 'I think there's a bit of the Holy Spirit in me that helped me to keep calm. Certainly something enabled me to get up, dust myself down and walk on.

'What upset me more than what he did to me was what he'd done to Ludlow. This was a lovely safe place. I always said that if I couldn't walk to my home day or night in Ludlow, the world as I know it would have come to an end. The world hasn't come to an end, but it's made people feel very vulnerable.

'Ironically I've been struggling for 30 years to get publicity for Ludlow so that more people come here for our festival. You have to do something that is scandalous like this, or have it happen to you, to get into the papers.'

(Photograph omitted)