It was a sleepy rural idyll. Until the strangers rode in. Vicky Ward reports
It couldn't have been a more bizarre location for a brothel - a village so obscure that residents of larger towns six miles away had never heard of it. Orwell, west of Cambridge, boasts 900 residents and has existed since the Domesday book. It has one pub, the Chequers, one shop, one hairdresser and a hall. There are two churches, one Anglican, one Methodist. The whole is linked by a quiet, dusty road, the "high street", traversed mainly by cows. Here, the coalman still works with a horse. Setting up a Co-op in such a place seems preposterous enough, let alone a massage parlour. But last autumn, a man and woman did just that - bringing, for eight months, unpleasantness, furtiveness and mistrust to a community which prides itself on its unity and openness.

The couple drove into the village in a Porsche. They rented a good-sized stone house with a small barn from a villager who had gone overseas. The house was bang in the middle of the village, right in front of the Anglican church and next door to the hairdresser's - the hub of lunch- time activity. At first no one paid much attention. "Renters, you know. We knew they weren't staying long,'' says Irene, the hairdresser. Not even the young Anglican vicar, Neil Bryce, who makes a point of knowing everybody, rushed to welcome them. "By the time I had a chance to do so," he says, "I wasn't sure I wanted to. By then, you see, I'd heard the rumours."

First, says the Rev Bryce, someone saw an ad in the personal columns of the Cambridge News for what the villagers now refer to as "you know what". To the resident's astonishment, the contact number bore the Orwell exchange. Next, in November, an elderly woman received a phone call requesting services that the local press described as "too indelicate to print". Then, last Christmas, the cars started to arrive. Flash cars: Porsches, BMWs, Mercedes, Jaguars, many with personalised plates. They parked outside the hairdresser's, to Irene's consternation and, at first, to the amusement of the lunchtime shampoo-and-set brigade.

"We used to count how long each man would stay inside the barn," laughs Mrs Lines, wife of Gordon, the chair of the parish council. Meanwhile, at the Chequers, locals debated how much punters were being charged per minute. But behind the laughter anxiety grew. Secretly, the villagers were horrified. Most did not even want to talk about it, preferring to pretend it wasn't happening. Even Neil Bryce felt too uncomfortable to knock on the couple's door. "What would I say? I just felt it was all so sad," he sighs. At dinner parties people argued about whether it was more hypocritical to visit a brothel than to commit adultery with another man's wife.

"We just did not know what to do," says Gordon Lines. "We had no proof."

Finally, in March, a handful of villagers took matters into their own hands and wrote anonymously to the Cambridge police. The brothel vanished overnight. "They cleared off just like that," says Irene. "We think they'd had a tip-off the police were coming."

"The parish council would have done something," Mr Lines insists, "but we'd postponed our meeting until after the election of the new chair [himself]. By the time we had that meeting the couple had left."

Now the villagers are playing the whole episode down. "We're just like any other village," says the Rev Bryce. "We're not puritanical and stuck in some time-warp. It was not, as has been suggested in the national press, some nebulous form of 'people power' that ejected them. We are modern and hi-tech."

As he walks round the village, the Rev Bryce greets everybody by their first names, stopping to chat about VE day, the darts club, the annual barbecue. "This is like living in the Hollywood Bowl," says Mrs Lines. "We all know what everybody is doing. It is incredible that anyone thought they could set up a brothel here and get away with it." But the real marvel, one feels, is that the couple were not converted from running a brothel to running the village barbecue.