For 14 years, he (or possibly she) has been sending them - nasty, often obscene letters to the residents of a small village in North Yorkshire. Nobody has been hurt, but the spirit of a community has been broken. By AMANDA MITCHINSON. Photographs by CHRIS STEELE-PERKINS
Spring in the village of Manfield, North Yorkshire. Slanting light, cooing of woodcocks, pussy willow, wind smashing back the crocuses, dirty grey blobs of sheep giving birth to miraculously white spritely lambs, and post-hibernal toads, every one of them, as Orwell said, looking strained and ethereal as an Anglo-Catholic at the end of Lent, lumbering out of their holes.

And out of the Crown Inn, another den of sorts, has come the publican John Kay, blinking in the bright light, shoulders hunched against the cold, and then, in the stage whisper of someone recovering from flu: "You should've heard them last night." He raises his eyebrows and adds in a lingering sort of way, "the Leek Club".

The Leek Club?

Well, he rasps, the Leek Club met last night. They were saying Enough Is Enough. Only So Much That A Man Can Stand. There was talk of Action, of Filling In Somebody's windows.

Could it really come to that? Manfield is now mainly a commuter village for Darlington, with house prices similar to those in North Finchley and the houses and their occupants not much different either. Try to imagine: a country lane late at night. The sound of footsteps. Round the corner, bearing cudgels and broken bottles, comes a raging posse of internal audit accountants, quantity surveyors, middle managers for the Rivers Authority, grey men from the higher echelons of British Rail...

But, no, this isn't going to happen. For John Kay explains that, in the pub that night, more Talk had followed. And, it being a middle-class enclave, someone had made the obvious sug-gestion: Why should they do it themselves? Why run the risk of arrest? Why not delegate and get someone in from Darlington to do the job? Then there had come murmurs of agreement, more pints. The Leek Club floated off on to another subject.

What had got into the Leek Club? It was, of course, the case of the poison letters. For 14 years now, the residents of this village have been assailed with death threats, abuse, vicious accusations and vandalism. They open their post in the morning to find letters beginning, "You dirty filthy bastard, people like you should be locked up for good." Or "Listen, you slimy little moustachioed bastard of a cop lover. You are going to DIE."

On the ground outside, they find leaflets: "So and so likes it up the arse" or "So and so has a big red minge." They drive into Darlington and see, written in huge letters on one of the bridges over the motorway, the name and telephone number of a young woman, a perfectly blameless young office worker, whose parents live in Manfield. The same name and number appears again across the side of a barn adjoining the road, and on leaflets stuck behind windscreen wipers in Darlington. At night, the commuters go for a drink in a pub in a nearby village, only to find that printed cards have appeared here with the same poor woman's name and telephone number, accompanied by a drawing of a lady in boots and a corset wielding a whip, and, alongside, a lubricious description of services provided. The following week, say, someone in the village falls seriously ill. A few days later, they receive a Get Well card. Inside, it reads, "I hope you die."

Not everyone in the village gets letters, or admits to getting them. And the pace does vary - sometimes months will pass without any letters and then there will be a spate of them. Sometimes the letters will be handwritten, sometimes in crude capitals, or typed, or, in recent years, printed from a computer. But, as the years have passed, a trend is noticeable - the letters have become more frequent, more obscene, more threatening, generally nastier. And, finally, some of the villagers, who for so long have followed the advice of the police and kept the matter quiet, have begun to speak out.

"It's someone in the village. Sure of it," says a man in a grey acrylic jumper with an abbreviated, examination passnotes manner of speech. He is toasting his toes in the house of one of the few villagers to let a member of the press past the threshold. He continues, "Phil Atkinson, chap across the road, lost his licence. Only lost it two or three days. One or two of us had given him lifts, and then he gets a letter about it. So he goes to Mr X, who is head of the Neighbourhood Watch. Two days later, gets another letter. `I see you've joined the pigs.' Atkinson never drinks and drives now. He went down to the pub. There less than two minutes. Two days later, another letter. `Saw you at the pub...' Oh no! I'm not giving you my name. Must be joking. And if you want to know more, go up the other side of the village..."

Grey Acrylic Jumper is pretty typical. Most of the villagers are not very helpful, many refuse to talk at all and their reluctance to give their own names is only matched by their enthusiasm for imparting information about their neighbours. Walking round the village, feeling like the means- test man, I make my own passnotes. "Bungalow, dimpled glass panelling. Sixty to 70? Knitted waistcoat, would divulge nothing. But a lively questioner. Asked which houses visited? What said? How long I'd been here? etc, etc." Or, "Elderly lady, white cardigan, came to door while clearing mouth of sandwich. Talked at length about sandwich filling - an experimental combination of leftovers. Would not give name. Refused to discuss letters."

There are exceptions. Phil Atkinson, roused from slumber on a Sunday afternoon after three bottles of cider, confirms the story about his letters. Mr Bellwood, a butcher in a nearby village, says he received one a year gone last September. It said, "Be warned. Buttonhole Flasher is watching your daughters." For a while, Mrs Bellwood coralled the girls back and forth from the bus stop. She won't let them out on their own at night.

Over the road lives Mrs Shirley Dodd, a trim, middle-aged woman married to a quantity surveyor. Mrs Dodd is a regular at the step aerobics classes held on Wednesday nights at the village hall and possesses the slightly steely cheerfulness of someone who rises early and takes a lot of pretty punishing exercise. Nobody could be more respectable.

Mrs Dodd has had 12 letters, stretching back over a number of years. The first letters were warning her that others "might be jealous" because her two sons went to private school. Mrs Dodd telephoned the police, and thought no more of it. But then the letters got worse. They started accusing her of having an affair with a local man. At Christmas, her friends in the village received cards with a note inside about Shirley Dodd's supposed affair.

"That did upset me. Even if your friends phone up and sympathise and give you their support, you still wonder what people are thinking about it. You know, `There she is. Now is she having an affair?' And probably a little more is added. And a little more. And then, `I thought I knew her.' And then the next year, there were more Christimas cards, `Did you know that Shirley Dodd is still bonking...'

"You read it and you think, `Who is it? What have they got against us?' I was upset, having been a member of the village all my life. Of course, I've bettered myself, but I don't think I'm any different now. I think I'm just as friendly. I hope so."

But the village, Mrs Dodd believes, has changed and become less friendly. Also, there is a watchful feeling to the place - you think twice about putting a letter in the post box on the green, because you wonder who is watching, and what they are thinking.

It has been 14 years now, and, despite a mass of written evidence, and the fact that the culprit almost certainly lives in one of the 80 houses in the village, the police have failed to solve the mystery.

Inspector Charles Kay of Richmond police insists the case is harder than it looks. If they parked an officer behind a hedgerow in Manfield for several weeks, they'd eventually catch the culprit...but the force always has more pressing problems to deal with. If they DNA tested the entire village and matched up the results with the saliva on the stamps...but the cost would be hideous and they couldn't force everyone to co-operate. If they resorted to old-fashioned policing methods and gave the suspects a quiet word of warning...but nowadays that could be construed as harassment. If they swooped in on five or six households in the village, took handwriting samples and inspected typewriters, computers...yet such a raid requires search warrants and, as poison-pen writing is not a custodial crime, they would never get authorisation.

And so the problems mount: cost, staff shortages, citizens rights... Like Tom Kitten, Richmond police force is bound up with red tape and covered in a thick pastry of legal restrictions.

The inspector pushes a box across the table. "The letters come in batches every three or four months. He's sly - they tail off in the summer when the nights are lighter. And Christmas is a terrible time - brings out the very worst in him."

Him? I mutter something about men being more honest and straightforwardly aggressive - dropping bombs, invading countries and so forth. Weren't the sneakier, more serpentine forms of hatefulness, such as letters, the preserve of women?

"Have a look at them," says the inspector. He opens the box, releases a clip and up bounces a mass of computer print-outs, Christmas cards, bits of paper of every shape and colour and size. He passes me a particularly choice obscenity scrawled in crayon. And, yes, it does seem to be a very male sort of unwholesomeness.

What else do we know about him? He is well tuned into the village gossip, and sensibly wears gloves when he writes his letters. He has access to a computer and a fairly good copying machine. He can scale bridges and barns.

And he is also, for some unknown reason, obsessed with a bungalow - one particular, very unexceptional bungalow in a row of similarly unexceptional bungalows in Grunton Lane, on the other side of the crossroads from the Crown Inn. It was here, 14 years ago, that the trouble - vandalism and the horrible letters - began.

Since then, the house has changed hands three times. Firstly, there was Mr and Mrs Butt, who carried out some alterations to the house. They received letters and some malicious damage to the bungalow, but put it down to the fact that Mr Butt had sacked an employee at his work. After Mrs Butt died, Mr Butt sold up and Mrs Christian moved in. Mrs Christian also received poison mail and, during her time, the locks of the bungalow were superglued, the double-glazing damaged and the shrubs in the front garden pulled out. Mrs Christian did not last long in Manfield. She sold the bungalow to the present owners, who have stuck in out for nine years.

The family (who do not wish to be named) are determined to carry on as normal. He is occasionally seen jogging round the village and has been known to step into the pub; she has been to step aerobics. But they have had a dreadful time of it: faeces thrown into the garden, tacks and ball bearings scattered on the driveway, punctures to the car tyres, a light bulb full of paint thrown on the roof. And then the barrage of letters: the father named in the affair with Mrs Dodd; leaflets describing him as a "shitface" scattered on the ground; the daughter (who has now, understandably, moved out) the subject of the Miss Whiplash cards, and when the family go on holiday, letters sent round goading the villagers to burgle the house.

Although only the bungalow has been vandalised, in recent years the poison letter campaign has become increasingly vigorous, gradually spreading to more and more of the village. There has never been much logic as to who receives the mail - the rich and the poor, even the vicar of a neighbouring parish, and villagers who left Manfield several years ago. However, as a rule, those living in or near Grunton Lane are more likely to receive mail - as if the bungalow were a sort of epicentre, from which, Mordor style, the evil ripples outwards.

Grunton Lane on a Sunday morning. The bungalow - wooden gate, spotlights, maple leaf design on the glass front door, moribund spider plant in the sitting-room window - is empty. The couple are, apparently, away on holiday.

I close the gate. In the bungalow beside The Bungalow, a dark shadow flits by the sitting-room window. I walk across the road to visit the "slimy little moustachioed bastard of a cop lover", who has been keeping an eye on The Bungalow, although, to judge from the spider plant, not a very effective one.

The house is a red-brick bungalow with a small concrete path lined with primulas and crocuses. A white trellis on one side of the door and beyond the trellis the sitting room, where, in a chair facing away from the window, the top of an elderly person's head is clearly visible. I ring the bell. The head remains still. Dammit if they won't make a Daily Mail reporter out of me yet. I lean on the bell.

Eventually a woman opens the door. I explain my mission. Understand their reservations, sorry to disturb a pleasant Sunday, but husband a prime mover in Manfield, simply must talk...

The woman tilts her head to one side with distaste: "We're really not interested. He's fixing his car, later we have guests."

Aha! She's admitted he's there. Well, could he explain his lack of interest in person?

She turns round. Not so much as a sour little "you'd better come in". I'm left, as usual in Manfield, on the bottom doorstep. I wait. I inspect the wallpaper, the curtain with the gold brocade tie-back, the miniature tea set delicately aligned on the sill above the radiator. This couple can't have grandchildren. Beside the radiator stands a decorative saddle, legacy of a holiday in Spain? Morocco?

Eventually he arrives. A short, bristly, little Alpine shrub of a man, with very erect posture. He wears light sensitive glasses, corrected for long sight. As he speaks, they darken. "Ah! Yes. You've been here three days. It's not in our interest to talk to the press."

His eyes, elongated by the spectacles, flit back and forth above my head.

"We'll get these people. The day will come. Then the press will get their fill."

How? It has been 14 years, and no leads, nothing. Even when the police posted men wearing infra-red glasses behind the hedgerows. And what about that electronic surveillance equipment he had monitoring The Bungalow with? Not a squeak. Then the day it came down, the road strewn with letters again.

"Who told you that?"

"The police," I lie.

"Hmm. So they've told you a fair bit, I see." His eyes are still working like a tracking station, back and forth, back and forth.

"What are you watching over my head?"

"Well, I'm just keeping watch," he says. "This is a nice village. It shouldn't happen here. We shouldn't have to deal with this. The press blow everything out of proportion. They said there were people in the village who wouldn't talk to one another. Well, that's barmy. It does us no good, you know. And the police, they, of course, say no names. No names."

Half an hour later, I'm still in Grunton Lane, wandering up and down. There is no one around. Not even a dog, apart from the small black terrier on the "No Fouling Max Penalty £100" notices. No wildlife, apart from the small stone squirrel on the gatepost of The Ridings. By rights, the whole street should be out cleaning their cars. That was why I chose a Sunday.

Then, beside an M registration gleaming cobalt grey Metro, I notice a man in gumboots bent double like an ice-cream spoon. He's not cleaning - he's stroking his hub caps.

The man comes up perpendicular. White hair, cap, gumboots, elderly black jacket buttoned up with sweater underneath. Then I realise, as this is the bungalow beside The Bungalow, that this man is the Dark Shadow.

When I introduce myself he says, "Hmm, you were here yesterday. Obviously having a busy weekend of it."

What does he think about the letters?

"I haven't talked to any of the press. I don't think I'll make an exception now, thank you. We are leaving it to the police." Dark Shadow's voice shakes with nervousness.

But it's been 14 years.

He stares straight ahead, cloth in his hands, saying nothing.

I try again.

Still he stares.

Well, what's he doing to the car?

"It's in the Rover handbook. It says you should always leather the car after cleaning. I don't normally do it, but as it's a nice sunny day I thought I would." And then he continues: aluminium deposits in the water of Darlington, leads to white streaks...

I walk back down Grunton Lane, past The Ridings with the stone squirrel. I had been advised to visit them by a neighbour who said, "Most peculiar people. Oooh, you won't get in there... No mates, no friends, so bloody peculiar. Over Christmas they didn't leave the house for three days. It was snowing, and there were no tracks. He built his own garage. Now he's going to alter the end of the house. I've been to Richmond to look at the planning application. If you go, do let me know what it's like inside..."

But I can't be bothered. I'm getting tired. Manfield is beginning to get me down and I'm developing an antipathy to its people. I hate their glinting alarm systems and their ubiquitous this is a good neighbourhood stickers, and their snappy dogs, their strained politeness and every possible aspect of their car-stroking, hedge-trimming, step aerobic-performing, window-polishing, light-sensitive little lives.

Once Manfield was a real village. Children used to play rounders on the green in front of the house, and sometimes the adults joined in or brought out home-made lemonade. Not now. Once there was the pond and the village tennis court. That's gone to make way for the bungalows. Once there was the wooden army hut with the one-and-six-pence dances and the whist drives. That's all gone. Now there's no post office, no shop. And the pub is full of outsiders.

Nobody seriously thinks that Manfield was asking for a letter writer. Or that if he didn't exist, the village would have to invent one. But no real self-respecting community would allow someone in its midst to poison and spoil everyone's life for 14 years. That's commuter land for you - neither the anonymity of city life, nor the support structure of rural life, just the worst of both. And a spineless Leek Club.

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