My mother taught with 'lady in lake'

Chris Blackhurst on the local mystery of his youth and the secret life of the missing teacher recalled as 'quiet'
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The Independent Online
MY mother knew Carol Park, the "lady in the lake" whose body was found at the bottom of Coniston Water in Cumbria last August. Or she thought she did.

Mrs Park taught along with my mother at a special school in Barrow-in- Furness, Cumbria, where she was remembered for being very quiet. She was, though, regarded as pretty - more attractive, says my mother, than the newspaper pictures give her credit for. This may go some way towards explaining the difficulty of my mother and others who worked with Mrs Park. They had no idea she had, in tabloid-speak, "a tangled love life". As far as they were concerned, Mrs Park, who went missing in 1976, aged 30, was a devoted wife to Gordon, also a teacher, and mother to their three young children, Vanessa, Jeremy and Rachel.

When Gordon was charged with her murder after her trussed and weighted body was discovered by divers in 70ft of water many local people were astonished. He was known as "a good man", a teacher who had evoked considerable sympathy by the way he brought up the children after his wife vanished.

Isolated on the end of a peninsula jutting out into the Irish Sea, Barrow-in-Furness is a rumour-monger's delight. Oddly, though, and perhaps significantly, there never was much murmuring about Mr Park, who later remarried and moved to a new address less than half a mile from my parents' home.

I remember when Mrs Park disappeared. I was 16 and could not understand how she could have just gone. Mr Park took the children on a day trip to Blackpool on 17 July, 1976. She stayed behind, complaining of feeling unwell. When they returned she had disappeared. Her vanishing was not reported until September, almost two months later. I remember reading the coverage and being mystified. How could she have walked out on her family just like that?

The Parks then lived in Leece, a small village outside Barrow. During the day, Leece is quiet as adults commute into Barrow for work and shopping. There is one main road, the A590, into the Furness area and one road out. Yet nobody had seen her. She had not been spotted on the only, infrequent railway. There was some thought that perhaps she had gone for a walk and had fallen down one of the abandoned iron-ore mines in the area. But that was all.

Of course, with hindsight, there were clues as to all not having been well in the Park marriage. Her disappearance was not reported for weeks. Why? We now know it was because she had left her husband at least twice before, once to go and live with a lover from the nearby shipyard, then to move in with a man she met on a summer course at Keele University. At the time, however, there was no hint of anything being wrong. Mr Park and his children hadhoped she would return or make contact, but after there was none had informed the police.

And the police had not made a song and dance about her whereabouts. There was no appeal for her return, no dramatic press conference. Instead, there was silence, and mystery.

We now know that was because the police suspected she might have left of her own accord. Back then, however, even among those who worked with Mrs Park, there was no knowledge of her troubled relationship with her husband. No mention of that was made public until 21 years later and the dropping of the case against him.

A curious game has been played out in Barrow this past week. On the one hand, Mr Park's supporters have been keen to play up the image of the Parks as a happy family. On the other, newspapers have been given details of her infidelities - details which bring forward names of possible suspects and motives.

The talk locally is that she was killed and her body disposed of in such a way as to implicate her husband. She was wearing a baby-doll nightie - suggesting she was killed at home. She was lying at the bottom of Coniston, 20 minutes drive from Leece - where her husband has a yacht.

But would Mr Park have put her in the one lake upon which he frequently sailed? As for the line that she was found in the deepest spot - implying specialist knowledge, that is not true.

So, if Mr Park did not kill her, who did? There is one name that has cropped up. Cumbria police say their inquiries are continuing. They are appealing for new information but their tone hints at a weary resignation that the case may never be solved.

Meanwhile, Mr Park is contemplating bringing a claim for damages against the police. His solicitor says he plans to resume his life in Barrow. In an area short on celebrities but big on gossip, he will find it difficult.