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Strange case of the exploding town

BAWTRY IS a most unlikely location for a series of unexplained bomb blasts. It is a genteel little commuter town in Yorkshire where the most interesting thing that happens is the afternoon gossip between the ladies at the Town House Tea Rooms. But last Monday, a bomb blew up a white van parked outside the White Hart pub. Exactly one week earlier, another bomb destroyed a telephone booth in the town. Police say the devices were powerful enough to have killed a passer-by and that it was "pure luck" that there were no casualties.

There is no apparent motive for the attacks, there have been no arrests and no claims of responsibility. Most residents are waiting to see if this Monday will see a third attack, and amid local newspaper headlines comparing Bawtry to Beirut, many residents are keeping their children indoors at night.

The explosions are causing a wave of anxiety. Nothing like this happens in Bawtry; while nearby towns such as Doncaster and Rotherham are besieged every Friday and Saturday nights by drunken brawling, the 19th-century market place inBawtry witnesses nothing more violent than the slamming of Range Rover doors outside the Dower House Indian restaurant.

Home Office pathologists are still trying to determine the type of explosive used and police are following up the reports of two drinkers in the White Hart who chased a couple of young men as far as the market place after the second explosion. The two youths allegedly smashed the windscreen of the van, owned by "an innocent third party", according to police, threw in an explosive device that blew off the vehicle's roof, and ran before losing their pursuers by escaping in a white car.

In the absence of facts, a small town creates its own theories, and chatting to people in Bawtry is like being inside a convoluted Agatha Christie movie. On screen each character would have a plausible theory about why someone else committed the murder. On the high street, numerous scenarios, all of them believable, are drawn up by each new character questioned. The theories play out in your head just as the different reconstructions made by Hercule Poirot on the Orient Express appear on screen.

"I don't like to say this," said Andrea Neal, who has two children and works in the off- licence, "but it's obviously connected with the rivalry between Bawtry and Harworth." Harworth is two miles down the road, over the county line in Nottinghamshire, and Mrs Neal's nose turns up slightly when she mentions its name. "There's always been rivalry and now they're resorting to this," she says, gesturing in the direction of the other town.

"Of course it's very worrying," she adds. "My 14-year-old has just started to go out by himself, he was out on Monday night when the explosion happened. I'm not letting him out at night until this is cleared up."

In the White Hart, the landlord, Phil Rose, dismisses this theory. "Load of old cobblers," he says. "It's youngsters on pranks and they don't understand how far they're going." One rumour, that someone had a grudge against the pub, is no longer among the front runners.

"Bollocks," says Mr Rose, as his customers nod in agreement. "If they'd wanted to get at me they'd have bombed my car, wouldn't they?" His expression is a little less definite than one would have hoped.

In a nearby shop, there was another theory. The lady in charge knew that it was the son of a recently arrested violent criminal, seeking revenge on the police. Next door, it was definitely a drug war, with the Triads from Manchester possibly involved. The only connection nobody seems to have made yet is between the white getaway car and the Fiat Uno in the Pont d'Alma in Paris, scene of the crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales.

Explosions on the streets are a serious matter, even when they have been caused by home-made devices cobbled together from firework powder, as police sources suggest was probably the case, and detonated by youths whose only cause is fighting the boredom of the inner city, the most plausible, if unfashionable, theory.

The male population of Bawtry, and the more elderly who have lived through wars, profess themselves unworried. Robert Platt, 77, a retired miner, lives in a bungalow near the telephone booth which exploded last week. "It is definitely a talking point at present, but with what has gone on in the world before, it doesn't seem so important."

Women, either less hardy or (more likely) more honest, are genuinely fearful. "What if my son had been walking past the phone box on his way home?" asked Mrs Neal.

Meanwhile the population of this small, sleepy town wait in fear of Monday and what it may bring. The most frightening thing of all is that Bawtry could be anywhere in Britain.