Like a scar on Cumbria's face, Derrick Bird's fateful route

Jonathan Brown followed the journey taken by the killer 24 hours before, and witnessed the shock and pain left behind by his actions
Click to follow
The Independent Online

An experienced driver who knows the twisting back lanes of the Cumbrian coast can make the 40-mile drive from the roadside village of Rowrah to the hamlet of Boot in little more than hour. Yesterday, stopping off to take in the new unwanted landmarks on this tourist coast – those of grief and anguish left behind by Derrick Bird's murderous killing spree 24 hours earlier – took much longer.

The sign on the door of Bird's neighbour in Rowrah read "No Journos, No Press" but still the TV crews and reporters came to extract any more information they could from the inhabitants of these modest pebble-dashed terraces with their window displays of plastic flowers and pottery horses.

It was from here, just six miles outside Whitehaven that the taxi driver set out early on Wednesday. He made the short drive along the main road to Frizington before turning off the narrow lane to Mowbray Farm and the house of his solicitor, Kevin Commons, who was to become his first victim. Scrunched letters from the lawyer's Whitehaven practice were still visible in Bird's window where a police officer stood on duty. From here the killer doubled back six miles to the home of his twin brother, killing him while he lay in bed.

The boys' former teacher, Nan Wilson, 75, recalled them yesterday as being "like chalk and cheese". The former head of year at Ehenside School remembered them as normal lads – neither particularly extrovert, nor introvert – just prone to the usual scrapes of growing up. Mrs Wilson, a close neighbour, described how Bird still used to wave every morning to his old teacher. "I hate the picture they have used in the newspapers. He looks like a thug," she said.

"That's not how I see him."

Like everyone in the village she was trying to cope as best she could and was worried about the children of relatives who had witnessed one of the shootings and were now "not in a good way". But she added: "I cannot say anything wrong about the Bird family, not about Derrick and not about David. He was one of us."

Having killed his brother, Bird's grey Citroen Picasso set out on the same journey he had been making for the past 23 years. Yesterday, like the day before, was a blue sky morning. It was market day in Whitehaven and the farmers were busy taking their first cut from the hayfields.

It takes little more than 10 minutes to arrive at the Duke Street taxi rank where the first public shootings took place. Here Mark Cooper was back on shift. He dismissed talk of the drivers feuding as "bullshit," though he said there was often friction when the cabbies accepted fares from the back of the rank rather than sticking to the queuing system. "That has been going on for weeks and months," he said.

Electrical contractor Darren Williamson was back at work, too. On Wednesday he had been one of the first on the scene. A former military man who has seen service in both Afghanistan and Iraq, he had spent much of the previous evening trying to work out what he could have done to help. "I have been to some bad places in the world but I have never stood over a dead body like that.

You see plenty of bodies but they are always in the distance," he said. "I don't think he could have been stopped. He thought he was going out in a blaze of glory. But if he wanted to kill himself why didn't he just blow his head off in his own home?" he said.

Retracing the route out of Whitehaven past the industrial estate and cemetery and rising up past the Woodhouse estate with its boarded-up homes and England flags already flying in anticipation of the World Cup, Bird's journey took him back up into the rolling hills with their wide-reaching views over the Irish Sea. His car passed through St Bees, a place best known to walkers about to embark on the coast to coast footpath, the road now passing along the empty Main Street before heading back once more into the countryside and descending into Egremont where two people died.

The Rev Richard Lee, Rector of Egremont and Haile, lost five parishioners in the killings but said he was hopeful the people would come to terms with their loss. This being a remote community it was used to coping with the tragedies that had befallen its mining and fishing industries over the years, he said. But the feeling was still very raw. "People's lives have been smashed up," he said.

"They have the shock and the misery and the pain and they are trying to cope with these big holes all around them. The deaths were so quick and instant and absolute. But life goes on around them. People are out shopping and cars are driving by," he said.

Over at Egremont bridge, the floral tributes were building up to retired Sellafield worker Kenneth Fishburn. Among them was a bouquet from his local Ladbrokes betting shop which he visited every day.

Kath Nicholl, 65, had paused to look at the flowers with her two grandchildren. She said the eldest had started asking questions but did not really understand what had gone on. She had heard the gunman had deliberately spared children during the spree but it was too much for most people to take in. "It is going to take some time to recover. People can't sleep – they can't get it out of their mind," she said.

From there Bird's journey took him across the roundabout and along the looping lane that runs through the tiny hamlets of Wilton and Haile. Flowers once again marked the spot where the victims had died.

Back on the coast road by the Red Admiral Hotel, its doors firmly shut, more flowers marked the spot where father-of-two Garry Purdham had been killed while trimming a hedge. Two women, too upset to speak, added their own tributes to those that had built up since shortly before yesterday lunchtime, when Bird wound down his window and opened fire.

Among them was a card from the dead man's parents. It said: "Our beautiful son taken from us in the prime of your life. We will miss you so much." Another described him as "one of those people who had it all – kindness, sportsmanship and the perfect partner."

Bird now headed towards the Sellafield nuclear plant, whose vast dome dominates this remote coast. Though he sparked a full-scale lock down, this was not his intended destination. Instead, he drove past the signs for the entrances and turned right, taking the narrow road down towards Seascale where in a matter of minutes he transformed this quiet seaside village into a scene of unimaginable horror.

Yesterday, the flags on the main parade were flying at half mast. Families were back on the beach, and some hardy souls were even swimming in the sea. At the Shackles Off youth project, around 40 locals had dropped in to talk over what they were feeling while others took advantage of counselling sessions at the health clinic. Chris Taylor, 16, was at home when he heard the police helicopters. "My mum thought they were going to land on the roof they were that low," he said.

"I feel alright now. I just can't believe that it happened." The final stretch of the journey took the taxi driver back on to the main road. From here he followed the narrow lane up Eskdale. The tree-lined valley starts wide but soon narrows as the road is channelled between dry stone walls and the river.

This is the stuff of chocolate box Lake District scenes and yesterday the sunburnt walkers were descending the fells and holidaying cyclists wobbled their way between the campsites. The garden of the Boot Inn – which had been a haven for terrified people the previous day – was yesterday full of drinkers enjoying the sunshine and the stunning scenery.

Just a few hundred yards away, Derrick Bird's journey came to an end when he took his life in thick woodland. For Cumbria the journey of recovery lies ahead.