Country Matters: Hiding the body in question

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The Independent Online
WRITING recently about the high suicide rate among farmers, I remarked on the fact that country people in trouble are notoriously reluctant to discuss their problems, or indeed to mention them at all. Yet hot gossip spreads like wildfire.

The police had barely begun to exhume bodies from beneath the floors and garden of 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester before rumours were flying the length and breadth of the county. Fred West, the builder held in custody and charged with 10 murders, seemed to have worked everywhere - in villages and on individual outlying properties as well as in towns.

Not only did well-to-do people begin to shift uneasily over their muesli as they wondered what might or might not lie beneath the concrete foundations of their new conservatories. Farmers, also, became concerned that their land might have been used for nefarious purposes. 'Christ]' exclaimed one man a good way east of Gloucester, who noticed a peculiar area of subsidence in the middle of a field, 'I hope that bugger ain't been up 'ere]' But soon the grapevine reported that he had been up there, too close for comfort.

Obviously, no normal person could stomach the idea of entombing bodies in the middle of a town and living on top of them for years; but I find the notion of going out into the countryside to dispose of corpses almost as sinister.

So where do you dispose of a corpse? Presumably somewhere well out of the way. Yet the spot near the village of Much Marcle, where police exhumed the remains of the first Mrs West, seemed to me most curiously chosen. It was in a cornfield, just out from a hedge, but scarcely 100 yards from a road and on the crest of a small hill, so that it was in full view of passing drivers. No doubt it would seem less conspicuous at night -yet if I had decided to inter somebody in that vicinity, I should at least have humped my burden on over the brow and out of sight. I think I should have headed for the wood which runs down the valley behind - and it is in that direction that police have been digging, on the latest site, this week.

The choice of location suggests that the whoever buried the body was not particularly familiar with the countryside round about - and I have noticed that even people who live in rural villages generally seem to know little about the interior. Some walk the footpaths, of course, but in the extensive areas not crossed by public rights of way it is only gamekeepers, foresters and farmers who maintain a day- to-day knowledge of events. On badly-run estates, where landlords are absent or take little interest, there is less active supervision; but on well- managed property, experienced eyes check the crops and the woodland every day. There is not much that escapes the eye of a good gamekeeper, be it only a line of grass-stems pushed down by a fox coming through a hedge.

Even if a digger escapes immediate detection, excavations on farmland are hard to disguise. In grass pasture you could take the turf off when you begin work and replace it afterwards: if you worked carefully, the place would be inconspicuous enough not to attract attention from a distance, and might go unnoticed altogether unless someone walked right on to it.

In an arable field, however, it would be impossible to conceal the site entirely. The topsoil is generally no more than nine or 10 inches thick, and the subsoil, be it clay (yellow) or chalk (white), is always a different colour: no matter how meticulously you segregate the layers when you remove them, it is almost impossible to leave no trace of disturbance. Most cereal crops are planted in the autumn, so that if you dug at any time after October, you would inevitably disrupt the seed or the growing corn and leave a patch with a texture different from that of its surroundings.

The question arises: why dig at all? Again, the reason must be ignorance, for true countrymen know that all farms and isolated cottages are surrounded by wells, many disused, into which a body could conveniently be dropped. Wild areas such as the West Country and the North are even handier in this respect, since they are riddled with old mine shafts. As I stood on a moor in the Pennines the other day and looked across at some old workings, my companion a grouse-researcher, said: 'There you are, 300 feet straight down into water. No chance whatever of anyone finding it.'

The farm on which I spent much of my life in the Chilterns was surrounded by wells - two to catch rain off the house, four to serve the barns, and two more to store floodwater from the lane. On top of those dry chalk hills there are no streams, and before piped water, enough rain had to be collected and kept for cattle and working horses. Though no longer in regular use, the wells were still functioning in the Eighties - but of course they would have been far too obvious for use as disposal sites: had I been suspected of murder, they would have been the first targets of any police search.

And yet, far out in the woods, there survive subterranean tanks that must once have served dwellings but which now are left on their own, the houses having long since disappeared. I can think of two, in particular - both perfect oubliettes.

One came to light accidentally a couple of winters ago when a retriever disappeared mysteriously in the middle of a pheasant-shoot and was discovered two days later, unharmed, at the bottom of an underground chamber. That old tank lies close to a lane, and is relatively accessible; but the other is in a small wood on top of a hill, away from any road, with its circular, open mouth so grown over by brambles as to make it invisible. There may be one or two other people alive who know of its existence, but I doubt if they have thought about it for years. If I had a body to dispose of, that would be the spot to which I should make my devious way.

Of course, there are other methods of getting rid of corpses. Feeding them to pigs is said to be very effective, since swine are great carnivores, with prodigiously strong jaws. A big slurry pit is also reputed to do a thorough job: fresh cow manure is so powerful that, given time, it will dissolve almost anything.

So there is really little need for a murderer to dig. Yet whatever else the current police investigation may bring to light, it has certainly put our sleepy old county on the map. Only yesterday I heard that the daughter of a friend had written from Dharmsala, in northern India, where she is teaching Tibetan refugees English, to say that if one more person asked her how many bodies had been dug up in Gloucester, she would give a very loud scream.