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'Nothing ever happens here'

Rachael Lean's murder near a Norfolk village made national headlines. But what does the local community make of the attention? Vicky Ward reports

Vicky Ward
Thursday 14 September 1995 23:02 BST

The airman goes through the main entrance to the Naafi store, tightening his hold on his Tom Clancy paperback. "You'll be all right there, Zoe," he shouts back over his shoulder to a small child wondering where to park her tiny bicycle. "Just stay there. I won't be long."

To cosmopolitan strangers - and there have been plenty of those in the area of RAF Coltishall in Norfolk this week - his attitude seems peculiarly relaxed. Less than a week ago, not 200 yards from that same Naafi store, the body of a local teenager, Rachael Lean, was found, stabbed to death. But for the airman and his colleagues the incident was isolated, bizarre. They don't fear the same fate for their kids. Not out here. No way.

A murder in the middle of the flat Norfolk countryside is rare. A murder next to an airbase like Coltishall is even rarer. "It was not so long ago," explains my taxi driver from Norwich, "that you couldn't move round here without soldiers jumping out at you from the undergrowth. That was when the IRA were at their worst, though, and security was stepped up. Then gradually, over the last five years, it all stopped. We cabbies used to come here all the time, taking the single airmen to and from Norwich - they like the discos on Saturday nights. But now we hardly ever come here. No one comes here. Nothing happens here any more. It's forgotten."

Until somebody killed Rachael Lean. She went to the base each day to use the gym; later this month she was to have started at Southampton University. Her body was discovered in undergrowth near the narrow winding road which leads from the base to the village of Buxton Lammas. There are pot-holes, a copse on one side, fields on the other, birds singing. It's pleasant when the sun is out, bleak when it isn't. It's the only place along the road where you can't see either the camp or the village.

Rachael belonged to both camp and village: her father, an RAF technician, was one of only a handful of airmen who have bought houses in Buxton Lammas. "The airmen - they come, they go, and they forget you," explains Marek, serving in one of the two village shops. "It's not possible to have lasting friendships with people on the airbase. The personnel there never stays the same. In five years' time they will all be different. So we villagers don't tend to mix with them. But the children mix because of school."

At 4pm in Buxton Lammas you can hardly move for children. They are everywhere - outside the village stores, whizzing round on their bikes. Delivering notices about car boot sales, barbecues and the like. Nearly all of them smoke. Their parents are nowhere to be seen. "Rachael used to be like that," says a local landscape gardener, John Barber. "She was the paper girl, rushing about like a madcap."

But there is a negative force that in part fuels the schoolchildren's energy. A frustration which may explain why they smoke - puffing on three cigarettes at once - like town children do. "There is nothing to do here," sighs Clare, 13, whose father is retiring from the RAF and moving out of the base into the village. "At weekends we meet in the rec, we sit on the bench and smoke."

A boy interrupts her: "Or commit a teeny bit of vandalism. Just a teeny bit." Clare ignores him. "We all plan to get out when we leave school. Nobody stays here any more, only the parents."

Buxton Lammas is a place that has gone through some unhappy transitions. Like many of Norfolk's agricultural communities it was, until 40 years ago, practically self-sufficient. When the air base was built during the Second World War, it was regarded as an unwanted eyesore. All that has changed. With the loss, over the years, of jobs on surrounding farms, many villagers are now reliant on working for ever-changing bosses on the base.

"We have no choice. The wages are terrible, but there is virtually nowhere else to go," explains Robert, 23, who runs his own gardening company, mainly serving the married quarters on the camp. His brother, Joshua, a graduate of Bolton University, works in plastics in the nearby town of North Walsham. Most of their contemporaries have not stuck around, they say.

The brothers have stayed because they prefer "being able to greet everybody in the street with a smile". "In Bolton," says Joshua, "nobody would ever meet your eye. Here everyone does."

Including Rachael's killer? Though no charges have been brought, Norfolk police seem very certain that she knew her murderer, which is why she agreed to walk down the lane with him or her. One would expect such an allegation to drive a village apart, create cliques and rumours. But Buxton is different. Both village and air base are convinced the perpetrator is no longer in their midst. That is why they let their children roam so freely.

"Oh, it's still safe," says Mr Barber, whose sister was the Leans's cleaner. "It's a classic case of something that you read about and think will never happen to you - and then it does. It's terrible, but then life goes on afterwards, just like it did before. It has to."

"My parents aren't bothered," announces 14-year-old James, puffing outside the village store. "But Mr Regan [headmaster of Aylsham School, where Rachel went and passed three A-levels] made us pray for her. He said she was a role model because she was going to university and all that."

"Realism, fatalism, phlegm," was how Graham Swift described Norfolk dwellers in his novel Waterland. In a place where everybody knows everybody and greets them by name in the street, one might expect something so horrific as a murder to cause a frenzy. Yet on Wednesday, only four days after the discovery of Rachael's body, the spectators watching the police comb the fields on the airbase for a murder weapon did not include one person from the village. The same day the local newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, had already demoted Rachael's story from the front-page lead and replaced it with: "Farmer attacked over cows in lane".

"I must say I'm sorry for you having to come all the way here," says the taxi driver as he deposits me back at Norwich station. "No point visiting here. Go back to London. Things happen there."

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