With one grim announcement, the hope that has sustained Soham is extinguished

By Terri Judd,Andrew Johnson
Wednesday 22 January 2014 03:53

It started with a trip to buy sweets. It ended, tragically, yesterday on a scrubby dirt track on the fringes of an RAF base.

The discovery of two small bodies as police searched for Holly and Jessica was the outcome that the people of Soham had hoped they would never have to confront. Indeed they refused even to contemplate it publicly until yesterday. But within minutes of news that two bodies had been found, their resolve – battered by two weeks of draining emotion – appeared to crumble.

Flowers for Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, bearing poignant messages, were placed at the local church by tearful villagers. Even without confirmation that the bodies were those of the missing 10-year-olds, they lost the will to keep believing, the hope that had become a byword for Soham over the past fortnight.

Holly's father, Kevin Wells, had spoken of the emotional roller-coaster they endured throughout the long wait since their daughter and her friend disappeared on 4 August.

To a lesser extent the town had suffered the same draining highs and lows. In a community of fewer than 9,000 – most with roots in the town stretching back beyond living memory – many know the two families personally. And they have clung from day one to the hope that the girls would return safely.

Summing up the mood of the shattered community yesterday, the girls' headteacher, Geoff Fisher, who has known them since they were toddlers, spoke of his devastation as the missing persons inquiry turned into a murder case.

"I was devastated, absolutely devastated. I was numb ... It has affected me deeply as it has everybody in Soham."

The Revd Tim Elbourne, whose own daughter goes to St Andrew's primary school, said: "It's a surreal experience being in your home town in the middle of the summer when people would normally be relaxing and there would be lots of children around, and instead there is a town full of foreboding and holding its breath. And very few children, and those that are around accompanied by their parents on even the shortest walk.

"It's the sort of town where everybody knows somebody who knows somebody. Few people are untouched by this. Things will never be the same."

The town has, despite the tragedy, maintained its resolve through the past 13 days. On the Sunday night when the girls disappeared there was a definite sense of optimism as hundreds of residents gathered to comb the area to search for them. That mood turned to frustration, however, when they were told that expert police teams were being called in for fear that vital forensic evidence would be destroyed.

As the hours passed, optimism began to wane, bolstered at brief moments by sightings that later turned out to be false. In an investigation plagued by false leads, Soham was left feeling confused and uncertain.

Last Tuesday night – nine days after the disappearance – the suggestion that disturbed earth in a copse off Warren Hill, Newmarket, might be the girls' graves brought shock and pessimism. Fearing the worst, the pubs in the town closed as a mark of respect. When the news emerged early the following morning that the earth was most probably badger setts the weary locals appeared mentally pulverised.

"I just felt sick all last night, I couldn't sleep, you can't even get on with normal life. We are just walking round like zombies. Every minute of the day we are thinking about it," explained local tour manager Diane Sheppard.

Nevertheless, the town's resilience has been remarkable. Taking their lead from the police and families, residents returned quickly to talk of finding the girls safely. By Thursday night's packed community meeting, they were simply intent on discovering how they could help. Instead of complaining that the spotlight of suspicion still remained firmly on Soham, they asked for a brighter beam.

Every inquisitive question from the hundreds of journalists and police who invaded their home town was met with a polite detailed response. At the meeting, they demanded that every one of their homes be searched. In an area famously proud of respecting each others' privacy, one man even suggested that neighbours should be asked to search each others' houses. When Detective Chief Inspector Andy Hebb asked them to rack their brains for information and watch their neighbours, he was preaching to the converted.

"We were already doing that anyway. I search my garden every day, you just don't know what you will find. Every time the dogs bark I am listening for voices. I just think that all we need is one little lead that will solve it," hairdresser Jenny Webster explained at the time.

But yesterday, they were confronted by the knowledge that the solution to this mystery was not the one they had prayed for. With that came anger and desperation. "We can't even turn on the radio because we are too frightened of what we are going to hear," Mrs Webster said yesterday.

"We just feel disbelief at what is going on. I can't quite think it is over yet," explained Zoe Browne. "This morning, people were hit by the shock and they were still hoping against all hope that the day would end with something positive," she added.

In the hours before the bodies were found, in the words of PC Dan Botterill, a shadow of uncertainty hung over Soham. In a surreal twist, church bells could be heard ringing throughout the town – not in sorrow for the girls but to celebrate the nuptials of a young couple who had unfortunately chosen that day for their wedding.

What should have been a perfect picture of happiness – a bride arriving in a vintage Rolls-Royce in a pleasant churchyard – had a markedly sombre tone. The bells were cut short as a mark of respect and the Revd Brin Singleton paid tribute to Holly and Jessica in his sermon. "No one can doubt Jessica and Holly live in love," he said before adding that life goes on.

It is a message that the people of Soham will eventually take on board – but not for a very long time.