[Raoul Moat, the gunman who wounded his ex-girlfriend and murdered her lover, then shot an unarmed policeman, was on the run for 7 days - just a few miles from our house. He shot himself after being surrounded by police in the early hours of yesterday morning]
It wasn’t until Saturday evening that we finally unbolted our front door. It had taken us a whole day to accept that Moat really was gone and that the threat was over.
From our house you can clearly see the ridge of Simonside, crouching like a dark brooding panther over Rothbury. We’re directly south of the town, just a few miles by crow, maybe an hour or two by slinking foot along the disused railway cutting that runs a few hundred yards from where Moat was eventually found, through the middle of the now infamous Wagtail Farm, towards our own innocent hamlet. Jo and I had studied the map: it would take him maybe twenty minutes along the back roads by stolen car, perhaps an hour by horseback – but if we were him, we’d use that old railway line. The tension blowing in the hot wind across the fields played tricks with our imagination. It was hard not to be scared: the poor dogs scarcely had one long walk all week.
Husbands worked from home, unwilling to leave wives and children alone even during the day. Some friends in isolated farmhouses moved out to stay with relatives in Morpeth. Our village shop was full of gossip and sightings: the national newspapers, which had ignored us for two hundred years, screamed headlines about the beauty of our neighbourhood and the beast that was our unwelcome guest.
Rumours reached us that Moat might have moved south and crossed into our own valley. On Thursday morning Jo saw a figure walking across the field outside the house and ran panicking to tell me. It was only the farmer, off to cut hay. His family had farmed this quiet land for 85 years and they’d never felt any threat to disturb their peaceful existence, but now even he felt concerned.
One friend lives just down the road from Pauperhaugh, where, he told us, a house had been broken into and clothing and food were stolen. According to the owner, police had taken fifteen minutes to arrive, unarmed and unwilling to enter, even though they could see movement behind an upstairs window. It took another fifteen minutes for gun-wielding colleagues to show up, by which time Moat had slipped back into the night.
Jo couldn’t understand why the police were unarmed. I explained that our police officers don’t carry guns. “How do they arrest the criminals, then?” It was a simple enough question, but I couldn’t really supply an answer. “They just politely ask them to accompany them to the police station, I guess.”
Jo laughed: America is a different world. It certainly is: though, in all the five years I lived there, I never felt touched by crime – it was only something we watched on the news.
That was what made the events of this last week so shocking. Jo and I had chosen this beautiful area largely because of its unspoilt tranquility, its remoteness, because it’s like living in a gentler, bygone era. We go to Rothbury for the market, for the rhododendrons at Cragside in June, for the butcher that sells, eccentrically, crocodile steaks along with the lamb from local farms. Like Raoul Moat, I would come here as a child, loving its isolation. As a teenager I would walk the hills above the Coquet alone, living my own world. It was a place where you could escape.
The night that Moat died, five people were injured in a shooting in Brixton. It scarcely made the inside pages, for this kind of violence is commonplace in most big cities. But for this part of rural Northumberland, the happenings of the last week will, I suspect, have brought the cold reality of the outside world just a little too close.