Stillness falls on St Michael’s on Wyre, a village that came under siege

<span>Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA</span>
Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

After three weeks under the glare of intense publicity, a stillness descended on the tiny Lancashire village of St Michael’s on Wyre on Monday. Children played in the primary school, the church bells rang every hour, and dog walkers took their usual route past the holly bush dotted with robins and thrushes to the bench where Nicola Bulley was last seen alive.

For 23 days, St Michael’s on Wyre has been a community under siege. Even as Bulley’s body was pulled from the River Wyre on Sunday afternoon, ghoulish day-trippers were seen smiling and taking selfies at the riverside bench where the mystery began on Friday 27 January. A video of officers recovering her remains was viewed more than 2m times on TikTok.

Villagers who did make eye contact with journalists did not want to talk on Monday. “All I can say is I just think it’s very, very sad. That’s all I want to say – especially when the river’s behind me,” said one woman, hurrying on after gesturing to the spot where two walkers found Bulley’s body shortly before midday on Sunday.

By dawn, a single bouquet of flowers had been left in the centre of a footbridge decorated with yellow ribbons and cards pleading with Bulley to come home. One message, written by children, was addressed by name to the 45-year-old’s two daughters, aged nine and six: “You are soo brave with what’s going on. I can’t wait to see your sausage dog xx.”

This is a village of only about 600 people. It has a pub, a primary school, a petrol station, a 15th-century church, and houses with names such as Chestnut Cottage and the Nook. But over the last three weeks it has been overrun with crime tourists and TikTokers posting macabre updates to their thousands of followers, ambushing local people, filming the area with drones and trampling over private gardens.

Some residents hired an external security company over concerns that amateur sleuths were snooping around at night, when police were less visible. Officers were granted extra powers to remove social media influencers from the area and at least one TikToker was arrested. It did not stop the interest.

The owner of the local petrol station, Tate Oil, held her tongue when one day-tripper asked for directions to “Nicola’s bench” after driving 80 miles from Carlisle with her children. She no longer lets outsiders use the customer toilet after it was “smashed up” last week. Another interloper has been trying to convince locals that Bulley was snatched by aliens.

Many others have shared more sinister theories. The night before Bulley’s body was found, nearly 4,000 people joined a live webchat on Twitter dedicated to sharing conspiracy theories about her disappearance.

It was hosted by Isabella McFadden, a Californian blogger who has gained thousands of followers by posting unfounded theories about the Madeleine McCann case and calling for the toddler’s parents to be reinvestigated. Two days earlier, she hosted a chat with more than 10,000 listeners in which people shared unfounded accusations about Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell.

Related: Nicola Bulley identified as body recovered from Lancashire river

One participant, who said he was a military veteran and lived 2 miles from Bulley, hinted that he had surveilled the family home to monitor their movements. “I’ve been there many times and I have equipment that can, you know … She is in and out of there, and they’re in and out of there,” he said, careful not to incriminate himself despite his anonymity.

As dusk fell in St Michael’s on Wyre, Bulley’s face peered out from missing person posters and yellow ribbons fluttered in the chill breeze. One, which could have been a message from the whole village, said: “We miss seeing you and Willow on our walks xxx.” Meanwhile, a single bouquet of daffodils had been left at the church door. This is a community that has not yet processed the turmoil of the last 23 days, let alone had time to grieve.