For the young mothers tirelessly patrolling the banks of the River Wyre yesterday, their desperate determination to find their friend was accompanied by the haunting thought that the beautiful face smiling from the dozens of missing posters in the area could so easily have been one of them.
The idea of sitting at home while the 45-year-old mother of two was still out there, unaccounted for, was beyond comprehension.
Over the past week, since she vanished without trace last Friday while walking her dog near the Lancashire village of St Michael’s on Wyre, Nicola Bulley has become the nation’s everywoman.
Her routine that morning was the kind millions of us carry out every day without a second thought; giving our children breakfast, hurrying them into their uniforms before dropping them at the school gates with a kiss.
How many of us have carried out this same ritual, still half asleep, our minds already on the day ahead; never thinking for a moment that something could happen to flip the world on its head?
Over the past week, since she vanished without trace last Friday while walking her dog near the Lancashire village of St Michael’s on Wyre, Nicola Bulley (pictured) has become the nation’s everywoman
Nicola was last seen by an eyewitness at 9.10am, and it was still only 9.35am when another dog-walker spotted her phone on a bench, still connected to a work conference call during which, like other participants, she had put herself on mute. Also found were Willow (dog pictured)’s lead and harness, and the dog running around nearby in an agitated state
But the disappearance of Nicola — Nikki to her friends — has made millions of parents shudder at the heart-rending reminder that life is very fragile indeed.
How can it be possible that, one minute, this happy-go-lucky mother — a successful mortgage adviser as well as a devoted parent — was smiling and chatting with other mums at the school gate: arranging play dates, juggling work calls, walking the dog, notching up her daily steps on her FitBit and the next . . . nowhere to be seen.
The latest line of inquiry for police is that this was nothing more than a tragic accident and that Nicola somehow fell into the river.
At a press conference yesterday afternoon, Lancashire Police Superintendent Sally Riley said: ‘We are as sure as we can be that she didn’t leave the area.’
Meaning she’s still there, somewhere. As they wait for news, it’s the not knowing that is proving so unbearable for her family and friends.
As her sister Louise put it tearfully this week: ‘People don’t just vanish into thin air.’
The terrifying reality is, as we all now know, sometimes they do.
Nicola’s close friend Heather Gibbons, who has been rallying locals and co-ordinating searches from the village tennis club, told the Mail this week: ‘You want to hold on to the hope that no news is good news.
‘But knowing Nikki, we just know that if she could be at home with her girls, that’s where she would be. Her family is everything.’
As time goes on, frustration has grown at the lack of news about Nicola. Early in their investigation, officers from Lancashire Constabulary said there was no evidence of third-party involvement; no sign of any crime.
Nor was there any suggestion that this outgoing, sporty woman and competent swimmer, who minutes before she disappeared had booked a play date, via text, for her young daughters — nine-year-old Harriet and six-year-old Sophia — might have had any reason to leave her family in the lurch.
The worst time, say her loved ones, is when it gets dark. Nightfall means a pause in the finger-tip search of land and water by police, coastguards and mountain rescue teams.
Her partner, Paul, a 44-year-old automotive and aerospace design engineer, said this week that the couple usually took it in turns to walk Willow along the towpath adjacent to the River Wyre
And during every minute of those long, sleepless hours, her partner Paul Ansell, parents and sister have to grapple with the painful knowledge that Nicola is out there, somewhere; separated for some as-yet-unknown reason from those who love her most.
Nicola was last seen by an eyewitness at 9.10am, and it was still only 9.35am when another dog-walker spotted her phone on a bench, still connected to a work conference call during which, like other participants, she had put herself on mute.
Also found were Willow’s lead and harness, and the dog running around nearby in an agitated state. But no Nicola and no straightforward theory about where she might be.
Those who best know Nicola paint a picture of someone in the prime of her life; a woman who loved being a mother but happily juggled that role with her job as a mortgage adviser.
Born in Thurrock in Essex, she moved to Lancashire 25 years ago, followed by her parents and sister.
She was briefly married to local businessman Simon Booth, who is now the partner of Coronation Street actress Jodie Prenger, before meeting her partner, Paul, in a pub 12 years ago.
On her Facebook page she happily shares images from her country life, with several showing Willow in the river with a ball in her mouth.
Right up until she was last seen, Nicola was advising clients how to navigate the nation’s rising interest rates.
The conference call she joined via mobile in the minutes before she vanished was being hosted by her employer, Exclusively Mortgages.
She was happy, say her friends and family, and planning ahead with a busy diary; she had just bought tickets to see her daughters perform at choir and gymnastic shows.
She had also recently arranged a trip with her sister, Louise, to Ribby Hall Village Spa, near Preston, using vouchers they had both been given.
The night before Nicola went missing, she and Louise had talked excitedly about which treatments they were going to have and, after booking on Friday morning, Louise had emailed Nicola. Of course, she never heard back from her sister.
January 27 began like any other school day. Nicola, dressed in a black jacket with a hood, black jeans and olive green ankle wellington boots, set off with her daughters from their £350,000 detached new-build home in Inskip, a village around four miles away, arriving at St Michael’s on Wyre Church of England Primary School at around 8.30am and parking in the school car park.
How can it be possible that, one minute, this happy-go-lucky mother — a successful mortgage adviser as well as a devoted parent — was smiling and chatting with other mums at the school gate: arranging play dates, juggling work calls, walking the dog, notching up her daily steps on her FitBit and the next . . . nowhere to be seen
At a press conference yesterday afternoon, Lancashire Police Superintendent Sally Riley said: ‘We are as sure as we can be that she didn’t leave the area’
The school was very much part of Nicola’s life in the village, known as the ‘jewel of the Fylde’ — the coastal plain between the rivers Wyre in the north and Ribble in the south.
She was a well-known figure at the school gate, a Year 1 class rep as well as a member of the Parent Teacher Association.
Her partner, Paul, a 44-year-old automotive and aerospace design engineer, said this week that the couple usually took it in turns to walk Willow along the towpath adjacent to the River Wyre.
Last Friday, it was Nicola’s turn.
The route she walked, and sometimes ran, with her dog, was one she had done hundreds of time before.
Having said goodbye to her children, she left her car in the school car park and set off with springer spaniel Willow on her lead.
She turned left along Hall Lane and then right on to Garstang Road, past the 12th-century parish church of St Michael the Archangel, past the village war memorial, before veering away from the road along a path which leads to a footbridge that crosses the river.
Turning right at the other end, she set off along the towpath at around 8.43am, and by 8.50am had bumped into another dog walker, someone she knew.
The pair chatted briefly while their dogs played before Nicola carried on, following the river upstream along a narrow well-constructed path which curves away from the water before looping back to the waterside spot and the bench where Nicola’s phone and Willow’s harness and lead were found.
It is testament to the closeness of this community that her daughter-in-law recognised Nicola from a photograph on her phone’s lock screen and called the school who, in turn, contacted Nicola’s partner, Paul. He alerted the police at around 10.30am
Several signs are attached to the tree, including one which reads: ‘Danger Deep Water’.
Photographs on Nicola’s Facebook page suggest that she often let Willow off her lead and sometimes removed her harness so she could swim in the river.
But when Willow was found last Friday, she was said to be ‘bone dry’.
Just a few feet in front of the bench, the bank begins to slope steeply towards the water. According to a member of the village angling club, the water here is 20ft deep in places.
But Nicola’s friends say she was well aware of the dangers of the bank, which can become perilously slippery in wet weather.
In November 2020 in nearby Garstang, two retired police officers pulled a 60-year-old man from the river after he fell in and nearly drowned trying to save his dog.
A friend, who has walked along that route with Nicola many times, says: ‘I know that river well, have walked it many times. I know where I can stand and where I can’t. She knew the same thing.’
The stretch of the river where Nicola went missing — about 200 yards upstream from the weir in the non-tidal length of water — is generally tranquil, but during heavy rain, it can become a raging torrent.
The village has been dogged by flooding in recent years, most recently in 2021.
The river was calm and slow-flowing when Nicola went missing, and it was a cold but clear day.
But by the end of this week, Lancashire Police were focusing their search on the river itself.
On Thursday, a police diver scoured the water, combing the riverbed using underwater cameras and drones.
At the same time a team from Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service used a boat and a trained dog to search downriver in the tidal stretch of the Wyre.
Meanwhile, dozens of locals have been meeting at the village tennis club every day, and splitting up into pairs to search the length of the river.
Earlier this week, he described how his daughters had ‘cried their eyes out’ when he told them ‘Mummy is lost’
It can only be hoped that the answers her family so desperately need come soon. For until Nicola Bulley is found, until we have answers to this agonising riddle, the grief of her disappearance is felt by all of us
Superintendent Sally Riley has said that ‘parts of the riverbank are treacherous’.
But if Nicola did somehow fall into the river, why hasn’t she been found? Her family have expressed incredulity that such a thing could have happened.
‘She’s done this route a thousand times,’ her 73-year-old father, Ernie Bulley, said at a press conference on Thursday.
‘She parks her car every day and walks the dog through the field. It’s just routine. We are baffled by it.’
The woman who found Nicola’s phone on the bench says that first of all she recognised Willow but ‘suddenly couldn’t think whose dog it was’.
It is testament to the closeness of this community that her daughter-in-law recognised Nicola from a photograph on her phone’s lock screen and called the school who, in turn, contacted Nicola’s partner, Paul. He alerted the police at around 10.30am.
Earlier this week, he described how his daughters had ‘cried their eyes out’ when he told them ‘Mummy is lost’.
He also spoke of the ‘perpetual hell’ the family are suffering while they wait for news.
‘We are living through this, but it doesn’t feel real,’ he said.
For now the case remains a missing persons’ inquiry, with officers admitting they are ‘extremely concerned’ for Nicola’s safety.
It can only be hoped that the answers her family so desperately need come soon.
For until Nicola Bulley is found, until we have answers to this agonising riddle, the grief of her disappearance is felt by all of us.
Nicola Bulley’s disappearance: A timeline
– January 27
The 45-year-old dropped her daughters – aged six and nine – off at school in the morning before walking her dog, Willow, in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire.
Lancashire Police have said the mortgage adviser, from nearby Inskip, had been walking along a path beside the River Wyre just before 9am.
She was seen by a dog walker who knew her at around 8.50am, and their pets interacted briefly before they parted ways, according to the force.
At 8.53am, Ms Bulley sent an email to her boss, before logging on to a Microsoft Teams call at 9.01am. She was seen by a second witness at 9.10am – the last known sighting.
By 9.30am, Ms Bulley’s Teams call had ended, but her phone stayed connected to the call. Approximately five minutes later, another dog walker found her phone on a bench beside the river, with Willow darting between the two.
At 10.50am, Ms Bulley’s family and the school attended by her children were told about her disappearance.
Lancashire Constabulary launched an investigation into Ms Bulley’s whereabouts on the same day and appealed for witnesses to contact them.
– January 28
Lancashire Constabulary deployed drones, helicopters and police search dogs as part of the major missing person operation.
They were assisted by Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, as well as Bowland Pennine Mountain Rescue team and the North West Underwater Search Team.
– January 29
Local residents held a meeting at the village hall to organise a search for Ms Bulley at 10.30am on Sunday, according to reports from The Mirror, and around 100 people joined the search.
Police urged volunteers to exercise caution, describing the river and its banks as ‘extremely dangerous’ and saying that activity in these areas presented ‘a genuine risk to the public’.
– January 30
Superintendent Sally Riley from Lancashire Constabulary said police were ‘keeping a really open mind about what could have happened’, and that they were not treating Ms Bulley’s disappearance as suspicious.
– January 31
Lancashire Constabulary spoke with a potential witness – a man who had been walking a small white fluffy dog near the River Wyre at the time of Ms Bulley’s disappearance.
Her family released a statement saying they had been ‘overwhelmed by the support’ in their community, and that her daughters were ‘desperate to have their mummy back home safe’.
– February 1
Ms Bulley’s parents, Ernest and Dot Bulley, spoke to The Mirror about the ‘horror’ they faced over the possibility of never seeing her again.
Her father told the newspaper: ‘We just dread to think we will never see her again, if the worst came to the worst and she was never found, how will we deal with that for the rest of our lives.’
– February 2
Lancashire Constabulary spoke with a second witness who they had identified with the help of the public using CCTV – but they told police they did not have any further information to aid their inquiry.
Officers from the North West Police Underwater and Marine support unit searched the area close to where Ms Bulley’s mobile phone was found, while police divers scoured the River Wyre.
Meanwhile, Ms Bulley’s family appealed to the public for help tracing her. Speaking with Sky News, her sister Louise Cunningham said: ‘There has got to be somebody who knows something and all we are asking is, no matter how small or big, if there is anything you remember that doesn’t seem right, then please reach out to the police.
‘Get in touch and get my sister back.’ Ms Bulley’s father said that his family hoped their interview would ‘spark a light’ that would lead to her being found.
– February 3
Lancashire Police said they were working on the hypothesis that Ms Bulley may have fallen into the River Wyre.
Superintendent Sally Riley urged against speculation, but said it was ‘possible’ that an ‘issue’ with Ms Bulley’s dog may have led her to the water’s edge.
She urged the public to look out for items of clothing Ms Bulley was last seen wearing, and gave an extensive list.
Ms Bulley’s friends also shared heartfelt appeals via television interviews, including Emma White, who told the BBC that Ms Bulley’s daughters were continually asking where she was.