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The Guardian

Nicola Bulley: mystery of 10-minute window in which she disappeared

By Jamie Grierson and Kevin Rawlinson,

Nicola Bulley Photograph: Family handout/PA

The sun was breaking through the clouds on a dry Friday morning as Nicola Bulley walked her springer spaniel, Willow, along the bending banks of the River Wyre.

The 45-year-old dropped her two daughters off at school on 27 January before setting off on a walk across the fields bordering the medieval village of St Michael’s on Wyre in Lancashire.

Shortly before 9am on the day she disappeared, Bulley emailed her boss and then logged into a Microsoft Teams call. That meeting ended at 9.30am, but she remained logged on.

Roughly five minutes later, on a bench by the riverside about 150 metres away from the Wyreside Farm caravan park on the edge of the village, a fellow dog walker found Bulley’s phone and Willow, alone, dry.

Since then, nothing.

There is only a 10-minute window during which police cannot account for her whereabouts that morning. They have all but discounted the possibility she left the area where she was last seen, saying most of the exits are covered by CCTV. Nevertheless, a week later she remains missing, leaving her family and friends at a loss as to what happened to her.

The police have said their “working hypothesis” is that she fell in the water . But no body has been found, despite extensive searches in the river. On Friday, Bulley’s partner, Paul Ansell, said it was “impossible” to comprehend what had happened to her, adding he was trying to stay strong for the couple’s daughters.

Speaking to broadcasters near the scene of where she was last seen, he said: “Every single scenario comes to a brick wall . Every single one of them. All we are doing is sitting there going round and round and round through each scenario.”

Lancashire constabulary continue to stress it is a missing persons case and there is nothing to suggest third-party involvement. They add that Bulley is able to swim.

A week after she vanished, officers again detailed the clothing she had been wearing and renewed their appeal for information, should anyone come across any of the items. People were asked to look out for an ankle-length, black, quilted gilet and the black Engelbert Strauss waist-length coat worn underneath it.

Bulley was also said to be wearing tight-fitting black jeans with long green walking socks and ankle-length green Next wellies. She also wore a necklace and a pale blue Fitbit, police said. They have appealed for dashcam footage that may show one exit from the fields not already covered by CCTV – Garstang Lane, leading to the A586 – to help them rule out any possibility she came that way.

The force was quick to act in the immediate aftermath of Bulley’s disappearance and issued a full press release on the same day she was last seen – underlining how out of character the lack of contact and sudden disappearance was.

In that first appeal, the police described Bulley as white, 5ft 3in tall, with light brown, shoulder-length hair. She spoke with an Essex accent, they added. Willow was described as a brown-coloured spaniel, who was found close to where police believe Bulley was last seen. They said Willow was dry when found, apparently ruling out the possibility she went into the river after her dog.

By Sunday, there was a significant, resource-intensive search taking place in the area, with drones, search dogs and other resources being used. The effort was assisted by Bowland Pennine mountain rescue team and the North West underwater search team. Members of the local community launched their own search of the area.

At this stage, Ch Insp Chris Barton of Lancashire police said the force was “extremely concerned” about her.


On Tuesday, the police issued an appeal for a man seen in the area to come forward and speak to police as a potential witness – he was located shortly after. At this time, Supt Sally Riley said: “I must stress at this time that this remains a missing person inquiry and at this time there is nothing to suggest any third-party involvement in Nicola’s disappearance.”

On Thursday, a similar search for another potential witness was launched, again to be swiftly concluded when the woman in question was identified. This woman was Christine Bowman, who told reporters she “doesn’t know anything”. The 67-year-old retired teacher was traced following a police appeal and told the Daily Mirror she had already spoken to officers.

She added: “[Bulley’s disappearance] has made local women fearful. If they have husbands or partners, they have been taking the dogs out instead.”

Meanwhile, police divers using specialist equipment were seen searching the River Wyre below where the items were found on the bench.

A more detailed timeline of Bulley’s last movements was also released:

  • 8.43am: She walked along the path by the River Wyre, having dropped her children off at school.

  • 8:50am (approximately): A dog walker – somebody who knows Bulley – saw her walking around the lower field with her dog. Their two dogs interacted briefly before the witness left the field via the river path.

  • 8.53am: She sent an email to her boss.

  • 9.01am: She logged into a Teams call.

  • 9.10am (approximately): A witness – somebody who knows Bulley – saw her on the upper field walking her dog, Willow. Work is ongoing to establish exactly what time this was.

  • 9.30am: The Teams call ended but Bulley stayed logged on.

  • 9.35am (approximately): Her mobile phone and Willow were found at a bench by the river by another dog walker.

The force has continued to say the investigation “remains a missing person inquiry and at this time there is nothing to suggest any third-party involvement in Nicola’s disappearance”.

Bulley’s family have spoken of their anguish at her disappearance. Her sister, Louise Cunningham, told broadcasters: “Something has got to have been missed. Somebody must know something. People don’t just vanish into thin air.”

Her tearful father, Ernie Bulley, said her young daughters still believed it was “only a matter of time” before their mother came home.

“There are two young children there waiting for their mummy to come back and we want her back obviously also, but if Nicola is out there, if she’s watching this, then all we’d like to say is: ‘Come home, contact the police, contact ourselves and we just want you back,’” he said.

“And they know that Mummy’s missing but they know that she’s going to be coming home and everyone is looking for her so it’s only a matter of time, that they’re thinking in their minds, that she’s going to walk through that door.”

The local community has come out in large numbers to aid the search effort. Bulley’s friend, Emma White, told broadcasters: “We’re out in force today. We’ve had banners made, placards with her face, so the idea is that seven days on there might be someone that’s passing today that passed last Friday, that might be able to shed that glimmer of hope we need.”

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