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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 12:24 GMT
Private grief of town in public eye
A mourner signs a book of condolence
A mourner signs a book of condolence in Soham
Before the disappearance and death of two young schoolgirls, most people had never heard of Soham.

The Cambridgeshire town eight miles from Newmarket, with a population of about 9,000, was typically quiet before August 2002, when Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman disappeared.

The last time it had been in the national spotlight had been in 1944, when a passing train exploded, leaving a giant crater in the town and damaging hundreds of houses.

But last year, Soham became the centre of a major search effort and round-the-clock media attention after the girls disappeared.

Flowers and candles

Residents gathered together in the Walter Gidney Pavilion to share news and stepped out with torches as they hoped that Holly and Jessica had simply gone on an adventure together and would soon return.

But the town was in for very bad news, and became the focus of intense public sympathy after the bodies of the two missing girls were found in a ditch two weeks later.

Floral tributes in the churchyard
Grieving friends and strangers alike left floral tributes
Tearfully-written tributes from around the world filled a website set up by Cambridgeshire officials, and thousands of bouquets were lined up in neat rows outside St Andrew's Church.

At first, the town was touched by the notes and cuddly toys, but some were angered by what they saw as intrusion into a community's private grief as outsiders poured in.

Some coach parties even made detours to the church to view gifts left in memory of the 10-year-olds, and finally a local vicar, the Reverend Tim Alban Jones, appealed for "time and space" for the community to grieve.

'It was too much'

School governor Martin Heath told BBC Look East the outside attention had sometimes made it more difficult to deal with the tragedy.

Candles lit for Jessica and Holly in Soham
Thousands prayed for the girls at St Andrew's Church
He said: "Although I think we can appreciate the respect and concern for what happened in Soham, it was too much.

"It just acted to compound it and it just magnified and added to the shock, and that's been very hard to deal with."

The scenes of tragedy often become well-known because of the events, as in the Scottish town of Dunblane.

Sixteen young children and their teacher died there when Thomas Hamilton walked into the primary school and opened fire in 1996.

Pat Greenhill, who was Lord Provost of Dunblane at the time, said it was important that Soham remembered Holly and Jessica and what happened to them "without the entire community feeling that forever after, they have to be a shrine to this tragic event".


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