He has policed countless horrific murder enquiries and received frequent commendations. Yet he has retired with his belief in people in tact. Roz Whistance takes tea and scones with Bob Bridgestock and his wife Carol.
He has dealt with hundreds of dead bodies over the years; he has met cold blooded murderers who show no iota of remorse. Yet having tea and freshly made scones with Bob Bridgestock is like meeting your favourite uncle.
Bob had reached the rank of Detective Superintendent, Senior Investigative Officer, in charge of major incidents at Kirklees and Calderdale for West Yorkshire Police, the fourth largest force in the country. But, at just 51, he knew it was time to stop. “I’d see more horrific sights in a couple of weeks than most people see in a lifetime,” he says. So, with his wife Carol, also in the Force as a support officer, they came to the Isle of Wight, where the plot of their lives took an unlikely turn. They became authors.
“We’d watch TV detective dramas and he’d say: ‘It would never be done like that!’, says Carol Bridgestock as she smiles across at Bob. “You’d never want to live in Midsomer, would you!” returns Bob. “Think how much it would cost to insure your house!”
Actually writing their own book seemed as unlikely a turn of events as many in that TV drama. “I had a lifetime of cases but I’m not a reader. I often wonder whether Tom Sawyer ever finished painting that fence,” he jokes, recalling the unfinished book he was given for good attendance at Sunday School.
Yet one day he saw an advert for a writing course at the Isle of Wight College, and enrolled himself and Carol. The result is Deadly Focus, a novel which has been well received by public and police alike. The couple have gone on to write two more books, the second, Consequences, being close to publication.
Carol describes how two people can work on one book. “I’d say to Bob: ‘How d’you see Dawn, [the main character’s sidekick]. Bob said ‘I see her as like Dawn French.’ So we can both imagine her, physically, then her character was based on someone we both knew well.”
Plot was not a problem: it was Bob’s whole life. At first it is hard to square the circle between this very talkative avuncular comedian and the dogged and hard-faced policeman you see in the newspaper cuttings, carefully compiled by Carol. For even in the fuzziest little newspaper picture, Bob appears as a human mask, exhausted eyes peering out of fixed pallid face. “There were times I was dealing with six murder enquiries at once,” he says.
Bob’s early brushes with the law should have turned him off the idea of policing. “When I was six my elder brother picked a fog warning detonator off the railway line and told me he’d got me a watch,” grins Bob. “I was given a clip round the ear by the policeman. That didn’t seem fair!”
Bob, born in 1952, was one of five siblings in the small Yorkshire village of Marsden, on the border with Lancashire. Although his father was working there wasn’t much money to feed a large family. “You used to hide under the stairs from either the lightening or the rent man,” he grins. It was a life of hand-me-downs and making do. “My dad used to repair all the shoes: for two years I thought I had a club foot, because one foot was higher than the other!”
He had two paper rounds before walking a mile and a half to school. “But,” he says, “you just got on with it. Everyone did.” He and all his siblings made it to grammar school, but Bob was the only one not to take his GCEs. “I was offered a job at the butchers – and decided to take it.”
You can’t avoid assuming the slaughterhouse went some way to preparing him for the blood and gore he was to come across later. It was now that he had a second run-in with the police. “I was travelling home by bus, still with my blood-stained butcher’s smock on. Suddenly the bus stopped, I get another clip round the ear for wasting police time and had to walk home. Dunno what I was suspected of.”
Bob could have become a cynical decrier of the law. Another time he was thrown into a van with an Alsatian snapping at him, for no good reason. But somewhere in Bob’s mind was the idea that policemen should be more like television’s Dixon of Dock Green. “I thought somewhere there must be a nice police officer.”
Bob worked at the Co-op butcher for five years, but by now he was married and the money was poor. So he left to work at the local dye works, an unforgiving place where he saw colleagues with terrible burns. “I’d blow my nose and give off blue dye, and thought this can’t be healthy.” He stuck it for two years and then, taking a massive cut in pay, he joined the police force. The training was harsh. “In the first fortnight, I had my hair cut six times! We learnt to march, press our own uniform, bull our boots. You used to parade at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. I used to say to myself “what the hell am I doing here?”
Two years and several exams later Bob was working five weeks of night duty, marching out on the streets of Huddersfield in his too-tight helmet and collar which rubbed. Bob’s own marriage broke down after a few years. “It’s very hard to be a policeman’s wife if you’re not in the Force yourself,” says Carol.
His determination and fearlessness led to promotion, and Bob became a detective in Huddersfield. He soon learnt that catching criminals had an element of luck – or otherwise. “Me and a colleague were watching a timber yard which had had been subject to arson attacks. We were there seven nights. On the eighth, a girl called Helen Rytka was murdered just yards from where we’d been sat: a victim of the Yorkshire Ripper.” He pauses. “Just one more night and he’d have been well and truly caught.”
The Ripper case, then in its latter stages, was just one of very many high profile murders that Bob would see over the years, and it is a prime example of the way a case takes over the lives of those dealing with it. “There was so much criticism over the case – that Sutcliffe [eventually convicted] was questioned but let go several times – it destroyed the lives of those in charge.”
But being ‘the man in charge’ was something he aspired to. As a uniformed sergeant in Calder Valley he was told: ‘We don’t go into that pub, they don’t like police!’ “Well, it was like a red rag to a bull! If you don’t nip behaviour in the bud it just goes on.”
Pleased to cast off the uniform again, he became a detective working on the infamous Sarah Harper murder, the little girl who went to buy a loaf of bread and never came back. Equally chilling were the Boarded Barn murders in Cheshire, where an ill-conceived attempt at kidnap and extortion led to the utterly callous murders of two young mothers. The team was commended for solving the crime, and Bob was promoted. As Detective Inspector he was given the Denis Hoban Trophy for outstanding detective work. Bob mentions this and his other commendations not with any arrogance but with an air of gratitude that his efforts have been noted. It is Carol who points out that most officers don’t get anything like the 20 certificates of commendation that Bob has accumulated over the years.
Bob became Detective Chief Inspector and held the post for seven years. He spent three and half years at Wakefield Detective School training future senior detectives; he became a hostage negotiator, and trained others in the art, and in suicide intervention: “Fortunately, on incidents I went to I never lost anybody.”
His biggest fear was, being in the middle of six death-related cases at once, he’d blather out the name of the wrong victim to a relative. “One of them was the Huddersfield fire case [where petrol bombs were thrown through the window and petrol poured through the letter box killed seven in an Asian family]. “Lovely family, but it was easy to pronounce the Asian names wrongly.” In that case, the survivors wanted the victims flown home to Pakistan, and Bob, arranged all this. “I was the man in charge,” he says, adding: “Don’t get me wrong, you’ve got forensic, you’ve got pathology – but it’s you that makes the decisions that will make or break the enquiry. So you go to the mortuary, you endure the very terrible sights and smells because you need to understand the nature of the injuries.”
Getting a feel for the atmosphere of a crime scene was important, too. One thing he found frustrating was that, as he rose to be DCI he was no longer allowed to interview suspects because the rank of Det Chief Inspector was deemed to be intimidating to suspects. “You learn so much from being face to face with people.” For Deadly Focus he resorted to reducing ‘his’ rank, because suspect interviews were an essential tool of the plot.
Bob believes two things are essential in policing. The first is common sense. “People say ‘you’re breaching criminals’ human rights.’ Hang on a minute! If you steal you’re a thief; you don’t swear because it’s rude. If you cross that line and injure or kill you should forfeit those human rights.”
The second is keeping a sense of humour. He talks about the man in charge of the mortuary who had a pacemaker, who was on the lookout for a free upgrade. Gallows humour maybe, but an essential pressure release.
Despite his relentless exposure to callousness he retained his belief in people. He recalls with pleasure people who went out of their way to thank him: the wife of one victim, ‘have-a-go hero’ Kevin Jackson, bought him a pair of slippers so he wouldn’t worry about bringing muddy shoes into people’s homes.
A sweet thought in a world of cynicism. Bob, when he became Detective Superintendent, had 26 murders in his last three years alone, as well as 50 suspicious deaths and 20 major incidents. In true Detective hero style, he had a maverick approach to the task. “We knew who killed Kevin Jackson because we’d got a DNA match from under his finger nails. So I got photos of the suspects and did the press conference in front of the photos which I’d had blown up into massive posters!” Legally sensitive, perhaps, but Bob’s argument was ‘we’re looking for murderers here.’
As the face of the news conference, wasn’t he fearful of backlashes? “No, providing you’ve been right with them they’re right with you. I’ve always treated people the way I’d want to be treated. I go back to these influences from earlier,” he says, referring to all those uncalled-for clips round the ear – “Police shouldn’t treat people like that.” When in the midst of a case, members of the public would come up to him when he and Carol were doing the weekly shop with their own suggestions: “Here, Bob, had you thought it might be so-and-so that did it?!” Carol laughs: “We couldn’t get round Asda without someone coming up to us!”
Their lighthearted approach belies the reality that there were no real days off. His catalogue of cases is relentless. He spent days at a time in the mortuary – and TV post mortems go nowhere to prepare for the real thing – and there were nights when Carol didn’t even know he’d come to bed at all. But he couldn’t rest until that case was finished because if you relaxed there might just be something, something that you miss. In the end his body told him to quit. He found, getting out of the car one night, he was frozen to the spot. His GP suggested it was time to stop. “If you don’t step away you get sucked into a vacuum of sadness,” says Bob.
Thirty years seemed a reasonable innings, and the Isle of Wight has had its fabled relaxing affect on this non-stop policeman and his devoted wife. “Being in the Force meant I understood the demands of the job,” says Carol. “And I love him, so of course I supported him.”
Now, as well as getting Deadly Focus self-published, Carol has secured an agent. And it was her idea for the book sales to benefit the Earl Mountbatten Hospice, as well as another two hospices in Wakefield and Elland, West Yorkshire. Why? “I thought I worked hard,” says Bob. “But these people, they just give everything.”
Deadly Focus is available from the Earl Mountbatten Hospice shops, Isle of Wight Tourist Information as well as major bookstores and online.