In Detail: Penny Bell
The case of Penny Bell is shocking. Penny was murdered in her own car outside a swimming pool on a summer day in 1991. Nobody was ever charged with the crime.
Probably nobody knows exactly how Penny Bell made it from her home in Bakers Wood, Denham, to the car park of the Gurnell Swimming Pool around an hour later. Google Maps certainly did not exist back then to plan a journey. But we can make some educated guesses.
It is believed Penny left her home at 09:40 on 6th June 1991 because she made comments about having an appointment at 09:50 and appeared agitated or anxious about keeping it. Her normal daily routine would have been to turn left out of Bakers Wood, along the A40 and continue along the A40 to Kilburn as it becomes the busy “Westway” through West London.
A sighting at Black Park complicates this scenario. You can decide how much weight to put on this sighting, but a powder blue Jaguar XJS has always been an eye-catching car. It is impossible to mistake for a more common vehicle of the time. Was it Penny seen driving along Fulmer Common Road, and stopping to pick up a male passenger near the Bridgettine Convent? Was the other car seen in that layby his? If so, why was he getting a lift? Was this man the “appointment” Penny had referenced to the builders at her home?
If Penny did make this stop, then there are several ways she might have arrived there, and several options for getting back onto the A40 to drive east towards London. Is it possible that the man she collected had broken down? But then how had he alerted Penny to his predicament while she was still inside her own house? Was this the man she planned to give the £8,500 to that she had recently withdrawn from her joint account in used £50 notes?
It would seem that they set off together and made it some distance along the A40 before things went wrong. A van driver claims to have seen the blue XJS with the hazard lights on, crawling at a slow speed on Greenham Road as though looking for a place to park. As the car got close to the pavement, it would erratically drive off again. When the van driver overtook, he looked back into the blue XJS to see a man’s hand on the steering wheel. Was this man causing Penny to take the car somewhere against her wishes? And did this distinctive hand, with its gold chain and rings, match the witness near Black Park?
The only provable facts about this final journey are that Penny left her house around 09:40 and she arrived in Gurnell Leisure Centre car park later that morning, where she was discovered dead at around midday. The other sightings, while credible, cannot be taken at face value. But we have reason to believe the van driver who saw the car on Greenford Road. His sighting is very detailed and credible.
The Final Stages: Greenford Road
On closer inspection of the final stages of the route Penny is believed to have taken that morning, the most striking thing is that this is not the natural route to the leisure centre for a car travelling east along the A40. The obvious and direct route is to continue further east (right as we look below) along the A40 Western Avenue until you reach the complex junction with Argyle Road. There are (today) brown direction signs to Gurnell Leisure Centre from a roundabout on Argyle Road, reinforcing the idea that this is the obvious route from the A40. If the van driver and other witnesses are not mistaken, this obvious route was neglected.
Instead, the arguing couple in the powder blue XJS left the A40 at Greenford Road and somehow made it onto Ruislip Road East, perhaps by the route below suggested by Google Maps, or perhaps staying on Greenford Road a little longer. Today, this route takes you past the Lidl supermarket.
It is on Greenford Road that we start to hear witnesses talk about the car crawling along with the hazard lights and wipers going, even though it was a dry, sunny June morning. The wipers were mentioned by witnesses at the Gurnell, and indeed the car’s hazard lights were on when Penny’s body was discovered. So this tends to tie in with the van driver, and tends to confirm it was Penny’s car he saw and that it therefore was on Greenford Road. There are reports of tailbacks caused by the slow procession of the blue Jaguar, so there would be other witnesses to this as well.
What we don’t know is whether the car was erratic on the A40, but this is one of the busiest roads in west London on any day of the week. There would be witnesses if the car had been crawling at that point. So more questions: did the male passenger coerce Penny to take this roundabout onto Greenford Road? Was this when the friendly drive became sinister? Did he use his knife to threaten her, to coerce her to drive where he chose? And was he aiming for the Gurnell all along? Did he know the area? Or did he just force her to pull into a large car park with high hedges so that they could argue in private and without crashing the car? None of these questions have been answered by the current sources of information.
The Former Home and General Locality
This map gives some additional context including an impression of how green the area of South Bucks is, and how built-up Greenford and Harrow are. The character of the area changes as the A40 approaches the western perimeter of the M25.
You will recognise three of these points from the previous map. Please note the exact locations are the yellow map markers, not the white numbers themselves:-
The Bell home in Denham
Fulmer Common Road near the Bridgettine Convent
Gurnell Leisure Centre
Former Bell home in Harrow
The fourth item is of interest and is the home the Bells had recently moved out of. They moved to Denham around a year before the murder, which helps to explain the timing of the significant refurbishment that was under way. This involved several different contract firms with around 20 men on site at the Bell home on a typical day.
The Gurnell is only a few miles from south Harrow and is part of a large green space in Perivale / Greenham that would have been well-known to those living in that area. But it would not have been well-known further afield. I used to live in Ruislip Manor and had never heard of the Gurnell. Long-term residents of Denham and Gerrards Cross would not know it: there are many other leisure options closer and easier to use than the Gurnell.
The suggestion of the meeting place at Black Park is close to the Bell home at Denham. Did Penny therefore suggest it? Was it known well to both her and the man she met there? But the leisure centre, the Gurnell, is much closer to Harrow. Was this the location scouted out and chosen by Penny’s killer? Was this, unknown to Penny, the final destination from the beginning? The man had a knife. Was it a compact folding knife, like a scout’s pen knife? Or a builder’s blade? Or a kitchen knife? Did he have this on his person as part of his daily work? Or did he bring it purposefully for murder?
Get Your Briefing
Not all of you like detail in the same way I do. And even if you do, where do you start with a new case? Watch these videos in order. The best general background is in the 1991 Crimewatch, the year of Penny’s death. The story was updated to coincide with the 30th anniversary in 2021. And Donal MacIntyre did a good, longer look at the case around 2015.