Did she REALLY deserve three years in jail for shooing a cyclist off the pavement?
Auriol Grey grew up in a stately home, yet her disabilities mean she’s endured an unhappy adult life. But after one angry gesture led to catastrophe...
AURIOL GREY is being held in the hospital wing of HMP Peterborough until a permanent prison place is found for her. While her name and face — which has been splashed across the news over the past week — might not be immediately familiar, almost everyone will be aware of the controversy surrounding her incarceration.
Her three-year sentence for causing the death of an elderly cyclist on a narrow pavement in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, has divided public opinion. Unusually, and poignantly, the tragedy was captured on CCTV.
Auriol, 49, can be seen gesticulating angrily as 77-year-old Celia Ward approaches her on her bike. At the point when Celia toppled into the path of an oncoming car, Auriol, to quote the judge, made ‘a lateral sweeping movement’ with her left arm, which he said, either made contact with the former midwife or made her recoil and fall.
In that split second the lives of so many people were destroyed.
Many, though, believe what happened was an accident and that Auriol Grey should never have been charged with manslaughter; her barrister said she had ‘no intention to cause harm’. It was a defence, however, that was unanimously rejected by the jury.
So the resulting controversy — fuelled by the increasingly heated ‘pedestrian versus cyclist’ debate in town centres — must be unbearably painful for the thoroughly decent family of Mrs Ward; her husband’s dignified ‘impact’ statement to the court was heartbreaking. The enduring distress of Carla Money, the driver of the car that hit Mrs Ward who has said her marriage has collapsed since the incident, also cannot be underplayed.
There are, however, some troubling aspects to the case, to which we shall return.
But, whatever side of the debate you might be on, Auriol remains a most unlikely killer: she has cerebral palsy, she is partially blind, she walks with a splint on her leg and she has a ‘degree of cognitive impairment’.
THIS is also the second time she has stood trial over the death of Mrs Ward in October 2020; the first jury failed to reach a verdict. She is now appealing her sentence. yet, despite the media coverage — and the furore — little is actually known about the bespectacled, middle-aged woman who stood in the dock at Peterborough Crown Court last week.
For the past 17 years, Auriol Grey has lived alone, on state benefits, in an adapted groundfloor flat in Huntingdon run by a charity that provides homes for disabled people who want to live independently. Her legal team said that imprisonment would inevitably mean that she would lose her home and all her possessions because she has no financial or family support. She could be left with nothing, in other words.
Many readers who have followed the case will be surprised to learn, however, that her humble circumstances detailed in court bear little resemblance to an earlier, much more gilded life.
How she ended up living alone in sheltered accommodation, estranged from her wealthy family, is the unreported subplot to an already terribly tragic story. Auriol was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, the youngest daughter of bridgeplaying matriarch Verna and her architect husband Thomas, who was also well known as a cartographer (map-maker) locally.
Home was a grandiose apartment, with ornate high ceilings, in the 17th-century wing of Hunstanton Hall, on the north Norfolk coast. The ancestral pile of the Le Strange family, in its heyday it was one of the ‘great houses’ of the county with a moat, courtyard and gatehouse.
P.G. Wodehouse, a friend of the then owner Charles Le Strange, was a frequent visitor during the early 20th century when he would often sit with his typewriter on a rowing boat on the river flowing through the grounds of the estate. He is said to have reimagined Hunstanton Hall as Blandings Castle, the setting for 11 of his novels, including Sunset At Blandings, which he wrote on his deathbed in 1975.
The eight-sided summer house in the grounds, known as the Octagon, featured in another Wodehouse classic, Jeeves And The Impending Doom.
And it was in these magnificent surroundings that Auriol spent her formative years.
‘Her family are very posh and she [Auriol] sounds very la-di-da,’ said her closest friend back in Huntingdon. ‘She had a very good education and with her voice you’d think she’d gone to Roedean.’
In fact, she attended a private convent school in a remote part of Norfolk at around the age of 15 or 16 before going on to college and gaining a typing qualification and a number of NVQs ( national vocational qualifications). She had a boyfriend for a while, too, a postman, which appears to have been her only romantic relationship.
She never went back to live at Hunstanton Hall after college, only to visit, choosing instead to move to a property provided by the Papworth Trust for people with special needs and disabilities.
HER elder sister, Genesta, a mother of two, on the other hand, went on to become a director of numerous villa and yacht investment companies with her husband; the couple had a £2.5 million home in Chiswick, West London, as well as a holiday residence in Devon, which was once showcased in a glossy magazine.
The contrast between the lives of the two sisters could not have been starker, which must have been felt keenly by both girls and their parents. ‘ To their mother, Genny was perfect,’ said a friend — possibly her only, true friend — who drove Auriol to both trials. ‘She was a wife, mum, she ran a successful business, everything her younger sister was not.’
Inevitably, perhaps, with the passage of time, Auriol became cut off from both her sister, who died from ovarian cancer two years ago, and her mother, now widowed, who moved out of Hunstanton Hall in 2007.
Verna Grey, now in her 80s, and living in a smart Victorian terrace in Sudbury, Suffolk, more than an hour’s drive from Hunstanton, appeared upset when asked about her daughter. She had ‘spent years trying to help her’, she said, before politely declining to comment further.
Back in Huntingdon, Auriol’s flat stands empty. Outside the front door is a mat with the words: ‘Welcome Friends.’
Today, they feel somewhat ironic and pitiful. The one true friend she did have, the kind-hearted family man who drove her to court every day, supported her for many years and knew her better than anyone.
He paints a picture of a lonely, awkward character, often at odds with her local community, who had been bullied her whole life.
Auriol’s daily routine, he said, involved getting up early, going for
an 8am stroll, buying a newspaper for him and then dropping it off at his home en route.
She liked shopping and going to restaurants: her favourite place to eat was her local Wetherspoon’s, the national pub chain. Auriol was also a member of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) which arranged occasional days out; one such event was a tea party to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in June last year where she was pictured in a lilac cardigan sitting at a table decorated with a flag of the late monarch.
Aside from her disabilities, her solitary existence — enjoying hobbies such as bird watching and painting and listening to brass bands — was not always easy. When she ventured out, she was sometimes teased mercilessly by ‘lads on scooters’ who swore at her and shouted: ‘Get off the path, you spastic.’
This is the backstory of the woman who, on the day of the fateful confrontation on Nursery Road in Huntingdon more than two years ago, was on her way to the doctor’s surgery to collect a repeat prescription for her medication.
The section of pavement, opposite a multistorey car park, where the chain of events unfolded, came under scrutiny at the trial, at which Auriol chose not to give evidence.
During sentencing, Judge Sean Enright said: ‘This was, I think, a shared path for cyclists and pedestrians that allowed them to go round the busy ring road.’
Auriol was, the judge said, ‘territorial about the pavement’ and ‘resented the presence of an oncoming cyclist’.
But the police, in their evidence, said they could not categorically state that the route in question was a shared cycleway and the county council could find no legal records showing that it was.
And according to Department for Transport guidance on cycle infrastructure design — issued to councils in July 2020 — shared routes should be at least three metres wide on roads used by up to 300 cyclists per hour and 4.5 metres wide on roads used by more than 300 cyclists per hour.
The stretch of pavement where Celia Ward fell off her bike into the path of an oncoming Volkswagen Passat was just 2.4 metres wide and there wasn’t a sign indicating a ‘shared path’.
The pavement was certainly used by cyclists but unlawfully, it seems.
This is not meant in any way as a criticism of Mrs Ward, who was riding responsibly along the route, and who, it goes without saying, was the polar opposite of an aggressive or reckless cyclist.
BuTaren’t we entitled to ask if Judge Enright’s comments were entirely fair in the light of this information? Might this evidence also form part of Auriol Grey’s appeal? Almost everyone who knows Auriol has described her as ‘childlike’ and ‘ vulnerable’, something which was reiterated by her barrister in court.
Judge Enright was not persuaded when passing sentence, however. He told her: ‘Experts suggested that childhood surgery resulted in “a degree of cognitive impairment”. In my view, these difficulties do not bear on your understanding of what is right and wrong and what is appropriate or not.’
Disability campaigners criticised her jail sentence. ‘The sentence given to Auriol does seem extremely harsh,’ said one.
Indeed, it is hard not to compare her sentence with the one given to 18-year-old cyclist Charlie Alliston who killed a woman crossing a road in East London in 2016.
His bike had no front brakes but no law exists yet to charge a cyclist with the equivalent of causing death by dangerous driving.
Charlie Alliston got 18 months. Auriol Grey got three years.
‘She had been expecting to get a two-year suspended sentence at worst,’ said her friend. ‘She is in the medical unit at a holding jail [Peterborough] but is worried that when she starts mixing with other female prisoners or is moved elsewhere she will be the victim of bullying, which has happened all her life.’
The consequences of that fatal collision have been truly devastating.
For Mrs Ward’s husband, retired RAF pilot David Ward: ‘ Rarely a day goes by without thinking of her and our happy life together but I can so easily burst into tears, as I have done on so many occasions,’ he said in an impact statement.
For the driver of the Passat, mother-of-two Carla Money who now suffers from PTSD: ‘My relationship has collapsed with my husband so much we are getting divorced,’ she told the court. ‘My children, aged seven and four, now have to deal with separated parents.’
And for Auriol Grey.