As the 14th anniversary of the disappearance of Claudia Lawrence approaches this weekend, PETER BARRON joins her mother on one of her regular visits to the house where the York chef lived…

JOAN Lawrence visibly takes a deep breath before she turns the key to open the green door of the unremarkable little terraced house, and steps inside.

“More junk mail,” she sighs, picking up the bundle of envelopes and leaflets that have dropped through the letterbox during the fortnight since her last visit.

There’s a circular from the local NHS trust and a leaflet from a pizza delivery firm among them this time, but at least there isn’t another warning letter from the TV licensing authority.

“You’d think they’d know by now, after all the publicity, wouldn’t you?” sighs Joan.

“There was a letter recently, threatening a £1,000 fine if the licence wasn’t paid. It’s unbelievable. I’ve written to them to tell them what’s happened, and the police are supposed to be sorting it out, but the letters still come.”

Except Joan doesn’t know what really happened and her biggest fear is that she never will. All she knows is that her daughter, Claudia, hasn’t been seen for 14 years.

Joan is standing inside the two-bedroomed house that Claudia bought back in 2007, in Heworth, in the suburbs of York. The mortgage was written-off as an act of goodwill by Santander and, for years the property was a designated crime scene, but now it’s just a house in limbo as the mystery goes on and on.

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“There are very few people I would bring here, but it’s a way of keeping Claudia’s memory alive in the hope that someone comes forward,” she explains.

Ever since Claudia’s father, Peter, died in February 2021, it’s been Joan’s responsibility to check the house over as the only other key-holder. Every couple of weeks, she makes the 30-minute drive from her home in Malton, parks with permission at The Walnut Tree pub, where the owners have always been “so kind”, before walking up the street to do her sad duty.

“I always have a bad few days before I come here because it’s emotionally draining,” she admits. “It affects me for days.”

For today’s visit, Joan is wearing the grey pearl necklace Claudia bought her with her pocket money when she was six. It was a bargain from a Malton bric-a-brac shop, owned by TV presenter Selina Scott’s mum, Betty.

“She paid 50p for it – I think Betty let her have it cheap, don’t you?” says Joan as she feels the pearls around her neck.

After leaving the junk mail on a table, she flicks a switch on the wall and expresses surprise that light still shines from two of the five bulbs on a small chandelier in the middle of the lounge ceiling. There may still be electricity but the heating’s disconnected, so there’s a chill through the house as a flurry of snow falls outside.

Next, she strikes a match to light a red candle on the mantlepiece above the fireplace, but groans with frustration when the flame dies after a couple of seconds.

York Press: Joan Lawrence with her daughter's candleJoan Lawrence with her daughter's candle

“I brought that candle with me when we had dinner together, here in this room, on the Christmas Day before she vanished,” she explains. “Claudia was the chef and yet I did most of the cooking! How did that happen?” smiles Joan as a happy memory flickers.

Back then, it was a home. Now it’s just an empty shell, with bare floorboards, although memories of Claudia are still scattered around among the cobwebs. There’s a vase containing white silk tulips – her favourite flowers – on the windowsill, while in the corner there’s a collection of pots and pans, DVDs and books.

“She always loved Ant and Dec,” says Joan, wiping the dust off their biography.

Upstairs, in Claudia’s bedroom, her clothes still hang in her wardrobe, and Joan picks out a white sparkly dress. “She wore this to a millennium party in 2000. She went with two other girls. I picked them up afterwards – they were absolutely freezing,” Joan recalls.

York Press: Joan Lawrence with the dress Claudia wore for a Millennium celebrationJoan Lawrence with the dress Claudia wore for a Millennium celebration

On a small cabinet, next to the wardrobe, a cuddly toy dog lies on its side. “She loved anything to do with dogs, did our Claudia,” adds her mum.

Downstairs, Joan peers through the back door window at the overgrown garden, where an incongruous palm tree reaches up out of a jungle of weeds and elder bushes.

On the mustard walls of the kitchen, there’s a still-life painting, along with two clocks at opposite ends of the long, narrow room. One is stopped at 1.05, the other at 9.35.

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Time has stood still for Joan since Claudia, aged 35 at the time, was last seen on March 18, 2009. It was Mothering Sunday, the following day, when the alarm was raised, and it remains a day that Joan always finds especially hard.

“I can’t get my head round it sometimes,” she says, then apologises for getting upset as she adds: “I dread to think what happened in here 14 years ago.”

Joan will be 80 in August, and she admits to being caught in a dilemma over what happens to the house. She’s naturally reluctant to lose the connection to Claudia and possible clues to her disappearance, but her overriding feeling is that she wants it to be put to charitable use.

York Press: Claudia LawrenceClaudia Lawrence

“I’ve got to know the people of Heworth and there’s a lot of kindness here. So many people tell me that when they walk past, they always think of her, and about me, and say a little prayer,” she says, still struggling to hold back the tears.

“I was so proud of Claudia for getting a mortgage, and keeping up the payments, because she didn’t earn a lot of money as a chef. If I did let it go, I’d never take a penny from it – I just couldn’t do that. The connection with Claudia would go, and there are still people who believe that the answer lies in this house, but I can’t leave it empty much longer – it needs to have a purpose.

York Press: Joan Lawrence inside her daughter's homeJoan Lawrence inside her daughter's home

“I’m going to explore the possibility of a charity using it, maybe for homeless people, students from poor families, a Ukrainian refugee family, or victims of domestic violence.

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“I’ve always wanted something positive to come out of all this, and with a bit of care, it could be a home again.”

She closes the front door behind her and locks up. As she walks up the busy road, back to The Walnut Tree, there are smiles of sympathy from passers-by. They know who she is but don’t know what to say.

Joan, however, will chat to anyone. At the traffic lights, she says hello to a mum who has her daughter wrapped up warm in a pushchair.

“Aren’t you lovely?” Joan says to the little girl before telling her to watch for the green man. “We have to stay safe, don’t we?” she smiles.

TV licensing last night pledged to put a stop to the letters being sent to the house.

A customer relations spokeswoman said: “I can confirm that we have applied a marker to the address to stop TV Licensing letters from being sent in the future. This marker will remain in place until we are contacted by Mrs Lawrence.”