AS the early years of the new Millennium unfolded Myra and Haydn Bowen were riding the crest of a wave. Their village shop and post office was at the centre of the community and on the brink of being voted the best in Wales, they had been named as community champions for their tireless work and had been feted at the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the Senedd and even Buckingham Palace.

Yet, as the accolades continued to arrive, their joy was tainted by the knowledge that they were carrying a dark secret, for far from being the loved and respected village post mistress she appeared to be, Myra was in fact no longer allowed behind the counter of the business she loved, having been forced to admit to a charge of false accounting to avoid prosecution at the hands of the Post Office.

It was a secret she shared with just a few friends and family members and one which was to haunt her and Haydn for the best part of two decades.

In 1999 after years of struggling to make a living as tenant farmers, Myra and Haydn took the life-changing decision to give up the farming life. They’d seen an advert for the village shop and post office in Dingestow and decided to uproot their family to start a new life away from agriculture.

“It was all I knew really,” explained Haydn.

“I’d been brought up in farming as had my father but it was getting harder and harder to make a living. We were tenant farmers and the rent was going up and up and with three children it was a struggle.

“When we saw the advert for the shop we just thought  enough was enough and it was time for a change.

“It was going with the chance to lease it for three years with an option to buy after that so it seemed the perfect opportunity to see how we liked it and, if we did, to save enough money to get a mortgage to buy it.”

The move also meant that Myra could run the shop and post office while Haydn kept a foot in the agricural life he loved, working in the local Countrywide store and helping out on farms across the area.

“ I was so excited to take on the business,” said Myra

“It was the first time I’d had to have a proper interview and had proper formal training and I absolutely loved the job. When we started I was completely elated because the shop was such a part of the community.”

Community is at the heart of everthing Myra and Haydn who now live near Ross-on-Wye, love and they both worked tirelessly to make sure the village shop was the centre of everything going on in the area.

“I know it sounds a bit  boastful but I was really proud of what we were doing in DIngestow,” said Myra.

“The shop was a real hub for the village and it was always busy not only with people coming in to buy things but with people popping in to discuss events they were planning or changes to the village or to ask me to sign passport forms or just for a chat. I really felt we had a position in the village.

“I absolutely loved the life.”

It was however, a life which was to be turned upside down when Myra began to notice small disrepancies in the post office accounts.

“When I’d had my initial training I was told by the post office that the accounts could never be wrong.

“It they were a few pounds up we had to take the money out and if they were a few pounds down we had to put it in.

“My accounts were always right.” she said

“When I first started they were all done on paper and they would always  balance. Sometimes they’d be a few pennies out and I’d go back over my sums and nearly always find a few stamps which had gone astray and everything would be fine.”

“Wednesday night was always accounts night and sometimes it would be a late one, but by the time we went to bed the books would balance,” said Haydn.

Like post mistresses all over the country Myra was faced with the end of paper accounts when the Post Office announced that it was to introduce a computerised account system, a move she welcomed at first.

“I liked the Horizon system and I really enjoyed learning how to use the computer, I saw it as a new skill. When I first started with it, I much preferred it to the paper accounts and for quite a while I had no problems with it,” said Myra.

“I didn’t have a huge amount of training, but it wasn’t a particularly difficul system to use so I felt confident with it.

“And then I started to notice little disrepanices in the accounts. I spent hours on the phone to the helpline but nobody seemed to be able to help sort things out.

“It started out being just a few pennies out and then we had the doubling up effect that other people spoke about and before we knew where we were the accounts were down by more than £3,000,” said Myra.

“We kept searching for the money over the course of two weeks but there was no sign of it. We just couldn’t find any trace of where it was or how we could have been down,” said Haydn.

“It’s hard to explain the feeling when you see this money vanishing and you’ve got no idea where it’s going.”

Desperate to get to the bottom of the problem Myra and Haydn repeatedly appealed to the Post Office for help and like so many others were told that the responsibility for the missing money lay wth them.

They were advised the money they paid in would be paid into a suspense account pending inquiries.

And then matters went from bad to worse with the arrival of the Post Office investigation team.

“It was the most awful day.” said Myra. “We thought they were coming to help us find the problem but it was obvious from the moment they walked through the door they only had one thing on their minds,”.

“I was in work when I got a call from Myra to say two ‘gentlemen’  - and I use that word very loosely - had turned up and shut the post office counter,” said Haydn.

“They were big men in dark suits and long overcoats and from the moment they walked in their attitude was ‘we are, we will and we can...’”

“And they did...” added Myra.

With no explanation Myra was instantly suspended as post mistress.

“When I arrived at home they were in our house accusing Myra of stealing the money and committing fraud.

“I warned them to cut out any talk about fraud or I would be calling my solicitor straight in. They just about managed to stop accusing us of fraud and started talking about false accounting.

“They told me they knew I was stealing the money because we needed it to help us to buy the shop,” said Myra

“I told them that was a ridiculous thing to say because we knew we had to pay it back so we would only be stealing from ourselves but they didn’t take any notice,” said Myra.

“By the time they left, the post office had been closed, I’d been suspended and all my accounts had been seized so we couldn’t even get a second opinion on what could have happened.

‘We were lucky in a way that the post office was just a counter in the shop which we owned. If it hadn’t been that way we could have lost our business and our home,” said Haydn

Terrified by their threats of prosecution Myra had agreed to admit to a charge of false accounting and hand over £3,200 of their hard earned savings to ‘pay back’ the missing money.

Heartbroken, she begged the Post Office to keep the Dingestow branch open even if it meant sharing her shop with someone else running the counter she had loved so much.

“So many people relied on us, from people popping in to buy some stamps to older people who came in every week to get their pensions

“I thought it was so important for the post office to keep going because it was so important to the community.

At first they refused but eventually Post Office officials agreed to appoint a temporary post mistress to run the counter while Myra continued to run the shop.

“On her first day she told me that if the Post Office had the slightest suspicion that we’d done anything wrong, she would not have been there,” said Myra.

The Bowens walked away from the post office that day but the repercussions of what had happened remained.

“I was too ashamed to tell anyone what had happened,” said Myra.

“When people asked why I wasn’t in the post offce any more I just told them that I had found it too much running the post office and the shop and had decided to give it up.

“It felt awful lying to people but I was just too embarrassed to tell people the truth...because I also felt that the Post Office had to be right and that I was guilty. I knew I hadn’t stolen the money but I felt that I must have done something wrong.

“Like everyone else I was told that I was the only one, so if that was the case I had to be in the wrong,” said Myra.

Like many others in her position Myra appealed to the National Federation of Sub Postmasters for help only to be told that the best thing she could do was ‘hold your hands up’ and accept the consequences.

“I was expecting some help but there was nothing. I didn’t realise at the time that the Federation was basically hand in hand with the Post Office.”

Desperate to clear her name and take the post office back, Myra decided to take the matter to tribunal and engaged a solicitor to represent her.

“We went to the tribunal and our solicitor said he could see from the moment we walked in we didn’t stand a chance,” said Myra.

“The panel members had already made up their minds I was guilty and they were just rude and aggressive, saying that they knew I’d stolen the money.”

“I knew then I had to put it all behind me,” said Myra.

“We were lucky to some extent,” added Haydn.

“We still had the shop and fortunately had enough savings to pay off the money they said we owed so in that way we were able to move on, but the emotional damage was still there,” he added.

With the tribunal over Myra and Haydn threw themselves into buying and running the shop, winning acclaim and awards for making it a hub of the community... and then one afternoon their experiences were brought back to the fore by an unexpected visitor.

“A woman came into the shop from the caravan site just opposite,” said Myra.

“We started chatting and said how lucky we were to still have the post office counter.

“She told me that she had been a postmistress and had been accused of false accounting and had lost her business, her home and ultimately her husband who had suffered a heart attack and died after the allegations had been made.

“My blood just ran cold,” said Myra.

“We had always been told we were the only ones this had happened to and now here was someone else who had gone through the same thing.

“She told us there were so many more in the same position and that it was the Horizon system that was to blame.”

“Our son had always worked in computers and he told us time after time that computers are only as good as the people who programme them and that no system is completely secure and now we could see that what he was saying was right,” said Haydn.

Now Myra and Haydn are part of a growing swathe of post masters and mistresses fighting for justice.

“Back about six months ago we had some forms inviting us to apply for compensation and we have since had our £3,200 back with interest but what they haven’t addressed yet is the amount we lost when I was suspended from my job,” said Myra

“We kept the shop running for another 13 years without the wages from the post office, which if they’d kept going at the same level would have amounted to more than £60,000,” said Haydn.

“That money would have made such a difference to us,” he added sadly.

“The Post Office really should have to pay for what they put people through. We never found out where our money went because the Post Office basically policed itself and was allowed to get away with it. I spend a long time  being very angry and asking what had happened and Myra spent a long time thinking she’d done something wrong and somewhere there is still a bit of paper saying that she is guilty of false accounting which is very wrong,” he said.

“They thought they could sit on it all because it’s only Myra in Dingestow but eventually people put all the bits together.”

The Bowens are full of praise for the recent drama Mr Bates v the Post Office which brought the scandal firmly into the public eye.

“It is so true to life and brought it all back, especially the impact on families” said Myra.

Despite all she’s been through Myra remains a fan of the Post Office and says she’d ‘go back tomorrow’.

“It’s such an important part of life, especially in the country. It’s always been the church, the pub and the post office and we can’t afford to lose any of them,” she said.

“We still support our village post office because it’s such as important part of the our community but sadly here’s no shop in Dingestow now and the post office is just a pop up in the village hall. This scandal has done such damage to communities but I still believe in the Post Office and the people who work so hard up and down the country to keep small branches open.

“I just wish I was still one of them,” said Myra with a smile.