Unknown to Cheam Village, over the past three months at St Dunstan’s Church the Metropolitan Police has been carrying the largest ever operation of its kind.

An eerie silence fell over the church in early July as plain clothes police officers took the unprecedented step of digging up vast parts of St Dunstan’s Church to look for clues to the disappearance and possible murder of Lee Boxell in 1988.

Although tarpaulin surrounded the churchyard, and with it the detail of the operation, the chug of diggers could be heard and people could be seen milling about behind the blue sheets.

More than a dozen police officers carried wheelbarrows full of excavated gravel from grave sites to a skip to be carefully sifted through by experts.

It was a delicate operation, not only to respect the dead, but to keep the living in the dark about what was going on. No burial sites were disturbed as police looked just under the surface of large box-like graves to see if there were any signs of disturbance.

Working on intelligence as to potential evidence sites, parts of the cemetery that appeared to have recently moved earth were pulled up by diggers.

Specialist search teams worked around the clock to try to find clues, none more so than specialist archaeologist Steve Litherland.

Mr Litherland provided archaeological expertise to officers to determine the age of the ground that was being dug up and whether it could be linked to the late 1980s.

He said: “We are looking for a disturbance in the ground from the late 1980s, something that shouldn’t be there, for example a crisp packet whose sell by date doesn’t match the age of the soil, or coins which are not consistent with the soil.”