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Two men who appeared to be hiding their faces were spotted near Nicola Bulley’s walking route the day before she went missing, it has been reported.

A local resident alleged that two men – who appeared to be wearing hoods or hats – were near to St Michaels church just over 24 hours prior to Nicola’s disappearance. 

The witness claimed that he reported this ‘strange’ incident to the police who took nine days to respond before asking him for a statement.

Remaining anonymous, he told The Sun: ‘I first saw them at around 7.45am on my way to work on the Thursday, the day before Nicola Bulley vanished. I drive that way every day, so know the road well.

‘I saw two men wearing dark clothing and hoods or hats and carrying fishing rods.’

Friends and family tied ribbons to a footbridge over the River Wyre, including one from partner Paul Ansell following Nicola Bulley's disappearance

Friends and family tied ribbons to a footbridge over the River Wyre, including one from partner Paul Ansell following Nicola Bulley’s disappearance

Two men who appeared to be hiding their faces were spotted near Nicola Bulley’s walking route the day before she went missing, it has been reported

While the witness acknowledged that they may have been fisherman, he felt on edge as ‘they seemed to want to hide their faces’.

The same witness also reported seeing one of the men at a similar time the next day – again seeming to cover their face.

On finding out Nicola had disappeared, the witness called officers who were appealing for information.

But it is reported that he gave them a follow-up call after hearing nothing back for several days. 

He added: ‘It’s frustrating, it would have been much better if I had been spoken to straight away as it was fresher in my mind.’

MailOnline has approached Lancashire Police regarding the allegations. 

The revelation comes as police have returned to properties in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire for the fourth time as family and friends continue to share heartbreaking appeals for the safe return of the mother-of-two. 

The 45-year-old was last seen at around 9.10am on January 27 as she walked her dog Willow along the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, close to her home in Inskip.

Mr Ansell also left a ribbon with the message 'Nikki, I love you! xxxxx Come home now'

A large poster with a photograph of Ms Bulley has also been attached to the railings

Heart-warming messages were written on the yellow ribbons left near the place that Nicola went missing

A woman and a young boy tie a yellow ribbon with a message of hope written on it, to a bridge over the River Wyre in St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire

A woman and a young boy tie a yellow ribbon with a message of hope written on it, to a bridge over the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire

Nicola Bulley and her partner Paul Ansell were planning on getting married in the near future

Nicola Bulley and her partner Paul Ansell were planning on getting married in the near future

Police continue to search the River Wyre believing Ms Bulley fell in, but her family and friends have repeatedly said they do not believe this is what happened.

Underwater search expert Peter Faulding has also said the 45-year-old is not in the water. 

Friends and family renewed their appeal for information, tying nearly 20 yellow ribbons on a footbridge over the river yesterday, which Ms Bulley often walked past. 

Paul Ansell attached a message which read: ‘Nikki I love you! Come home now’.

Other messages included ‘We need you home Nikki’, ‘Never give up hope’ and ‘Praying for your safe return’. 

A large poster with a photograph of Ms Bulley has also been attached to the railings.

Mortgage advisor Nicola Bulley, 45, went missing along the River Wyre on January 27 (Pictured with partner Paul Ansell)

One ribbon tied to the footbridge read: 'We need you home Nikki'

One ribbon tied to the footbridge read: ‘We need you home Nikki’

'Never give up hope'

'Praying for your safe return'

Yellow ribbons with messages of hope tied to a bridge over the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire

Detectives are said to have visited a local garage on Thursday requesting CCTV footage from the day before Ms Bulley vanished.

They had already taken images from the day of her disappearance. It is unknown if the new CCTV request was in relation to the witness’s account or not.

CCTV is also understood to have been obtained from The Grapes village pub.  

Charlotte Drake, who lives next door to the couple in the nearby village of Inskip, said of the new police activity: ‘It’s a positive… We have to keep up the positivity that she can be found. 

‘Someone knows something and everyone needs to keep an open mind.

‘We just need some extra pieces to fit into this jigsaw, no matter how small.’ 

She added that Mr Ansell is appealing for people to look for Ms Bulley’s missing Mercedes car keys. 

Writing on social media, Ms Drake said: ‘The strength this man [Paul] has shown over the past 14 days is nothing short of a miracle. 

‘When many would be sat at home waiting for news he is using the media exactly as it should be used, to share the facts, highlight the lack of evidence and spread the word far and wide, so that he can hopefully reach someone that knows something.’

Police officers continue to patrol the riverside on Sunday, February 12

Police officers continue to patrol the riverside on Sunday, February 12

She added: ‘Backing Pauly Ansell all the way to bring Nicola Jane Bulley back to him and their beautiful girls. We are all behind you, from our little street.’

In a previous post, she encouraged the public to remember ‘this lovely person who has gone missing is a real person.’

She said: ‘As a neighbour/friend I can categorically say she is the type of person that would drop everything to help any single one of us going through this. So please, let’s give her that effort in return.’

Speaking to the Metro, she added that Paul is using his strength because he does ‘not want to break down on camera in front of his children’, who he is trying to protect from the worst of his worry. 

Her comments came as Paul revealed his partner’s car keys remain missing and asked the public to look out for them.

They are ‘a Mercedes key with a couple of Mercedes keyrings on it, one black and one blue, a round wooden key ring with paw prints on it, and a couple of normal keys.’

‘They were definitely on Nikki at the time, a huge bunch of keys, a Mercedes keyring with paw prints which she would have put in her coat pocket,’ he told Metro.

Speaking to the paper, Charlotte also described the relationship Nicola had with her beloved dog and family.

She said: ‘Even in our small road Willow wouldn’t go to the end of the drive without Nikki. There is no way Willow would ever leave her side, and vice versa.

‘Nikki would never, ever have left Willow, the girls and Paul. Ever.’

Police officers walk along a footpath in St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire, as they continue their search for missing woman Nicola Bulley

Police officers walk along a footpath in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, as they continue their search for missing woman Nicola Bulley

Charlotte Drake (left) lives next door to Nicola Bulley (right) and says she would 'never leave' her family or dog behind

Ms Bulley, 45, disappeared without a trace at around 9.20am as she walked her dog Willow

Ms Bulley, 45, disappeared without a trace at around 9.20am as she walked her dog Willow

Paul Ansell, right, pictured with his partner Nicola Bulley - who vanished two weeks ago while walking her dog near the River Wyre in Lancashire

Paul Ansell, right, pictured with his partner Nicola Bulley – who vanished two weeks ago while walking her dog near the River Wyre in Lancashire

A missing person appeal poster for Nicola Bulley on a bridge crossing the River Wyre on Saturday

A missing person appeal poster for Nicola Bulley on a bridge crossing the River Wyre on Saturday

The mortgage adviser’s phone was found on a bench overlooking the river, still connected to a work call. Willow’s harness was found nearby. 

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Police have been working under the hypothesis that she got into trouble in the River Wyre and drowned, but despite meticulously combing the water, dive teams have found no trace of Ms Bulley.

Lancashire Police has come under fire from search experts and ex-police officers for appearing to rule out third-party involvement too quickly – but in a statement released on Friday the force said they are keeping ‘an open mind’ about her disappearance. 

Detectives are understood to have subsequently visited St Michael’s Garage on Thursday to request CCTV from the time of the witness’ report.

A member of staff at the garage said: ‘Two smartly dressed officers came in following up, a man and a woman. They wanted the CCTV from the day before Nicola vanished and to take statements of any activity we had seen from that day.

‘These officers were different to the ones in uniform, they seemed very assertive.’

They added: ‘I know who the witness is and he has already called police about what he saw. But he said he wanted to make sure they were chasing this up so I asked the officers about it and they said they were following it up.’

The witness is said to have  seen the men by the local church and by a bridge close to Ms Bulley’s route on January 26.

They reportedly saw the one of the individuals near a bridge at a footpath used regularly by the missing mother on the morning she disappeared.

The garage worker continued: ‘Whether them collecting the CCTV from the same day is connected, I don’t know.’

It comes as the police search for Ms Bulley continues.

Police have also admitted that she could have left the area via a path not covered by CCTV.

Three blind-spots have been identified in the area surrounding where Ms Bulley went missing.

Friends and family have this weekend left yellow ribbons with handwritten messages on a bridge close to where she disappeared.

It comes as the search has entered the 17th day.

Partner Paul Ansell, who Ms Bulley had planned to marry, spoke in a programme on Channel 5 on Friday, asking anyone with information to come forward, saying he believes something must have happened to his partner ‘in the village’ of St Michael’s on Wyre.

Mr Ansell said he is ‘100 percent’ sure that the mortgage advisor, 45, did not fall in the River Wyre in Lancashire during an interview filmed for ‘Vanished: Where is Nicola Bulley?’. 

He said the river path, which Ms Bulley walked often, was ‘about as well known a walk to us as you could possibly do’, adding: ‘On the very odd occasion when you see somebody that you don’t know, they stand out like a sore thumb.

‘So whatever has happened, in my eyes, has to be somebody who knows the local area. And the fact that nothing’s been seen or heard, I just truly believe that it’s something in the village.’

Discussing the impact of Ms Bulley’s disappearance on his two daughters, Mr Ansell said: ‘Any parent knows that all you want to do this is make everything better for your children’. He added: ‘But I can’t do that’.

Yellow ribbons with messages of hope written on them, are tied to a bridge over the River Wyre in St Michael's on Wyre

Yellow ribbons with messages of hope written on them, are tied to a bridge over the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre

One of the yellow ribbons placed on the bridge today reads: 'Praying for your safe return'

One of the yellow ribbons placed on the bridge today reads: ‘Praying for your safe return’

He is instead focussing on keeping the worst of his worry at bay when he is with his daughters and attempts to distract them as much as possible. 

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He said: ‘The only thing that I can do is tell them that everybody is looking for mummy. The best people like in the world are looking for mummy, just to give them that you know that that level of hope that they can understand that everything that can be done to find mummy is being done. 

‘And I just have to hope that that is enough, you know, for them, to sort of put them at rest at that particular moment before the questions come again.’

He added: ‘I can’t put those girls to bed again with no answers.’ 

Lancashire Police were invited to appear on the programme but declined to do so.

Aside from the river itself, there are only two other exits from the area, one of which is covered by CCTV.

Friends of the missing mother have claimed that CCTV covering the other exit, close to mobile home site Rowanwater, is not working.

This camera would have covered the fields to the south of where Ms Bulley was last seen.

After reviewing other CCTV footage, police are confident that Nicola did not leave the field near the river via Rowanwater itself.

Another blind-spot is a riverside path leading from the Wyreside Farm Caravan Park through to the A586, or Garstang Road.

Officers have been attempting to trace dashcam footage from 700 drivers who passed along this route around the time of her disappearance. 

It comes after Peter Faulding, founder of the Specialist Group International team that assisted police in the river search, this week admitted it was his belief that she is not in the water – raising the prospect of a ‘third party’ involvement in the disappearance.

A member of the North West Police Underwater Search and Marine Unit, during the search of the River Wyre in St Michael's on Wyre, Lancashire, for missing woman Nicola Bulley

A member of the North West Police Underwater Search and Marine Unit, during the search of the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, for missing woman Nicola Bulley

Nicola's mobile phone was found on this bench with Willow's lead and harness on the ground

Nicola’s mobile phone was found on this bench with Willow’s lead and harness on the ground

Meanwhile, former Metropolitan Police chief superintendent Philip Flower said ‘neither the facts nor the evidence’ support the official police hypothesis.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, he said: ‘Ms Bulley was a good swimmer. The water wasn’t fast flowing. There are no slip-marks on the riverbank.

‘And there doesn’t appear to be anything that would indicate she could have hit her head and become unconscious.

‘The police cannot afford to make such unsupported judgments in this day and age when, quite rightly, they are constantly under more rigorous scrutiny.

‘Mistakes inevitably erode trust in the vital contract between citizens who, through their taxes, fund those officers of the law to protect them.’ 

In a statement released on Friday, police said they are keeping an ‘open mind’ about her disappearance, and in a marked softening of their language said they still believe the missing mother ‘may have’ fallen into the river. 

But ex-Metropolitan Police Officer Mark Williams-Thomas said on the programme he was ‘really struggling’ with Lancashire Police’s attitude towards the search and its media policy.

He said: ‘We shouldn’t be here. The police should be here in a Watchdog-style programme appealing for evidence.’

Nicola is white, 5ft 3ins tall, with light brown shoulder-length hair. She speaks with an Essex accent.

She was last seen wearing a long, knee-length black quilted gilet with a hood.

She had a black Engelbert Strauss coat underneath which had long sleeves and came to her waist.

She was wearing tight black jeans and had long green walking socks tucked into her jeans. She was wearing size 5 ankle-length green wellington boots from Next. 

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