THE Chancellor of Exeter Cathedral, Canon Anna Norman-Walker, has praised the way that the emergency services, cathedral staff, and local people pulled together, after a fire broke out in buildings in the Cathedral Green last Friday. The blaze burned for 36 hours, destroying several businesses and gutting the Royal Clarence Hotel.
More than 150 firefighters tackled the blaze, which was believed to have started from a ruptured gas main in the Castle Fine Art Gallery, facing the cathedral, in the early hours. It spread quickly, engulfing the Royal Clarence, built in 1769 and thought to be one of the oldest hotels in England.
There were no reported casualties, and the cathedral and its residences were undamaged. St Martin’s, a medieval church immediately next to the hotel, was also saved after being covered in protective foam by firefighters.
Canon Norman-Walker, who was in charge while the Dean, the Very Revd Dr Jonathan Draper, was on holiday in the United States, said on Friday that it had been “heartbreaking to watch the devastation unfold” from outside her home, the nearest residential building to the fire.
The cathedral was closed to the public, and crowds were urged to stay away as smoke billowed from the Green. It was cordoned off by police, and used as an operational base for emergency services, alongside the west front. Volunteers provided food and refreshment to firefighters through the day and night.
The fire was eventually declared out on Saturday afternoon, although hotspots remained until Tuesday. Structural engineers confirmed this week that the hotel, of which a skeleton remained, would have to be demolished.
The Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Robert Atwell, paid tribute to the emergency services on Saturday: “It is a miracle that no one has been killed or hurt,” he wrote on his blog. “Normally the Cathedral Green is packed with friends and families picnicking or drinking coffee at tables outside the Clarence, catching up on life. There is no laughter, only silence and the sound of falling masonry. It feels like we’ve said goodbye to an old friend.”
Canon Norman-Walker said on Tuesday, that, despite a few remaining fire engines and demolition cranes, “order was slowly returning” to the Green. She was confident that the cathedral would reopen by this weekend. She also hoped that the Christmas market, which generates about £15 million for the local economy, would be allowed to return there in the coming weeks. It has been held on the Green for the past five years.
Dr Draper, who returned on Monday, was less optimistic: the priority, he said, must be the safety of the community and its buildings. He confirmed that a service of thanksgiving for all those involved in the fire would be organised at the cathedral in the coming weeks.
In the mean time, worship, including morning and evening prayer, was being held in the Chapter House. On Sunday, an annual service of thanksgiving and renewal of commitment to the cathedral was particularly meaningful, Canon Norman-Walker said. While there was “great sadness and shock” in the aftermath of the fire, there was also a “terrific sense of thanksgiving and relief” that no one was hurt, and pride in the response of the emergency services, Exeter City Council, and the cathedral.
On Wednesday, the food for a weekly soup-kitchen for homeless people in the city, usually organised by the cathedral, was provided by a mosque, and served by the charity, Crosslines, near by. “The way in which people have conducted themselves has been inspirational,” Canon Norman-Walker said.