Exeter fire: little of historic Royal Clarence Hotel remains

Ruptured gas main turned off and fire service says blaze is not spreading after ravaging buildings for more than 24 hours

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Royal Clarence Hotel, said to be England’s oldest, in flames

Little more than the facade of a hotel in Exeter thought to be the oldest in England remains following a huge fire that continues to burn more than 24 hours after it broke out.

Engineers have now turned off a ruptured gas main that had fuelled the blaze, which began early on Friday morning.

Joe Hassell of Devon & Somerset fire and rescue said on Saturday afternoon that the fire opposite Exeter cathedral in the centre of the city did not appear to be spreading. It has gutted the historic Royal Clarence Hotel and ravaged a number of neighbouring historic buildings.

Firefighters have been on the scene at Cathedral Yard since 5am on Friday. At its height, there were 150 firefighters at the scene and four aerial ladder platforms were being used to pump water from the river Exe on to the blaze.

Fire initially broke out above the Castle Fine Art gallery, where renovation work was under way, before spreading to the Well House Tavern, a cafe and the Royal Clarence Hotel.

The fire service said the gallery and hotel had been destroyed by the fire. Crews were unable to enter the hotel because it was too unstable and were instead using aerial ladder platforms to tackle the remaining pockets of fire, he added. They are expected to remain on the scene until Sunday.

Chief fire officer Lee Howell said: “We’re grateful no one has been hurt in this incident but the community has lost a historic building, which is a landmark of the city. The fire spread was compounded by the nature of these ancient buildings and their construction with common roof voids, which allowed the fire to spread unseen from the origin of the fire.

 

“The fire has damaged gas service pipes supplying the affected properties. Our engineers are working to turn the gas supplies to those properties off,” Pitman said.

“This is a complex job due to the severity of the fire and the condition of the affected buildings. Our engineers have worked through the night and we will continue to support the fire and rescue service as required until the fire is out,” he said.

Local historian Todd Gray said the hotel was “in the heart of what was not just the medieval city, but within the precincts of Roman Exeter”.

He said: “For 2,000 years this area has been the focus of the city’s religious and commercial life.”

The ground and first floors of the hotel were medieval and the upper floors were added in the late 1700s, when the building was renamed a hotel.

Gray told the BBC that the Clarence was “the building where they first declared themselves as a hotel. Before that happened [in the 1770s] we had inns, but they took the new French word and applied it to their building … this was the place to stay.”

He added: “What is so particularly heartbreaking about this loss is that these buildings escaped the Blitz of 1942 when so much of Exeter was destroyed.”

Efforts to fight the fire were consuming much of Exeter’s water supply. South West Water on Friday told customers in the city centre it had been forced to make alterations to its mains network to support the fire service.

“As a result, some customers in the city centre, and potentially in the Wonford area, may experience low pressure or discolouration of their water supply,” the company said in a statement. “The Royal Devon and Exeter, and Nuffield hospitals will not be affected.”

Bottled water was made available for people in affected areas, who were asked to restrict their water use while firefighters worked to put out the fire.

The cause of the fire was not believed to be suspicious.