Royal Clarence fire: demolition to begin as firefighters thank Exeter public

Engineers are inspecting gutted hotel and demolition is likely to start within days, with residents praised for their support

Firefighters tackle the blaze in Exeter on Saturday. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Firefighters tackle the blaze in Exeter on Saturday. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Demolition work is likely to start this week on the fire-ravaged remains of the historic Royal Clarence hotel in Exeter.

The 18th-century hotel, said to be one of the oldest in England, was gutted when a blaze spread from an adjacent building on Friday morning. The fire wrecked the inside of the landmark building and left the frontage on the brink of collapse.

Crews have been unable to enter the building on Cathedral Yard because it is too unstable and have instead been using aerial ladder platforms to tackle the remaining pockets of fire. Structural engineers are carrying out site inspections and demolition work on the remainder of the hotel is likely to start within days.

On Monday Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service thanked residents and business owners for their support. Since the fire started, roads have been closed, cordons put in place and businesses closed to protect public safety.

Despite the inconvenience, firefighters said they were overwhelmed by messages of support, offers of assistance and free food and drink to help sustain the crews working around the clock to bring the fire under control.

Mark Healey, chair of the Devon and Somerset fire and rescue authority, said: “The support of the public has been amazing. I visited the scene with the chief fire officer and we spoke with a number of local business owners to say thank you for their support to our crews.

“In difficult times, communities come together and the events of the last few days has seen this happen on a large scale. Despite the loss of a number of buildings, it could have been so much worse. I’m just so pleased no one has been injured.”

At the height of the incident, 150 firefighters were at the scene to prevent the fire spreading to other historic buildings.

 Firefighters at the scene. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Firefighters at the scene. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

The chief fire officer, Lee Howell, said: “This was an intense fire affecting several historically important buildings in the heart of the city. The complex nature of the building construction, especially the roof structure, made this a very difficult incident to deal with.

“I am very proud of the efforts of our firefighting, control, officer and support staff, many of whom worked extremely hard for extended periods of time without complaining during what were very challenging circumstances.

“It was an incredible effort by firefighters to stop the fire spreading to other heritage buildings. Due to the period in which the buildings were constructed, the gap between the back of the hotel and the adjacent properties was very narrow and the fire was threatening to bridge the gap and spread further.

“To prevent that from happening took courage and skill and they should all take credit that they did everything they could to stop the spread of the fire.”

Firefighters from across Devon, Cornwall and Somerset tackled the blaze, pumping water in from the river Exe. Residents were asked to restrict their water use to make as much as possible available for use by emergency services.

Howell said: “We have had crews at the site now for more than three days but we cannot be complacent. We will continue to dampen down hotspots, check for potential reignition and support the demolition process for as long as necessary.

“It is important that we get Exeter back to normal as quickly as possible and we will be working with other agencies to make that happen.”

On Sunday the bishop of Exeter, Robert Atwell, praised the “heroic” firefighters who tackled the blaze for helping to save the city’s Norman cathedral. He said crews had worked “overboard” to protect buildings on the cathedral green from the inferno.

Atwell said he hoped the frontage would be rebuilt. “All the historic stuff inside has gone, you can’t replace it, but at least I hope and pray that they rebuild the frontage as it was because it deserves to be there because that’s what will preserve at least the veneer of the architectural continuity,” he said.

Todd Gray, a local historian, said the Clarence could claim to be the oldest hotel in England as it was the first to use the French word.

The hotel is part of the Andrew Brownsword group and trades under the name Abode Exeter. Brownsword said: “We have every intention to rebuild the hotel with enormous sympathy to its importance and heritage.”