Being woken up at 5.30am by the sound of a distant fire alarm on Friday morning as I tried to sleep off my jet lag was not what I expected when I returned from Kenya. Even worse was discovering the reason for the alarm: the Royal Clarence Hotel was on fire. This handsome building on the Cathedral Green survived Hitler’s air raids which flattened whole sections of the city centre including a large number of historic buildings and a section of the south side of the cathedral. As a result the hotel, this grand old lady of Exeter, which has hosted dinner parties, wedding receptions and family gatherings for generations enjoys an iconic status.
The fear was that a change of direction in the wind would cause the fire either to spread to the shops on the High Street or to jump south-east across the medieval alleyway that separates the Royal Clarence from St Martin’s Church and the row of historic houses on the south side of the Green. This was how the Great Fire of London spread in 1666. And of course, barely a 100m away sits our wonderful cathedral.
36 hours on the fire is still burning. There are some 160 fire fighters here not only from Devon but from Cornwall and Somerset too, valiantly trying to get the blaze under control. Much of the façade has already collapsed and the Chief of Operations has just informed me that they are pretty certain the rest will collapse shortly. It is a miracle that no one has been killed or hurt, and I pay tribute to the firefighters and emergency services. Normally the Cathedral Green is packed with friends and families picnicking or drinking coffee at tables outside the Clarence, catching up on life. Today there is no laughter only silence and the sound of falling masonry. It feels like we’ve said goodbye to an old friend.