'We didn't think we could do it' How popular hotel rose from the ashes of devastating fire
PUBLISHED: 06:49 02 November 2019 | UPDATED: 11:43 02 November 2019
On a cold February morning last year, a fire ripped through a popular hotel and restaurant, reducing the 300-year-old building to bare bricks and ash.
As staff watched on, more than 60 firefighters battled the devastating fire at Breckland Lodge, near Attleborough, which inflicted damage that would take the best part of a year to put right.
But despite the bleak outlook, owners Mervin and Graham Negus refused to give up on the venue.
Backed by the hotelier brothers, general manager Colin Kilby vowed to "rebuild, and rebuild better", despite the crushing damage.
Twelve months on from its grand reopening, the manager has reflected on the heartache, hard work and loyalty which restored the business to its former success.
He said: "On the day of the fire we had more than 400 texts and emails from people all over the country. I couldn't even look at them because it was so emotional. That support has continued ever since and has been what's kept us going."
Following the reopening on November 1, 2018, Mr Kilby said he feared regular customers would have found new venues in the eight months since the lodge was forced to close.
However, far from being deterred by the closure, he said the community rallied behind the lodge, and that the past year had been one of the busiest in its history.
"There were so many familiar faces, nobody had forgotten about us. You don't realise how much a place means to the community until there's a chance it will be lost."
Incredibly, despite being forced to close for eight months while the building was restored, not a single job was lost, and Mr Kilby said around 80pc of the original team remained in place.
During the closure staff helped with admin, and were drafted in to cover shifts at the Negus family owned George Hotel in Norwich.
But despite remaining on the pay roll, the manager said many employees struggled with the long hiatus, and confessed the fire still had a huge impact on daily life in the restaurant.
He said: "It's incredibly tough not being able to work for that long. You miss the place. Even now small things trigger memories of fire. Earlier this week I was watching a video on YouTube that contained a fire alarm sound effect and everyone panicked.
"It has made us all a lot more aware of what is happening around us. It was a very scary day for everybody involved."
As well as impacting Breckland Lodge employees, the also closure hit local suppliers.
The lodge sources the majority of its ingredients from local businesses, and Mr Kilby said they suffered during the closure.
He said: "Suppliers had to let staff go as a result of the fire. That was very hard. Luckily, since reopening, we have managed to give them that business again. That was important to us."
During the rebuild, the reception area was meticulously restored without changes, while the main restaurant was updated with a vaulted ceiling and new colour scheme.
The coffee lounge was expanded and even the bedrooms, which were untouched by the blaze, were freshened up.
The work did not go unnoticed and last year Breckland Lodge won a Design and Craftsmanship Award, a feat which Mr Kilby said seemed impossible 12 months ago.
"The transformation really is incredible. Hitting the November deadline was a challenge, and frankly we didn't think we would be able to do it. The builders were being sent new drawings on a daily basis, everyone worked so hard."
Looking forward, the manager said the future was bright for the venue.
The restaurant has been completely booked out for Christmas 2019 for the past six months, and Mr Kilby said hotel bookings were beginning to pick up again.
"I have been here for 35 years and seeing this place rise from the ashes is a huge relief. I'm incredibly grateful to everyone for the incredible support."