Site of major Fakenham fire of 2014 to re-open within weeks
- Credit: Archant
It was a day that will never be forgotten in Fakenham.
On May 25, 2014 a ferocious fire devastated one of Fakenham's most historic and recognisable buildings, leaving an empty shell which has scarred the town centre ever since.
Now, exactly four years on, the site is just weeks away from being reopened.
The Original Factory Shop is expected to be trading again from the Aldiss-owned Upper Market Place building in June or July, having relocated to a smaller premises in Fakenham Industrial Estate since the fire.
Tim Summers, company secretary for A and B Management Services, Aldiss's property firm, said: 'A total £3.3m has been invested in redeveloping this site, by Aldiss and Abbey Commercial, who own the neighbouring flats.
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'This is the biggest investment there has been in Fakenham town centre for many years and will be for many years to come.
'It has taken longer than we had hoped, but we wanted to give Fakenham a building it can be proud of, that fits in with the surroundings and respects the history and the character of the area.'
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Various problems have delayed rebuilding works but a new structure has risen from the rubble to the delight of residents, traders and visitors to Fakenham, with concerns the site had become an eyesore, damaging Fakenham's image and appeal.
There have been workers on the site since May, 2016 but the restricted town centre access has meant that extensive consultations needed to be carried out with neighbouring property owners, the town council, planners and conservation officers.
Mr Summers said: 'It's been a logistical nightmare. If it has been in another location it would have been done much quicker, and at much less cost.
'People couldn't see the work going on behind the scenes and it was only until we started rebuilding the front that they could see work was actually happening.'
He added: 'I really want to thank the people of Fakenham, including the market traders who had to relocate, the town council and the people in the adjacent properties. Everyone in Fakenham has been incredibly patient and supportive.'
Aldiss plans to place a small plaque on the new building to commemorate the day of the Fakenham fire.
'Incredibly lucky nobody was hurt'
The fire started just after 10.30am. Residents of nearby flats were rushed to safety.
A member of staff at The Original Factory Shop went upstairs to ensure everybody was out of the building.
When she came down the stairs she was confronted with thick smoke but managed to escape.
Between seven and eight minutes later the glass front of the store blew.
Tim Summers, company secretary for A and B Management Services, Aldiss's property firm, said: 'It would have been 1000 degrees at that point.
'It's incredibly lucky that nobody was hurt. The fire service did an amazing job to contain the blaze so quickly. It would have quickly spread around the whole town could have taken down the church.'
At the same time, Mr Summers took a telephone call from Aldiss's then managing director Paul Clifford to tell him of the fire.
Mr Summers said: 'I was in Bawdeswell, 10 miles from Fakenham, but I turned around to see smoke billowing into the sky. I knew we were in trouble.
'I got to Fakenham by 11.15am and the fire service were already there and there were quite a few people in the town.'
An investigation found the fire was caused by an electrical fault.
A brief, folded letter written more than a century ago to inform a future reader of a snippet of Fakenham's history survived both the fire and the battle to put it out.
Contractors preparing the site for redevelopment found it tucked beneath the floorboards in what is now the attic of the Norfolk Hospice charity shop next door.
Just over a century ago, the building housed a printer's shop. On June 12, 1900, printing foreman Ernest Stebbings sat down and described a violent thunderstorm which had just passed over the centre of Fakenham, before noting down the names of all those who worked for his employer, based in what is now the charity shop.
'From October 1899 to present date the Boer War in South Africa is being carried on under Lords Roberts, Kicthener, Sir Redvers Buller and others,' he writes.
'Mistress of this house is Jessie Kate Stewardson, printing foreman Ernest Stebbings (serving 13 yrs 9 mths to present date) apprentices in office Walter Wade, Fakenham, and William Meek, Hempton. Apprentice in shop Flossie Herring, assistant Gertie Bacon, servant Agnes Barnes. Staying in the house is Mr J Whitechurch, of London, nephew of Miss Stewardson.'
While what happened to most is unknown, the list includes apprentice Walter Wade, of Fakenham. Across the Market Place, the town's war memorial carries the name of a Walter Wade who fell during the First World War.
Let's Fight for Fakenham campaign
In 2014 the Eastern Daily Press and the Fakenham and Wells Times launched the Let's Fight for Fakenham campaign to help victims of the fire.
It was set up to support people whose homes and businesses were affected by the blaze and encouraged people to send in donations.
The public support was so great that £10,000 was left over after all the applications for funding were dealt with.
That remaining money was divided up and given to three highly-valued Fakenham charities.
EP Youth, who were forced to move from their project building in Upper Market Place after the fire, received £4,000.
First Focus and The Wensum Centre each received £3,000.
The campaign was run in partnership with North Norfolk District Council (NNDC) and the Norfolk Community Foundation.