Five years on from Fakenham's biggest fire in centuries
PUBLISHED: 06:00 25 May 2019 | UPDATED: 10:14 25 May 2019
Five years after a devastating fire gutted a historic building in Fakenham, reporter JESSICA FRANK-KEYES hears about the regeneration efforts that have residents saying the town centre is on the way up...
Five years ago today, firefighters in a north Norfolk town were called to battle a blaze which left a historic building gutted and the town's landscape forever altered.
On May 25, 2014, dozens gathered in the streets of Fakenham as 14 fire crews fought the flames at the Aldiss building, on Market Place.
Two were rescued from collapsing flats above the historic store, while explosions echoed around the town centre as the shop's windows were blown out.
In the aftermath, councillors worked to rehouse those living nearby, and the blaze was later found to have been sparked by an electrical fault in a light fitting.
But now with the rebuilding of the wreckage complete, residents, councillors, and community leaders say they have one message about Fakenham: we're on the up.
Memories of that fateful Sunday morning have stayed with fire station manager Gary Thorpe, who recalls being woken from a lie in after celebrating his daughter's 18th birthday the night before.
"It's one of the most significant fires I've attended," he said.
"I've been on bigger ones but not right on my doorstep."
Mr Thorpe, who has managed Fakenham's team of firefighters for 34 years, remembered arriving on scene, and realising the fire had spread to the first floor.
"It could have quite easily been a real tragedy," he said.
"I remember driving up and seeing a well developed fire on the ground floor.
"I asked for eight appliances and after the second Fakenham one had arrived, by that time it had really got hold and got into the first floor.
"It was so fortunate there was no one in there - that was the saving grace."
It took almost 85 firefighters to tackle the blaze, with crews from across the county remaining on scene for the following 24 hours, and even returning a week later, when smouldering embers were discovered buried in a basement.
"It was the biggest Fakenham fire in 500 years," Mr Thorpe said.
And he added: "It's nice to see the building in use and the town centre back to how it should be."
Aldiss company secretary Tim Summers praised the fire service for their "tremendous efforts to stop the fire spreading through the town centre".
Mr Summers said: "I was travelling to Norwich when I got the call that the store was on fire.
"I turned back and when I got to the water tower at Bawdeswell I could see the pall of black smoke in the distance and I knew then that it was serious."
And he added: "Thankfully everyone got out of the building safely and no one was hurt."
District councillor Jeremy Punchard remembered helping to temporarily house people after the blaze was extinguished.
"There were people displaced from their homes," he said.
"We were ensuring they were getting the right support and were put in temporary accommodation.
"It was also making sure the town got back to a good state."
And Mr Summers thanked the townspeople for their patience with the rebuilding works.
"In the immediate aftermath, Tim Aldiss promised to deliver a new building that would be a centrepoint in keeping with the rest of Market Square," he said.
"The rebuild took much longer than we planned and hoped for.
"The consequent disruption to the market square was longer than expected. However everyone was very patient and the Original Factory Shop were able to reopen in August last year."
The reopening of the new shop was marked with a party in early August 2018, which celebrated the town's community spirit and the efforts of its fire service.
Former mayor George Acheson added the building would be part of the town's new heritage trail.
"The Aldiss building will be one of the sights, and will give people a history of the shop and show pictures of the fire," he said.
While the new mayor Gilly Foortse described the rebuilt shop as "a very attractive building", and said: "I think they've done a really nice job."
Mrs Foortse added that Market Place's regeneration had offered a boost to the "vibrant" town, helping it to rise from the ashes.
"There's very much been that feeling in the air in the last couple of years," she said.
"Active Fakenham have got a bit of funding and the heritage trail will bring people into the town.
She added: "I've spoken to a lot of people who've moved here because they like Fakenham so much - we've got a bright future."
And Tim Summers said: "Fakenham may have its detractors but with investment such as the new building I strongly believe it is, and will continue to be, a great place to live, work and visit."
'We saw the smoke' - residents' memories of the 2014 Fakenham fire
Fakenham residents have shared their memories of the fire, and their thoughts on the rebuilding.
Richard Crook, from Active Fakenham, said: "I got back from holiday that night.
"We were coming back and we saw the smoke as we were driving in."
Mr Crook, 64, added: "It took a while to rebuild but I think the town's looking good now.
"I like the new front - it looks in keeping.
"The town is on the up as much as a town can be."
And resident Heather de Lyon, 68, said: "It's obviously sad - we used to take my son there to see Father Christmas, when it was Aldiss.
"We've got happy memories of that building.
"There was a nice cafe on the top floor as well."
And she added: "Things are going to change and move on but it's good to evolve."
Do you remember the Fakenham fire and the old Aldiss building? Email firstname.lastname@example.org