A year after Great Yarmouth’s Regent Road blaze - a reflection
PUBLISHED: 10:19 04 August 2017 | UPDATED: 14:18 05 August 2017
It was one of the biggest and most devastating fires in living memory. A year after a fierce blaze tore through Great Yarmouth’s most famous tourism thoroughfare at the height of the holiday season reporter Liz Coates revisits the scene
As the summer holidays bring a tide of tourists to Great Yarmouth many will be hard pushed to imagine the scenes of fiery destruction that played out like a disaster movie last year.
What they will notice is the empty space along the busy street where the line of gaudy shop fronts is interrupted like blown bulbs in a string of colourful fairy lights.
Walk down Regent Road and you can see the vacant plot, shrouded by hoardings, once home to a cluster of stall holders, a tattoo artist, and cafe, with Regent Bowl, the oldest bowling alley in the country, situated above.
Twelve months after fire engulfed the indoor market and bowling alley destroying shops and livelihoods Regent Road is still as busy as ever, jolly gifts, sugary treats and fidget spinners touted at every turn, the “pearl of the town” having lost none of its appeal.
At the time of the blaze in the early hours of Friday, August 5 there were fears the whole summer would be harmed, and even summers to come as the street recovered and new uses were scoped out for the redevelopment of the site.
But for a town that trades on tourism there was no time to wallow in misfortune, everyone had to bounce back.
Great Yarmouth was still very much open for business, that was the message, but when real progress would be made nobody knew.
In those first hours after the blaze took hold the whole town held its breath and a collective sense of shock and grief hung over the resort like the clouds of billowing smoke that were visible for miles.
Social media was alive with pictures and comment as the town came to a standstill and the scale of the tragedy unfolded.
Fire crews were scrambled from across Norfolk to battle the blaze and, crucially, to stop it from spreading, and police officers patrolling the area were seen wearing face masks.
Public gratitude was one of the main stories in the days that followed, along with trying to help affected businesses to carry on.
The first alerts came in at around 3.20am.
For many people it meant waking up to the grim news, unimaginable scenes, and fears people could be trapped inside.
More than 100 firefighters and some 41 fire appliances faced danger and risk tackling one of the biggest fires in living memory as the roof eventually came crashing in.
Roads in the area were closed, a cordon put in place, and several nearby properties were evacuated as crews attempted to bring the flames under control and save the next door grade II listed Regent Theatre and the terraced homes nearby.
Water was pumped from the nearby river to help tackle the fire as it ravaged the area.
At the time Norfolk Fire Service operations commander, Paul Seaman, said: “Our first crews did an excellent job preventing the fire from spreading in the early stages.”
The smoke from the blaze could be seen for miles and people in the town awoke on Friday to express their shock at what had happened, some saying they were moved to tears, the bowling alley being held in high affection as the scene of milestone celebrations and nights out.
At its height there were 29 fire appliances at the scene, including 15 hoses and four high-level platforms, but in total 41 appliances were assigned to the incident, which included crews changing over and others standing by at cover stations.
A rest centre was set up at the Marina Centre for people who were evacuated from buildings nearby.
Regent Bowl, which opened 53 years ago, and the indoor market, which contained over 30 stalls, were reduced to ashes.
The recovery process started the next day when demolition teams moved in to remove the debris.
And as well as being a scene of devastation the site became a tourist attraction in itself with a constant stream of people peering through the fences to look at the blackened remains.
The mayor of Great Yarmouth at the time, Malcolm Bird, said the blaze in a road he considered “the pearl of the town” could not have come at a worse time – in the peak of the holiday season.
Regent Road is the main thoroughfare between the town and seafront and at the time of the blaze shops would have been fully stocked to take advantage of the peak summer season.
The fire led to the Mercury publishing a special edition that came out later on on that fateful day that shocked and pulled the town together.