Traders look back on devastating Great Yarmouth fire
- Credit: Moss Pishbin
Five years on from a massive fire that destroyed an indoor market and bowling alley in Great Yarmouth, shop owners have been looking back on that fateful, devastating night.
The building on Regent Road, the town’s main tourist thoroughfare, was once home to a cluster of more than 30 stalls, a tattoo artist, and a café, with Regent Bowl, the oldest bowling alley in the country, located on the floor above.
But on August 5, 2016 – the height of the summer season – traders were woken in the early hours to reports that the building was engulfed in flames.
Paul Walia, who ran a T-shirt shop in the market, said: “I woke up at about 4am. I had around 20 missed calls. I rang one person back and he said, ‘There’s a big fire, a big fire’.
“I only lived around the corner. When I opened the door, there was smoke and ash everywhere and I saw all the fire engines.”
Fire crews from all over Norfolk dashed to the scene, with more than 100 firefighters and 41 appliances battling the blaze.
Roads in the area were closed and a cordon was put in place. Several neighbouring properties were evacuated while water was pumped from the nearby river to help tackle the fire as it ravaged the area.
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Helen Evangelos managed an ice-cream and fast food outlet at the indoor market and lived almost ten miles away in Oulton Broad.
“I was phoned up at around 4am and told there was a fire in the shop," she said.
“My sister brought me down. The whole building was on fire. I couldn’t believe it. There were so many fire engines.”
Smoke from the blaze could be seen for miles.
Richard Marks, who ran a woodcraft stall, said: “I didn’t know until 6am when I was in Asda. I could see the flames but I didn’t realise they were from the indoor market.
“I came to have a look. It was devastating, the shop was gone.”
That morning, people in the town woke up to see that the Regent Bowl, which had opened 53 years before and was the longest continually operated venue of its kind in the UK, and the indoor market had been reduced to ashes.
When the smoke cleared, demolition teams started work knocking down the remains of the building. Fears about the impact of the inferno on the summer season were soon alleviated, however, as just 24 hours after the blaze, the town was as busy as ever.
For the market's traders, the fire meant finding a new place to work.
Mr Walia moved back to Nottingham, his hometown. “There was nothing for me here. I didn’t come back for six months and that was when we went to Victoria Arcade.”
Some of the stalls moved to units in the mall on King Street, while the site of the former market was fenced off and soon covered with weeds.
In 2018, two years after the calamity, a new development of eight houses, 15 apartments and 12 shops began to rise out of the ashes.
For Mr Marks, who had also moved to Victoria Arcade, where he traded for two and a half years, the time spent away from Regent Road was an opportunity to redevelop his ideas.
“In the long run, it did us a favour, sort of. It gave us time to re-evaluate," he said.
"We don't make plans anymore. We just go day by day."
Ms Evangelos worked here and there around Yarmouth, including a stint at Palmers, to tide her over.
And in June 2019, the new building and shops opened.
Mr Walia said: “We were always on tenterhooks over when it was going to open. We’d peek in through the fence when we were walking by.
“First we were told it’d be ready for Easter, then it wasn’t, then it’d be ready for Whitsun and it wasn’t, but when we did finally move in, we did very well.”
While at the time of the fire there were suggestions it could have started with an electrical fault, and landlord Phil Thompson traced it back to an ice-cream freezer, Mr Walia said he has given up trying to find out what happened that night.
“Now we’re back in Regent Road we’re trying to forget about it," he said.
“It’s not that we want anything, because we’re back and business is on the up again. It would just be nice to get a letter, somebody saying this is what happened, end of story, because it’s always in your head, 'Will they ever tell us?'
“But the past is gone, we have to move on from the fire now.”