Pier's close shave with fire

GREAT Yarmouth's Victorian Wellington Pier came within 20 minutes of destruction after it was attacked by arsonists. The 155-year-old pier was saved from potential disaster when a sharp-eyed gardener who was cutting grass within the complex spotted a plume of smoke coming from the roof early on Saturday.

GREAT Yarmouth's Victorian Wellington Pier came within 20 minutes of destruction after it was attacked by arsonists.

The 155-year-old pier was saved from potential disaster when a sharp-eyed gardener who was cutting grass within the complex spotted a plume of smoke coming from the roof early on Saturday. And his call gave fire crews enough time to stop the flames from spreading along the 700ft wooden structure.

The pier has been undergoing a £2m revamp since 2005 and despite fire damage running into thousands of pounds bosses insisted it would not disrupt its grand reopening as a bowling complex tomorrow.

Malcolm Hewitt, general manager of the Wellington Pier and Winter Gardens complex, said that site builders Elm Contracts would struggle to repair all the damage to wooden framework, cladding, vents and pipes in time because some parts had to be ordered, but there would be “no danger to the public in any shape or form”.

The only visible sign of the fire inside the plush interior - housing a bowls diner and ocean view bar as well as the 10-lane bowling alley - was a small section of water-damaged roof.

Site foreman Tony Coote said it was lucky his team came in 75 minutes early on Saturday to get on with the job in time for next weekend's opening.

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He said: “The gardener who raised the alarm only came in early too because he knew people would be about working.

“I am sure that if the fire had burned unseen for another 20 minutes, or even less, we would not have had a pier left.”

Mr Coote added the fact the arsonist had set the fire next to a gas boiler and air-conditioning unit suggested the intention was to do a lot of damage.

Among those inspecting the building on Monday, and reassured by the narrow escape, was comedian Jim Davidson, the pier's former leaseholder.

Four fire crews were called to the pier on Marine Parade just after 6.15am and had put out the fire within an hour. Yarmouth fire station manager John Kiernan said that without the early call the blaze could have been much worse.

Wellington Pier was only the seventh to be built in the country and opened in 1853, costing £6,776 to build. It was bought by the Great Yarmouth Corporation in 1899 and the pavilion opened in July 1903. It was taken over by Felixstowe-based Family Amusements in 2001.

The reconstruction of the theatre is the third phase of Family Amusements' scheme, which has also seen the revamp of the pier entrance and neighbouring Winter Gardens.

The entire project, costing nearly £6m, has received grant aid from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Police, who believe someone gained access to the roof by ladder, are appealing for witnesses who may have seen suspicious activity on the pier prior to the blaze which broke out at about 6am on Saturday. Call Det Con Neil Starland at Yarmouth CID on 0845 456 4567.