10:08am Wednesday 15th February 2012
By Rene Gerryts
TV CHEF Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has vowed his River Cottage HQ cookery school will rise from the ashes after a devastating fire.
He pledge to rebuild the school after it was destroyed in a seventeenth century barn which burned to the ground at his Park Farm base.
The cook learned the news 36 hours after the blaze on February 7 via satellite while away on a long-distance trip filming in the southern oceans.
Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall said he was deeply saddened and shocked by the fire but paid tribute to the firefighters – include a crew from Lyme – who battled the blaze in difficult conditions.
He said: “I'm so shocked to hear the news of the fire in our barn at Park Farm, our River Cottage HQ.
“I'm filming a long way away right now and it's just impossible to imagine.
“Obviously it's a huge relief that nobody's been hurt, and I’m very grateful to the local fire brigade for their prompt response and all their help.”
He added: “I understand there’s a plan underway to set up a working field kitchen so we can continue to host our events, teach our courses and look after our guests in the coming months.
“I've no doubt the whole River Cottage team will be pulling together to make this happen.
“In due course we'll set about restoring our lovely barn to its former glory.
“Thanks so much to all those who have sent us messages of support.”
Firefighters from Colyton, Axminster, Seaton, Lyme Regis, Honiton and Chard battled for more than five hours to try and save the barn.
Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service and the police are still investigating how the fire started around 10pm on Tuesday last week but shocked staff don’t believe there are any suspicious circumstances.
Steven Lamb, head of events at River Cottage, said: “It is totally devastating.
“There is a lot of passion and emotional attachment to what we do here, despite it being food it does make a difference.
“More than 35,000 people a year come through our gates, millions more on the television and it has added something to the local community so the reverberations to the loss we feel will be felt further afield.
“But it is only bricks and mortar and has been here for 400 years and we have been here for a small part of it.
“Hopefully we can perhaps focus on another 400 years from a new beginning.
”There is no suggestion of foul play.”
Although the barn couldn’t be saved, fire crews stopped the blaze spreading to other buildings at the east Devon complex and Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall’s house 50 yards away.
River Cottage publicity spokesman Lucy Brazier said: “It is such an iconic building for us because it is so much part of what we do down here and the heart of our operations.
“It dates back to 1610 and was the first building we restored when we moved down here.
“When we took this place over it wasn’t too dissimilar to what it looks like now. It was open to the sky and was pretty derelict.
“We are just going to get straight back into it and do it again.”
Mike Burroughs of Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service said: ‘It is too early to speculate on the cause of the fire but I can categorically state that the fire did not start in the wood-fired bread oven or the fish smoker.”
LYME Regis station commander Virgil Turner said the rescue operation was made doubly difficult by the lack of a mains water supply and the threat of explosions from a number of potentially very dangerous gas cylinders.
The Lyme crew was on site from 10pm to around 3.30pm in freezing conditions.
He said the nearest hydrant was on Trinity Hill by the Raymonds Hill junction on the A35 and appliances had to keep replenishing their tanks from there.
He said: “It was Devon’s shout but we were fourth pump in. The roof was well alight when we got there.
“The problem we had was water supply. We had the water bowser in attendance and had to shuttle water from the hydrant to the pumping appliance all night long because there was no mains water.
“The nearest good hydrant was a long way away.”
The rescue operation was also made much more challenging by the ten or so gas cylinders used in the cooking school where there is no mains gas supply.
Mr Turner said: “They were potentially explosive and we had to keep away so we were fighting it with ground monitors designed to sit on their own so firefighters don’t have to hold them.
“When the cylinders get to a certain temperature there is a safety valve that vents the gas and that then catches and creates a big ball of fire.
They normally always work but there is a chance that the pressure valve won’t work so they have got to be treated basically as a small bomb.”
Lyme crew’s main job was to safeguard the other office buildings and Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall’s house. Mr Turner added: “We were there until about 3.30am and it was freezing – the foam they used froze and basically it was like a skating rink by the time we were finished so it was very difficult all ways.”
The one bright spot he said was that with Devon’s big call outs the Salvation Army comes out.
Mr Turner said: “They do coffee and tea, supply burgers and bacon burgers which were very welcome when we finished at 3.30am. They are really good, fantastic people they come out in their own time.”
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