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Iconic arch rebuilt after devastating 1990 fire

By This is Devon  |  Posted: September 04, 2010

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THE most iconic symbol of Totnes' ancient heritage is a fraud — and it's all down to a blazing inferno which rocked the town 20 years ago today.

Most visitors to the town busily taking holiday snaps of the 'ancient' East Gate Arch would be shocked to learn it is actually less than 20 years old.

On September 4, 1990, it virtually burned to the ground and came close to taking a large chunk of the historic town centre with it.

The buildings either side were gutted and virtually nothing survived of the timber-framed lath and plaster gatehouse above the ancient timbers of the arch itself.

The clock, the clockroom, the bell, the bell tower and an awful lot of carved Tudor oak panelling perished in the blaze.

The old timbers, sheathed in plaster, are still there but the rest is a copy — a fake, all built to strict 1990s building regulations.

The town was cut in half for 19 months as what was left of the arch was closed to traffic and, initially, even pedestrians.

It took almost two years until the gatehouse and neighbouring offices finally reopened after a massive £800,000 rebuilding project.

One of the first on the scene of the fire was current Totnes Watch Commander Steve Howrihane — called out at 1.30am after reports of smoke in the area of the East Gate.

He said: "When we set off from the station we could see little wisps of smoke, like a garden bonfire.

"When we arrived we found South Street was full of smoke. I went into South Street to see where it was coming from and as I did so a big window in the corner blew out all over me."

He ran to the other side of the gatehouse only to have another window blow out above his head.

"That told me the fire had travelled all the way through the building," he said.

The damage was so great the precise cause of the fire is still unknown, but it was almost certainly started by an electrical fault or a discarded cigarette or cigar in the offices next to the gatehouse.

Steve reckons the fire could have been burning at least an hour before the brigade was called out and there were even reports of people smelling smoke in the area at 10pm the previous evening.

"People tend to forget how serious a fire it was," he said. "It was 6am before we knew for sure that it was not going to spread any further.

"If it had begun creeping up both sides of the High Street it may not have stopped until it reached the church on one side or the Civic Hall on the other.

"The damage would have been enormous.

"We were lucky there was only a little breeze. If there had been a good south westerly pushing it on we could have lost three times the number of buildings."

At the end of the night three houses, four flats, two shops, an office complex and the gatehouse had gone. The bell tower had collapsed into the building, both clock faces had folded up with the heat and collapsed, the clock mechanism was a melted piece of metal and most of the 16th century wood friezes built into the gatehouse were now so much ash.

Residents had been evacuated.

While scores of people stood through the night watching the flames, the evacuees were being looked after in the Royal Seven Stars Hotel.

One of them was Richard Davies. Today he is a newspaper reporter but then he was an aspiring novelist living above the veterinary surgery in Fore Street just 15 feet away from the burning gatehouse.

Said Richard: "My girlfriend at the time woke me and said 'There's a fire'. I said 'Don't be silly'. I looked out the window and she was right."

Richard and his girlfriend fled only for him to remember the only copy of his recently completed manuscript was still in the flat.

Wearing only a dressing gown Richard — against firefighters' advice — plunged back into the flat to rescue the manuscript.

"It was a complete waste of time because it never got published," he said.

"We were all a bit shocked. It was only later that day that we were allowed to return. It was horrendous. The place smelled of smoke. I am forever grateful to the firemen because they did a fantastic job."

Appeals were set up to help the people made homeless and to help fund the massive rebuilding operation — donations began coming in from around the globe as news of the blaze made international headlines.

As it turned out the insurances covered virtually the entire cost of the rebuilding operation.

However, there were no original plans for the complex and appeals went out for any photographs of the arch so that it could be re-built accurately.

The bell from the old cemetery building in the town's Plymouth Road graveyard was found to replace the one melted in the fire. Two new clock faces had to be manufactured from scratch and a new clock mechanism was bought from a Surrey university. It never worked properly anyway and today the clock is electrified.

Even the re-building work on such an historic building was anything but straightforward.

Totnes teenager Joe Head — now a police press officer — was part of the team of labourers working in virtually 19th century conditions.

He said: "It was not like a modern day building site. Everything had to be taken in and out manually. There was no way you could use machinery in there because it was too small.

"I remember there were these enormous concrete lintels and it took 20 men to pick them up and carry them in.

"Everything that went in or came out was done by hand. It was an enormously physical task."

The gatehouse itself was almost flawlessly recreated — although the bell in the bell tower never really sounded the same again.

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