Ordeal by Fire – Surviving an Inferno

At roughly 6.30 on the evening of Thursday, March 8th, I was lazing in my study in my home in the village of Sowton, alone and happily lost in browsing through some book or document, as I had been thousands of times before over the course of the ten years I’d spent living in this rural idyll just south of Exeter. I was in a particularly good mood, even by my unrelentingly cheerful standards, because it was almost exactly two years to the day since I’d fallen so ill that, for a week, I had wanted to die, during which time I lost my beloved dog Blueboy, then I went on to have major heart surgery at the Royal Brompton hospital in London.

My psychological recovery from these assorted ills had been long and painful, lasting over eighteen months, but by the night of March 8th 2018, I had long felt able to consign these sorrows to the past, while simultaneously rejoicing in my daughter Tanith’s recent twenty-first birthday. While I was lost in happy thoughts such as these and engrossed in whatever book or document held my attention in the subdued light of the early evening, I was startled by a thunderous hammering at my front door, so I immediately dropped what I was reading and hurried into the hall, wondering what on Earth had caused this unprecedented uproar.

When I yanked open the door and gazed out into the gathering dusk, I saw Lesley, a lady I’d had the pleasure of knowing ever since I first moved into Sowton Village, as she regularly kept her horses in the various fields around my home. She shouted to me that the roof was on fire, so I hurried outside and stared up at the thatch that covered my home and the other cottage adjoining it.

The roof looked just as it always had done, but I was appalled to see dirty yellow flames like angry sprites dancing around the base of the chimney of my neighbours’ home, at the opposite end of the conjoined buildings from where I lived. There was also an ominous red glow, pulsing deep beneath the thatch where it met the brick of the stout chimney stack and it was a sight that temporarily rooted me to the spot, but I managed to tear my horrified gaze away after a few seconds and I hurried back indoors to ring my wife Gill, who was at work. There was no time for any niceties or preamble, so I bluntly informed her that the building was on fire, then I rang off.

Six years before, I’d witnessed four thatched cottages at the far end of the village burn down after a fire had started in or around another chimney protruding through another thatched roof. It had been a major incident, with something like fifty fire appliances assisting, but despite this huge amount of specialist machinery and the very best efforts of scores of brave, skilled fire fighters, the blaze around the chimney spread relentlessly, resulting in the total destruction of my neighbours’ homes. I had a sickening premonition that an identical fate awaited my own home that night and I was painfully aware that we had no contents insurance, because it was prohibitively expensive in a thatched property and I’d not worked since spending a month in hospital, then finally leaving in early April, in 2016.

For a few minutes, perhaps, I stood in the road, hoping to see the blaze contained, watching the first fire fighters to arrive trying to extinguish the flames erupting from my neighbours’ roof at the far end of the building from mine. Very soon, however, one of the firemen strode up to me and advised me to start emptying my home of anything I considered valuable, so I hurried back inside to my living room, wondering where to start.

I was sufficiently composed to search in a wooden cabinet in the living room for a collection of family and other photographs, which were spirited away from me by helping hands, but after that, the most accurate description I can supply is to say that my mind went blank. Over the years, I had lost count of the times I’d watched one or other quiz programmes on television, rolling my eyes in derision when some hapless contestant couldn’t answer the easiest of questions, whether on general knowledge or else on their specialist chosen subjects. Now, however, when everything I owned in the world was at stake and with the sands of time running out with indecent haste, I found myself blinking and shaking my head like an idiot, unable to answer the simplest questions put to me by the firemen, or by Tim and Kristen, two of my neighbours who had – as far as I was concerned – inexplicably appeared in my living room and who were patiently asking me what I’d like them to do to help me.

I wasn’t frightened, but I felt as if I were wading through waist-deep treacle while everyone else around me moved briskly and with purpose. Firemen navigated the narrow, winding stairs to retrieve what they could from the bedrooms belonging to my two children, who were away at university in London and Swansea at the time, while they also saved some clothes from my bedroom.

Other firemen busied themselves downstairs by removing two large propane containers from against the wall outside my back door, which would have made the village look like a minor version of Dresden or Hamburg during World War Two had the creeping flames got to them. The firemen bundled other belongings from my living room outside and while I’ll never know precisely who removed what, I will be forever grateful to both Kristen and Tim, two of my wonderful neighbours, because without them, many more of my personal possessions would have been turned to ash before my puffed and rosy-red eyes that awful night.

I can’t remember every movement that was made by the people in and around the house while it was speedily consumed by the pitiless flames, but I will never forget the last few minutes I spent in my study. I was in a daze as questing tendrils of acrid smoke began to appear, so I found myself staring in anguish at all the many wonders I’d collected over the course of decades, unable to decide what to try to save from among all the treasures and curiosities that were piled from floor to ceiling.

A number of my precious belongings were indeed rescued, thanks to the valiant and determined efforts of the firemen, so I have some clothes, a coat stand, my filing cabinet with all its invaluable documents, a harp, an electric guitar and a few dozen books, perhaps, although I’ve not yet been in a position to make a final and detailed tally of everything that survived. However, there soon came a point when the smoke in the room threatened to become overpowering, so one of the firemen ordered me out in a way that brooked no argument, telling one of his colleagues to escort me.

Once outside, the thick pall of smoke was even worse than it had been inside the doomed cottage; I’d experienced a capricious wind blowing smoke from barbecues and bonfires in my direction for a few seconds many times over the years, but this was a different matter altogether. I found myself fighting for breath, with my eyes burning and pouring with tears, until I eventually wandered into clear, clean air among some of my former neighbours, who had gathered on the dark road in a mournful, shocked group, to bear witness to the destruction by fire of my beloved former home.

Years before, the residents had voted against having street lights put in place at the entrance to the village where I lived, so I found myself slowly making my way through an eerie landscape illuminated by a sickly orange hue as the thatch blazed, and by the flashing blue lights of the fire engines that had managed to make their way into the narrow road opposite the burning buildings. I wasn’t feeling at all well, so I said as much to a fireman at a control centre and an ambulance was summoned. It was impossible for the ambulance crew to drive their vehicle to collect me, because the narrow road was blocked by huge hoses, ladders, firemen and two fire engines, while the flames had become so intense that in any event, the temperature in the road outside my home was unbearable and dangerous.

After an ambulance was called, I was sat on the hard, wet ground a few yards away from a growing inferno that raged and whirled around my home, despite the best efforts of the courageous, accomplished firemen to extinguish it. I found myself staring in disbelief at the unstoppable destruction that was being wrought by the intense flames, then Mike, one of my neighbours, appeared. Six years before, I had looked on helplessly as the thatched cottage belonging to him and his wife had been destroyed along with three other adjoining homes and it was a depressing sight; now he leant over me and quietly advised me, with the voice of bitter experience, that no good could come of watching the flames take my home and belongings.

Hardly were the words out of his mouth than I was told that the ambulance had arrived, so the firemen had to forge a path parallel to the village’s only road, through the uneven, dark wet fields and over a few barbed wire fences before they guided me back onto the twisting road, at a point beyond the blaze. I made my way into an old compound by the entrance to the village that had been taken over by a mass of emergency vehicles and their occupants, the whole busy scene lit up by the huge flames that were consuming my home and leaping into the night sky just a hundred feet or so away.

I soon found the ambulance and once inside, I was immediately subjected to a barrage of tests by Netty and Sarah, the ambulance crew, who were as attentive, kind, caring and professional as it’s possible to imagine. All things considered, I seemed well enough, but it was clear that I was suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation, so they decided to take me to the casualty department of the nearby Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, where I’d been treated for a life-threatening condition almost exactly two years before. My wife Gill was dropped on the hill leading out of the village, next to the car in which she’d driven back from her workplace, where she acted as a senior nurse tending to old people; I then lay back on a stretcher inside the ambulance, hooked up to various monitors and watched over by Sarah, as Netty drove the vehicle to the hospital.

A minute or so into the journey, I remember telling Sarah how intensely grateful I was to her and to her colleagues in the emergency services for taking such good care of me. I then asked her if she could please arrange matters so that when we arrived at hospital, I didn’t end up on a ward next to the two poisoned Russians, Yulia and Sergei Skripal, as I didn’t want to worsen whatever state I was already in by running the risk of getting splashed with nerve agent. Without trying to reconstruct the hopelessly one-sided exchange that followed in the speeding ambulance, Sarah was politely bemused, because at some point imperceptible to me, I’d become convinced that I was going to Salisbury Hospital, almost certainly because I’d lived with my family on Salisbury Plain for a decade prior to our move to Exeter.

I’d had cause to take my two young children to the Accident and Emergency Department many times while we were on Salisbury Plain, because of various cuts and bruises they had had suffered over the years, as well as unpleasant bouts of croup that forced me to drive them there by night from time to time. I don’t remember when the transition occurred in my consciousness or subconscious to believing I was back in Salisbury rather than in Exeter, nor do I remember it happening, but it was real and in my mildly deranged state, the prospect of being on the same ward as two poor souls who had been poisoned by such a toxic substance was disturbing.

When the ambulance pulled up and the doors opened to reveal what was unquestionably the A & E department of the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, I was forced to accept the reality of my situation and it was disconcerting to have to acknowledge that my mind had somehow wandered across the south of England, from Exeter to Salisbury and back. My humour was rapidly improved, however, by the immediate ministrations of a Spanish nurse and an African doctor, who ran another series of tests on me and who comprehensively checked me out in the most kindly, reassuring manner imaginable.

Despite the fact that my mind was reeling with the strain of coming to terms with the ongoing destruction of my home by fire just a few miles away, I couldn’t help but feel a lot better because of being treated so well by the wonderful, conscientious staff our NHS is blessed with. As soon as I’d been given an all-clear, I hauled my stinking, smoke-stained clothes and boots back on, then hurried out of the cubicle, while the wails from a child and from a few old people who’d been brought in for treatment made me feel terribly guilty, as I felt their needs were far greater than mine.

After I was discharged, Gill drove in silence through the hot, baleful night back to Sowton, where we made our way once more into the compound filled with emergency vehicles and workers. After seeing harrowing reports of fires on television, most notably the recent Grenfell Tower disaster, I’d often heard of people being left with nothing more than the clothes on their back, but it was almost impossible to come to terms with this reality now that it had happened to me, rather than to unfortunate others somewhere else in the country. A Red Cross vehicle staffed by volunteers became a shelter for us for half an hour or so and I deeply regret not being able to recall the names of the two young men and one young woman who were so hospitable, kind and understanding to us, giving us small bags of toiletries and some clothes, which I found myself wearing for the next few weeks.

I sprawled on some seats in the Red Cross vehicle, disconsolately munching on a few burgers I’d been given from the firemen’s on site canteen, as I’d suddenly realised I was ravenously hungry. A few minutes later, a young lady with shoulder length blonde hair and a concerned expression appeared at the open doors, politely asking to speak to me, as she’d been directed to the vehicle by others in the compound when she enquired about the whereabouts of the people who’d survived the fire. She told me that her name was Harriet Bradshaw and that she was a reporter from BBC Spotlight, so I heaved myself out of my seat and stepped outside to talk to her.

I’m keenly aware that many people have a low opinion of journalists, but I can only say that I’ve met, spoken and worked with forty to fifty of these people over the last thirty years, including a few editors and chief reporters; in all that time, I’ve only met two of their number that I didn’t warm to. For her part, I thought that Harriet was polite, understanding and sympathetic, while the truth is that I needed little if any prompting to speak to her in front of a camera about my ordeal by fire.

Rather than viewing Harriet or the media she was part of as being intrusive in any way, I positively welcomed the opportunity to rail against a malevolent Fate and in the process, to let as many people as possible know about my plight. I don’t think anything I said was unique, particularly memorable or of a high quality, because I seem to remember that the best bit the channel used from my sustained polemic was a brief section in which I lamented the many physical things that I’d lost to the hungry flames. I saw Harriet and a different cameraman again the next day, when I wandered around the smoking ruins of my former home, and while I’m not a vain person, I undoubtedly looked like a bedraggled sack of shit, which I suppose is hardly surprising given the unusual circumstances.

It all turned out to be worth it, though, because I feel my natural good humour and stoicism came through when I counted all my many blessings and thanked my neighbours and everyone else who had helped on the night, expressing the fervent wish that I could give them all a huge hug and this, happily, was the section that BBC Spotlight chose to use when it broadcast the follow-up to its report of the previous night on the dreadful fire. Thank you for all this, Harriet, because your warm heart and your many other fine qualities helped me to live through and overcome what was undoubtedly one of the worst days that a malign Fate has ever sent my way.

My account of the night of the fire and of the days and weeks that followed in its wake must by necessity be extremely short, because a thousand and one other details in my memory are fighting for recognition even as I write this. The day may come when I commit them to print, but for now, there are three matters that I must deal with, albeit briefly.

Firstly, I’ve heard it said many times over the last few weeks that experiencing a fire is like enduring a bereavement. Certainly, I can say with the voice of grim experience that the profound shock of losing your home with just a few minutes’ warning has a horrible finality about it, much like witnessing a funeral pyre, but there is far more to the matter than just this and it’s something I intend to write about in depth another time. For now, I feel as if the destruction by fire of my locus amoenus – the beautiful cottage at the foot of a green hill, by lazy streams, sprawling meadows and lush woodlands – marked the death of the idyllic time I was privileged to spend there, while I sometimes feel as if I’m a ghost wandering in this landscape, rather than a flesh and blood human being.

As for details of this unsettling, occasional perception that I’m a phantom as a result of this fire, I am missed and welcomed by my former neighbours and while I’m in their company, I recall the many happy times I spent in their midst, but I appear in my former home less and less often, as I am now called to dwell in another place that can’t be seen from the village. I miss Sowton terribly for all its many wonderful features that I’ve written about over the years, while I was delighted to watch my two children grow up there in a state of blissful happiness and it’s also where my dog Blueboy spent the majority of his time here on Earth.

Now, however, I am forced to accept that I’ll never return there to live and after being sheltered at the homes of some of my relatives, for which I’m intensely grateful, I’m now living under a new roof. I can’t envisage a time when I won’t be drawn back to my former home in Sowton, with its enchanting walks and vistas, as well as the neighbours I was blessed to have, but the blunt fact is that my future appearances there will become increasingly fleeting until such time as I eventually fade into history. A bit like a ghost.

Secondly, I don’t think of myself as materialistic, but over the last few months I’ve come to think that unless you’re so removed from the concept of prized, personal possessions that you live your life like some nomadic, twenty-first century hunter-gatherer, a fire such as the one I’ve briefly described is inevitably going to rob you of many things you hold dear and cause some degree of heartache in the process. I’ve lost many hundreds of books and collected correspondence dating back to the early 1970s, as well as an irreplaceable collection of photographs taken on my many travels around Britain, Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. I’ve lost paintings, manuscripts, music books and a few hundred CDs, some of which still sit in a melted pile in the fire-ravaged hell-hole that was once my study. I’ve lost my collection of gargoyles, green men, reference books and a collection of roughly sixty books dealing with British hauntings, which particularly hurts right now as I’ve been planning a detailed project on this subject that’s already attracted some interest from the people who are in a position to make it happen.

I could go on for literally hours, flinching at the loss of so many of the treasures I’d collected in my time, but there are other objects I miss for different reasons. For instance, when he was a toddler, my son Jack gave me a baseball cap he’d decorated under the supervision of one of his teachers and while the writing on the peak was unintelligible to anyone else, I knew that the letters spelled out the words BEST DAD and I’d thought this would go with me to the grave. Instead, its ashes lie inextricably and irretrievably mingled with those of so many other things I held dear, while just about everything that my son and daughter had worked so hard for to buy for themselves, such as clothes, shoes, posters, computer equipment, music, furniture and others were consumed by the flames, as were the presents that we were planning to give my daughter for her twenty-first birthday.

It’s a dismal list, for sure, and it’s sometimes hard to bear, but I console myself with the certain knowledge that I’m not alone and that countless others are far worse off than I am; or to put it another way, I am a bit older, but a great deal wiser as a result of the fire and of everything that’s followed it. I now know precisely how it feels to be robbed of your dwelling-place and to become homeless in the space of just a few shocking minutes. I now know how it feels to have no clothes but those you were wearing when you fled disaster. I now know how it feels to lament all the physical possessions you’ve lost, from things like rare books or presents for your daughter’s twenty-first birthday to more prosaic belongings, such as your shoes, boots, shorts or flip-flops.

I have been blessed with the light of understanding of other profound matters. A friend of mine by the name of Naomi very kindly set up a Just Giving page not long after the fire and it has been like manna from heaven to receive warm-hearted financial support at time like this, just when things looked at their most bleak. Unless I’d experienced all this for myself, I would never have guessed how much the good wishes from other people counted for, but they’ve made a huge difference. Some people have donated anonymously to the Just Giving page while others, who have admitted they don’t know me, have helped out simply for the purpose of doing a good thing in the world. Still others have written of their sorrow for my circumstances or of their admiration for my optimistic, stoic attitude, but whether these messages comprised just a few words, sentences or paragraphs, they have all meant the world to me, really. Thank you all so much, from the bottom of my bruised heart.

I’m down, but not out. I’m bloodied, but unbowed. I am intensely grateful to all my family, friends, neighbours and to many strangers, such as those who have sent gifts and of course to all the fire fighters, nurses, doctors, the Red Cross and all the other selfless people who work for our emergency services. I am grateful to all my new neighbours, here in the centre of Exeter, for accepting me and my family into their midst in such a warm and welcoming fashion. The fire may have robbed me of my home, but it didn’t harm so much as a hair on anyone’s head, so I am extremely mindful of this as well, because the alternatives of terrible injury or death are too horrible to contemplate.

I was powerless to stop the fire in its tracks, but I have the choice of how I react to this terrible misfortune, so I choose to ponder all the many, many reasons that I should consider myself supremely blessed, rather than dwell on what I’ve lost.

I am a survivor.

I am the Phoenix rising from the flames.

Our Just Giving Page.

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2 Responses to Ordeal by Fire – Surviving an Inferno

  1. neilrushton says:

    I feel a bit guilty ‘liking’ this post my friend, but it’s a beautifully articulated rendition of your horrible experience. Such a thing would destroy me, so I’m pleased that your stoic optimism is seeing you through, and also that you have people who are on your side and able to help. All power to you…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do wonder if you or your neighbour (whence the conflagration started) had buildings insurance. If so, then rebuilding your house would be possible; this is what buildings insurance is supposed to do. Even if you do not intend to return, a house rebuilt at the expense of the insurers is worth far more than a ruin.

    Liked by 1 person

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