On Friday, 23rd August 2019, a fire raged through Betley Court, completely destroying the main house, and eleven of its fourteen flats. Having raised the alarm, four residents bravely rescued the owner Prof. Godfrey Brown (93) from his kitchen, as fire blazed upstairs.
The fire raged through the night, exacerbated by a strong breeze from the south, a shortage of mains water, and fueled by 300-year-old tinder dry wood in the building. The fire brigade employed pumps to bring water up from Betley Mere, and help put out the fire.
An investigation found the fire was caused accidentally by workmen repairing a flat roof on the bow window of the drawing room. A hot spot had smoldered in a nearby windowsill, igniting a first-floor bedroom and quickly spreading to the roof. Fanned by the wind, the fire raged through the attic space. As the ceilings, and a chimney collapsed into the floors below, they too were engulfed in flames, on all levels right down to the cellar.
Despite the devastation to the house, there were no casualties apart from the loss of MJ, one of the resident’s cats. The villagers of Betley rallied round and in a heartening act of kindness, offers of 41 beds were made to those who had lost their homes and possessions. An online funding appeal raised thousands of pounds to help residents start rebuilding their lives. Godfrey was rehomed temporarily nearby, in the home of his son, Nigel and wife Su, until an apartment at Betley Court could be repaired and adapted for him.
The 20 residents of Betley Court are all relocated, some temporarily, others have made more permanent arrangements elsewhere.
Meetings are held with experts from the fire services, local councillors, structural engineers and the insurers, all of them making available data so we can go forward with decisions about the future of Betley Court. It has been confirmed by the fire services that the fire was accidental, and caused by hot-works during roofing work.
Investigative work continues. Amongst the first visitors were the loss adjusters, armed with laser measures and clipboards. Things they needed to know are things you don’t notice usually. Background details like wall finishes, ceiling roses. Was there dado rail in that room, was the ceiling plasterboard or plaster and lath? When the building was restored (and this is going back 40 years!) were the floorboards reclaimed oak or pine? Did any photos that could provide details survive the fire?
The open garden project has continued despite this tragedy. In Spring 2020, a visitors' hub was constructed in the grounds, complete with refreshment and toilet facilities, with help from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and a grant from RDA's LEADERs scheme. This enabled the Brown family to conduct restoration tours of the house rebuild and gardens in late 2021; a promising portent for the future of Betley Court.
Following partial demotion work on unsafe walls, and the clearance of tonnes of ash and debris, rebuilding work began in April 2021 [Phase 1A]. Specialist contractors and master craftspeople came on site, and began the painstaking process of reinstating walls, floors, and window and door openings.
In November 2021, work began on reinstating the roof [Phase 1B] and fabricating new windows and doors. It is anticipated that work on the external envelop will be completed in Summer 2022. Work on the interior will begin sometime after.