Prop­erty News

Just think­ing about it is enough to get any coun­try-house owner hot un­der the col­lar, but when it comes to fire, pre­ven­tion is key. Clive Aslet in­ves­ti­gates

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Clive Aslet in­ves­ti­gates the im­por­tance of fire pre­ven­tion

ONE Novem­ber night in 2012, Graeme Hart re­ceived the phonecall that ev­ery house owner dreads. The fam­ily home, 17th-cen­tury Sy­den­ham House in Devon, was on fire. Rush­ing back, he saw the sky il­lu­mi­nated for miles around. Flames were leap­ing through the roof, above which stood fire­men on turnta­bles di­rect­ing wa­ter jets—the whole spec­ta­cle was watched by a crowd of about 100. Within 12 hours, the Grade I-listed prop­erty had been re­duced to a black­ened shell.

Through­out his­tory, fire has been the great scourge of the coun­try house. When Clan­don Park in Sur­rey, owned by the Na­tional Trust, burnt in April 2015, it be­came the lat­est of many high-pro­file ca­su­al­i­ties, whose tally in­cludes Up­park House in West Sus­sex, Wind­sor Cas­tle and Hamp­ton Court. The good news is that all these ex­am­ples have—or will be—re­built and Sy­den­ham has also risen from the ashes in an ex­em­plary restora­tion that COUN­TRY LIFE will de­scribe later this year.

Robert His­cox, Hon­orary Pres­i­dent of His­cox, the Lloyd’s of Lon­don un­der­writer, has more knowl­edge of fires than most. ‘In the old days, houses were eter­nally damp, par­tic­u­larly so dur­ing the win­ter. Cen­tral heat­ing turns them into tin­der boxes.’ All it took at Sy­den­ham was for a low win­ter sun to shine through a west-facing bath­room onto a shav­ing mir­ror, which then di­rected the light onto a cur­tain or towel.

Coun­try houses are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble be­cause of their iso­la­tion; a fire may not be no­ticed un­til too

late. ‘Ask a friend or neigh­bour to check on your prop­erty when you’re on hol­i­day,’ ad­vises Chris Lovett of in­sur­ance bro­ker Lycetts. It’s also im­por­tant to make sure that the Fire Bri­gade can get ac­cess and know where to find wa­ter—a pond or swim­ming pool may be the an­swer.

For­tu­nately, no life was lost at Sy­den­ham, but that's not al­ways the case. ‘Fire ex­tin­guish­ers aren’t there to en­able you to put out a fire,’ says Mr His­cox. ‘They’re to help you get out of the house.’

Not long ago, ar­chi­tect John Simp­son suf­fered dam­age to his semi-de­tached coun­try cot­tage. ‘A neigh­bour rang up say­ing that smoke was com­ing out of the roof and the Fire Bri­gade had been called. What did we want to save?’ Like other fire-stricken own­ers, he felt ‘com­pletely help­less’.

The cause of that fire was a metal chim­ney liner that his neigh­bour had at­tached to a new stove; the heat ig­nited the thatched roof. Although the fire it­self did lit­tle dam­age to the Simp­sons’ prop­erty, the wa­ter di­rected onto it by the fire team made the place un­in­hab­it­able. Read­ers of Hi­laire Bel­loc’s poem

Matilda will re­mem­ber the pains taken by Lon­don’s No­ble Fire-bri­gade to ‘souse The Pic­tures up and down the House’. Wa­ter is still one of the great de­stroy­ers of his­toric build­ings, not least be­cause it wrecks in­jected damp-proof cour­ses, which need re­plac­ing. The flood­ing of wine cel­lars can be a cruel blow to own­ers, de­prived of the con­vivial store at the very time that they are most in need of cheer­ing up.

Pri­vate own­ers may avoid sprin­kler systems as they're likely to be more trou­ble than they’re worth, but there are now im­proved ex­am­ples that ei­ther ex­tin­guish fires through the re­lease of in­ert gas or di­rect a mist solely to­wards the seat of the fire rather than spray­ing wa­ter in­dis­crim­i­nately in all di­rec­tions.

Few fires are now caused by cig­a­rettes smoked in bed and it may be that the fash­ion for tea lights, left burn­ing around kitchens or bath­rooms, with the risk that pieces of pa­per could blow onto them, is past, too. In­stead, liv­ing ar­eas and, worse, bed­rooms are packed with elec­tronic de­vices: tele­vi­sions that rise from the bot­tom of the bed, cur­tains that are opened from a con­trol panel, phone chargers, hair straight­en­ers and so on.

Ac­cord­ing to NFU Mu­tual, elec­tri­cal faults were the com­mon­est cause of fire in the first three-quar­ters of 2016. More fires now start on up­per floors than be­fore and they are par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous when the fam­ily is asleep (so fit smoke de­tec­tors in bed­rooms as well as cor­ri­dors).

‘One thing that will in­crease the po­ten­tial for elec­tri­cal fire is an over­loaded plug socket,’ ad­vises Nathan Brew, the NFU Mu­tual’s Prop­erty Tech­ni­cal Man­ager. ‘Re­move all ex­ten­sion blocks and put them safely in the bin. If you need more plug sock­ets, have ex­tra out­lets in­stalled.’

For­tu­nately, the temptation of the old pop-up fuses, which could be mended with hair pins, has gone and LED lights are cooler than in­can­des­cent bulbs, yet it only takes one mouse to nib­ble through an at­tic wire to cause dev­as­ta­tion. Make sure that wiring isn't vul­ner­a­ble to rats, squir­rels and other ver­min.

Ac­cord­ing to Mr His­cox, ‘builders have wrecked more of Bri­tain’s his­toric houses than the Luft­waffe’. Cer­tainly, Tim Mould­ing of long-es­tab­lished Wilt­shire build­ing firm R. Mould­ing & Co is well aware of the dan­ger posed dur­ing restora­tion. ‘Skip fires can be dev­as­tat­ing—they must be sited safely away from the build­ing. Trades­men must ex­tin­guish their cig­a­rettes in a sand bucket, not throw them into a skip. Also, burn­ing off paint from slid­ing sash win­dows is a huge risk and must be done with ex­treme care.’

Own­ers who are about to em­bark on a project might want to seek ad­vice on whether to take out a joint-names in­sur­ance pol­icy with the builder. This can avoid the client suf­fer­ing ag­o­nis­ing de­lays, on top of the hurt caused by the fire.

Open fires are de­light­ful, but, sadly, they're re­spon­si­ble for al­most as many con­fla­gra­tions as elec­tri­cal faults. It’s es­sen­tial that chim­neys are swept an­nu­ally, lest twigs in birds’ nests slip down to be­come char­coal that gets blown out into a room. There are other things you can do, too (see box above).

How­ever, take hope—not all is bad. There are fewer fires than there used to be, ‘snif­fer’ fire alarms are more so­phis­ti­cated than smoke and heat de­tec­tors and healthy eat­ing means fewer chip pans—a reg­u­lar cause of dis­as­ter in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.

And if the worst hap­pens? Although fires of­ten come at ap­palling per­sonal cost, in terms of the loss of pos­ses­sions and me­mories, own­ers can com­fort them­selves with the thought that spe­cial­ist firms can sal­vage more than any or­di­nary per­son would think pos­si­ble. In the case of a listed build­ing, the ar­range­ment of rooms may be­come more con­ve­nient for mod­ern life.

‘Through­out his­tory, fire has been the great scourge of the coun­try house’

Above and facing page: Clan­don Park in Sur­rey was com­pletely gut­ted by a fire in 2015. Thou­sands of his­toric items were lost, in­clud­ing at least six Vic­to­ria Crosses

The Wind­sor Cas­tle fire in 1992 caused £36.5 mil­lion of dam­age. The blaze be­gan when a cur­tain in St Ge­orge’s Chapel was ig­nited by a nearby spot­light

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