Bishop praises firefighters for sparing Exeter's Norman cathedral

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The Bishop of Exeter has praised the "heroic" firefighters battling a blaze at "the country's oldest hotel" for sparing the city's Norman cathedral.

Bishop Robert Atwell said crews had worked "overboard" to protect buildings on Exeter's Cathedral Green where an "inferno" gutted the 18th century Royal Clarence Hotel.

Firefighters are still tackling the remaining hotspots at the historic coaching inn after the blaze broke out above the nearby Castle Fine Art gallery on Friday.

Structural engineers were meeting on Sunday to discuss how to demolish parts of the hotel after flames gutted the interior and left the frontage on the brink of collapse, a spokesman from Devon and Somerset Fire & Rescue Service said. It is not known when the demolition will take place. 

Crews are unable to enter the building because it is too unstable and have instead been using aerial ladder platforms to tackle the remaining pockets of fire.

Bishop Robert said he was "pretty convinced that the whole frontage is going to collapse", but said he hoped the fascia would be rebuilt.

"All the historic stuff inside has gone, you can't replace it, but at least I hope and pray that they rebuild the frontage as it was because it deserves to be there because that's what will preserve at least the veneer of the architectural continuity on the Cathedral Green," he told the Press Association.

He said it was "deeply, deeply sad" to see the hotel - which escaped the 1942 Blitz by German bomber planes - in ruins, but said the damage could have been "a lot worse" to neighbouring buildings if the wind direction was different.

There was "sheer panic" that the fire would spread to the High Street or more medieval houses and the cathedral on the Green at one point, the Bishop said.

Around 150 firefighters from across Devon, Cornwall and Somerset tackled the blaze at its height - pumping water from the River Exe to put it out.

Local residents were asked to restrict their water use to make as much as possible available for use by emergency services.

The Bishop said the cathedral was covered in "black acrid smoke" from the fire, while the gas supply was turned off after a ruptured gas main was found to be fuelling the flames.

"I have to say that on Friday there was an awful lot of panic around and fear over whether they could control it."

Bishop Robert also praised the local community for supporting the firefighters with "fantastic" spirit.

He said: "I saw tins of Quality Street being passed through to the firemen that people had brought in, and boxes of biscuits, and a local baker had sent in some cakes and stuff just to keep the people going."

People were "passing them up through the lines trying small tangible ways to say thank you so much for what you are doing for our city". 

Services in the cathedral were moved on Sunday to the nearby Chapter House as the Green remains cordoned off.

Bishop Robert said it would be at least "a few days" before services could resume in the cathedral, but said the congregation remained "defiant".

"We hope to get back to normal as soon as the authorities lift the cordon."

The fire service said their teams were "still working hard at the Royal Clarence", and added: "They are controlling "hotspots" and monitoring the building structure."