Notre Dame fire what we all dread to see, says Westminster Abbey surveyor

The shocking scenes of the blaze at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris “is exactly what we all dread to see”, the architect in charge of the upkeep of Westminster Abbey has said.

Architect Ptolemy Dean, Westminster Abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric, said: “I just feel absolutely horrified that this could happen and there is nothing you can do when a fire like that grabs hold. You are left in hands of the fire brigade.

“I feel very horrified for the French authorities. You see pictures of the firefighters, the heroic firefighters, trying to get in and douse the flames.”

He said Paris had been a powerhouse of impressive Gothic architecture from the 11th and 12th centuries, and it influenced many buildings in England including Westminster Abbey in central London.

He added: “It is exactly what we all dread to see – a vital building going up in flames. The spread of the destruction was horrific and then seeing the fire ripping through those rooms…”

Mr Dean said: “It (Notre Dame) is a vital part of our historical progression and to have lost it would have been a catastrophe.”

He described the 850 year-old Gothic masterpiece as a “quality asset” for the city of Paris, adding: “It is the same as if Westminster Abbey were to burn down. There is a great sense of national bereavement.”

A Westminster Abbey spokesman said the building has state-of-the-art fire detection systems and works very closely with London Fire Brigade (LFB) throughout the year in risk assessments, exercises, work plans and architectural briefings.

He said the LFB concentrates on response times, and in a recent exercise two appliances were on the scene within five minutes of an alarm, quickly followed by others from all over London.

The full-time security staff, known as the Abbey’s Beadles, are also fully trained in fire procedures and work very closely with the LFB, according to the spokesman.

Mr Dean said that “we are always in a state of review about the way we undertake our work” regarding fire safety at Westminster Abbey.

He pointed out that lessons are learned from other disasters. This includes dry risers, which are pipes that can water push water up to the roof level, which were installed as a post-war precaution after a bombing in 1942.

Mr Dean said firewalls are also in place to try and help stop the spread of flames.

He added that “fires in historic buildings are unfortunately common”, pointing to the previous blazes which have hit sites such as York Minster, Windsor Castle and the Glasgow School of Art.

Mackintosh Building
Mackintosh Building

“It will be interesting to understand more about the Paris fire and why it spread and if there are any lessons to be learned from the Paris fire disaster. No-one wants these things to happen again.”

Both Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame Cathedral have become tourist attractions but they are firstly religious buildings, and this disaster has happened during Easter week.

The Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, said: “The terrible fire yesterday in Paris has for the time being devastated one of the greatest cathedrals of Europe. Its 850-year history has seen Notre Dame withstand revolutionary change and world wars.

Now it has been laid low by an accidental fire during renovation works.

“That this should happen at the time of year when Christians focus on the passion and death of Christ seems strange and sad. The Church lives the passion. But the great cathedral will rise again, just as Christians everywhere will next Sunday on Easter Day celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.”