The fire last night at Notre Dame was a spectacular and sobering reminder of the fragility of beauty and history, and how easily we can take buildings like this for granted. Every time such as significant historic building is damaged by fire it reminds me how quickly hundreds of years of heritage can be lost.
When I was writing my last book “The Manor on the Moors” I knew from the start that at the heart of it there was going to be just such a devastating fire. I’d worked in historic buildings and I had always feared what would happen in such a building if a fire did break out. I also did more research, looking at what happened to buildings such as Uppark, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, Clandon Park and the Glasgow School of Art in the catastrophic fires which damaged or destroyed them. I pinned a lot of my imaginary fire on the plans that had existed for what might have be done if a fire ever broke out in the building where I worked.
Firstly, the manual covers what staff must do if a fire breaks out – obviously the first priority is to clear the public and staff out of the building to safety. Then whoever is in charge takes a deep breath and starts to try and save what they can. The historic building will be full of treasures, usually only to be touched by specialist conservators wearing protective gloves and trained in how to handle such precious artefacts. In the case of Notre Dame, some of these were not just historically significant, but holy relics, precious to believers. Now, the fire brigade will locate and retrieve these treasures and they will be passed down a human chain to safety, and this won’t necessarily be a human chain of conservators and priests. At Uppark, a National Trust property, I remember reading that, amongst others, vistors helped to form the chain that saved so much of the contents. Anyone and everyone available might be asked to pitch in; there’s no point in waiting for the specialists with their gloves, and someone who is revered enough to touch the relics; by then it may be too late to save anything. In “The Manor on the Moors” its the garden staff and the builders who save the books and the paintings from the library, taking them to a hastily erected tent where the tea room staff and some helpful volunteers from the local community wrap them in bubble wrap to be taken away to storage. One lady weeps as she realises that the painting she has admired from afar all her life is in her hands, cut from its frame as time ran out.
Then there comes a curious hiatus where there is nothing else to be done by the people who care the most about the building. There’s nothing in the disaster manual to cover this – the only thing to be done is to keep a safe distance. These are the images that were so clear last night; the people of Paris watching as Notre Dame burnt. The commentators at the scene commented on the silence amongst the spectators, watching, despair mingling with hope, waiting. Some believers prayed, some sang, because that is all that can be done. The fate of that historic building that had been part of the life of their city for 850 years is in the hands of some few hundred professional firefighters, and all that the people who care for the building can do is watch. Or not. In my book, Caroline, the owner, can’t bear to see what is happening. She disappears, and who can blame her?
In the morning, when the fire is out, that’s when the real work will start. Surveying what remains and trying to find the cause of the fire. Arranging for storage of the salvaged items and seeing what else, if anything, can be saved from the damaged buildings. This is the time for miracles – the golden cross hanging over the altar of Notre Dame still gleaming through the smoke. An ornate marble fireplace from Clandon Park, emerging white and whole from amongst the ash and debris. The oak panelling of Hampton Court, visible behind the fallen roof beams. The long task of restoration will begin, and the hope that new life can be restored to the damaged building.
But never take the places you love for granted.