Engulfed by the inferno: Families who saw their homes and treasures turn to ashes relive the horror after a fire tore through an Essex village on Britain’s hottest ever day
- Fire happened in Wennington as the weather reached highest ever temperature
- It destroyed many homes and cars and residents were evacuated from the area
- A month on, residents relive the horror of the wildfire which ripped through
Tuesday, July 19, will go down as the date when Britain recorded its hottest ever temperature. For the 300 residents of Wennington, however, it began much like any other summer’s day.
Though the village now lies within London’s boundaries, it retains the timeless ambience of rural Essex.
Widow Sandra Tubb, 73, pottered about in 9 Marine Cottages — the two-up-two-down Victorian house she had rented for almost half a century — and watered the thirsty plants in her ‘stunning’ back garden, bordering on a vast marsh replete with wildlife.
Further along the terrace, at number 1, David Biles, 67, tinkered with the vintage car he has lovingly restored — a gleaming red 1976 C3 Corvette Stingray — while his wife, Roberta, spruced up their ‘little slice of Spain’: a Mediterranean-style patio they had built together, with a swimming pool, barbecue lounge and bar.
There was similarly humdrum activity on The Green, a half-moon cluster of pre-war semis fringing the yellow-baked village common, where furniture store assistant Karen Wilson, 58, watched a film on her day off, while keeping an eye on her three grandchildren.
Then, at about 1pm, something cataclysmic and utterly unforeseeable happened in this tranquil corner, throwing the lives of these people into terrible turmoil.
Pictured: Fires broke out in Wennington on the hottest day of the year, destroying homes and cars
As wildfires broke out across a tinder-dry Britain, a parched compost heap on land behind The Green apparently caught light and the fire quickly reached the nearby house. Then the one next-door . . . and the one next-door to that.
Soon a vast inferno was rampaging through Wennington, engulfing the entire village in black smoke and towering flames.
Filmed by drones, the scenes were so dramatic they were broadcast around the world, and climate-change doomsters posted the apocalyptic footage on social media.
By late afternoon, more than 70 homes had been damaged, 19 of them so comprehensively that they appeared to have been struck by ballistic missiles; and 90 people, almost a third of the population, had been evacuated.
Crunching across the charred marshland this week, I saw the full extent of the devastation. In the skeletal ruins of Marine Cottages, twisted pipes and bedsprings coil from piles of rubble like disembowelled entrails.
Radiators hang crazily from blackened walls in rooms without ceilings or floors. Virtually nothing has been left but bare brick and burnished metal.
Roberta and Dave Biles, pictured. Roberta described the destruction as a ‘Harry Potter film’ where they point the wand and zap people at random
The rear gardens, and a sizeable stretch of the open fields beyond them, now resemble the Somme.
The remorseless fire even claimed the ashes of Mrs Tubb’s late husband, which she had buried in the garden after he died 25 years ago. Though her son, Michael, has twice searched for the urn, he has been unable to retrieve it.
For every family, the Great Fire of Wennington brought initial waves of fear and angst, of course. As the day wore on, though, their fortunes would fluctuate enormously.
Some, such as Mrs Tubb, and three generations of Taylor family, who lived in history-steeped Lenthorpe House — the village’s most imposing property — saw their homes razed and lost everything but the clothes they had been wearing that morning.
Others, such as Mrs Wilson, whose homes lay in the path of the fire and appeared to be doomed, were left speaking of miracles as it suddenly changed course and skirted around their properties, leaving them untouched.
As we shall see, they were all at the mercy of a whimsical wind which shifted direction several times as it whipped across the flatlands.
Mariner Cottages in Wennington, Hornchurch where a month ago 8 of 10 houses in the terrace were destroyed, pictured a month after the fire that destroyed multiple homes in the village
Roberta Biles, whose refurbished former Post Office emerged unscathed (barring extensive damage to her Spanish terrace), while the nine other houses on her terrace were all wrecked, chose a colourful simile to describe the haphazard pattern of destruction.
‘It was like a Harry Potter film where they point the wand and zap people at random, only here the fire zapped random houses,’ she told me.
From a self-proclaimed ‘white witch’, who impishly suggested her beliefs might have brought her luck, it was an apt analogy. And this week, a month after the fire, the wheels of fortune in Wennington continue to spin erratically.
While some villagers credit insurance firms for settling claims promptly and generously, the owners of one destroyed house are said to be locked in a distressing wrangle. I hear the insurers are reluctant to pay out because a business was apparently being run from the private address.
I was also told of an elderly villager who distrusted the modern banking system and stashed his sizeable savings at home. How will he prove the value of the burned banknotes to a loss adjuster’s satisfaction?
Then there are the four householders who, with tragic recklessness, had no coverage, according to Havering Council leader Roy Morgan, and are now destitute.
A row of houses ablaze in the village of Wennington on July 19 as temperatures rose as high as 39C (pictured)
A good many more people remain homeless. Some have been temporarily rehoused but others are still staying in hotels or with friends or relatives.
‘Mobilise! Mobilise Echo 411! When London Fire Brigade was alerted to a blaze in Wennington, that was the echoing call that summoned the first crew into action. By grim irony, the village fire station happens to be adjacent to the very house where the blaze started. So close, in fact, that the flames reached its compound.
However, as this local station’s solitary engine was already tackling another big grassfire, six miles away, the alert bounced to a team based at Orpington, in Kent.
Given that it arrived on The Green within seven minutes, the delay may well prove insignificant. Investigators are now examining all aspects of this catastrophic event, the cause of which is the subject of much speculation.
The fires spread across the village and destroyed many homes, buildings and grassland (pictured)
Praying for rain (successfully, as it transpired) as she swept her garden this week, Karen Wilson disclosed the latest rumour — that the compost heap was set alight by a discarded bottle heated by the powerful sun.
At least, that was the story her daughter, Diane Brown, had gleaned while attending a community meeting, last Sunday, at the village church.
Whatever the truth, she added hastily, there was no question of trying to blame anyone. It was an accident, pure and simple. It was Mrs Wilson’s daughter who, in a FaceTime call from her home two doors away, warned her of the fire.
‘Mum! Quick! Look out the window!’ she cried, whereupon Karen gathered up her grandchildren, aged 11, seven and three, covered their mouths with cloths, and fled through the dense smoke.
‘You couldn’t see anything, anywhere,’ she recalls. ‘Ashes and embers were flying. The skies were black. It was just horrible.
‘At first, I ran to the fire station, but then that caught fire, so I drove to Tesco, and they were brilliant. They took us into an air-conditioned staffroom and really looked after us.
‘I still have a bad chest, and I can’t sleep for worrying it will happen again. The doctor said I was suffering from trauma.’
After the fires, everyone has rallied round and the community has become even closer. Pictured: Fires first raging in Wennington last month
On the positive side, everyone has rallied round and the community — already tight-knit — has become even closer. All those who lost homes on The Green have vowed to move back, though the rebuilding operation could take two years.
Mrs Wilson can barely believe that — seemingly against all logic — the fire bypassed the semi that has been her home for 30 years.
Before entering the village, I had imagined that all the destroyed houses would be clustered together. But she was among several residents who helped me piece together its tortuous trajectory.
After sweeping through four semis on The Green — one of which would look like a medieval ruin but for its still-standing chimney — it turned sharply south and east, singeing back-gardens but sparing the rest of the houses.
It then veered north, badly scorching the graveyard surrounding St Mary and St Peter’s Church, yet stopping a few feet short of the beautiful building.
To the wonder of many villagers, the Grade II-listed church appears to have been protected by an unburnt ‘halo’ of green grass. Because of this, even Mrs Wilson, hitherto unreligious, is having second thoughts.
She is not alone. Since the fire, the church congregation has reportedly swelled. Newcomers to the Sunday service include her grandchildren. ‘Bella (the three-year-old) absolutely loves it. She calls it her ‘castle’ and calls the female vicar ‘the Queen’,’ she laughs. Thanks to the decidedly less divine intervention of its owner, Allan Giles, who risked life and limb to dowse the flames with his trusty garden hose, the Old School House next to the church was also undamaged.
The fire was by no means beaten, however. A few dozen yards further along B1335 it came roaring back, taking out several terrace houses on Kent View — but again avoiding others — before tearing through Marine Cottages.
Yet the strangest twist of all came when it ‘jumped’ across the main road to ignite a field, then raced more than 50 yards up the hill to engulf Lenthorpe House, which burned unchecked for hours with firemen unable to reach it.
In all, the Great Fire travelled about 250 yards in fits and starts, reaching the far end of the village in about three hours .
An aerial view of the smoke and fires in the area as they took hold on a hot day in July (pictured)
Why did it behave so skittishly? What turned a smouldering grass heap into one of the biggest conflagrations London has seen since the Blitz? According to Darrell George, 46, a firefighter who spent ten hours battling to save Marine Cottages, the open topography, arid ground, unprecedented heat and strong, unpredictable winds combined to create ‘the perfect storm’.
Perhaps he might have said ‘firestorm’, for it moved at a speed he has never encountered during his 25-year career. ‘Faster than a man can run,’ he says.
Even so, Mr George — whose crew was dispatched from Erith, Kent, 20 minutes away through the Dartford Tunnel — believes more houses could have been saved if enough engines had been allocated.
On their arrival, around 2.20pm, he claims, their officer called for eight more machines. None came for about five hours, he says.
So, stripped to their T-shirts and yellow leggings, and with embers scalding their flesh, his crew were left to tackle the tail-end of the ravenous monster with just one other team, which had arrived before theirs.
Pictured: Fire damaged cars are seen a month after the inferno in Wennington. Residents have reflected on the fires
‘One of the most heartbreaking things is we didn’t have enough hoses to get down the street,’ Mr George told me, explaining how fire crews cover long distances by joining their hoses together.
‘If we’d had three or four more, that would have given us about 80 metres more and we could have reached four or five more houses.’
Mr George, Erith’s Fire Brigade Union representative, blames this claimed equipment shortage on cutbacks which have seen ten London fire stations close in the past few years.
On the hottest day of the year, he claims, 39 pumps were out of service because there were too few firefighters to operate them.
In response, London Fire Brigade said they used ‘a dynamic resourcing model’ which allows staff and equipment to be moved around the capital as needed.
On July 19, ‘high call volumes meant appliances took some time to be redeployed, as they were busy at other incidents in London, but resources were sent as soon as they became available’.
In all, 15 engines and about 100 firefighters were deployed, yet it wasn’t until 9.47pm, almost nine hours after the fire started, that it was deemed to be under control.
Certainly, in Wennington, one hears nothing but admiration, not only for the valiant fire crews but also the cadets who went from house to house in stifling heat last weekend to clear away debris.
A fire damaged house pictured yesterday in Wennington, a month after the wildfire caused by the weather destroyed huge parts of the village
These aspiring firefighters, I’m told, were visibly upset by the desolation they saw. Their distress would be greater still were they to meet the people who once lived in those obliterated homes. Sandra Tubb was forced to flee so quickly when the flames changed tack that she had time only to grab her handbag.
Languishing in council digs, six miles from the village, she tells me she feels deprived of every last thing she valued: photographs of her son as a baby and her parents, cherished mementos, as well as her husband’s buried remains.
Most of all, though, she mourns the loss of her neighbours. Only 86-year-old Harold Walker, who lived next-door, had lived in Marine Cottages longer than her, and she says: ‘It was a lovely terrace. I made lots of friends there and I miss them terribly.’
She now spends long days alone with her memories, filling out new address forms, wandering around unfamiliar shops to replenish her wardrobe and household utensils. All the while fretting over whether she will ever find another permanent home.
‘Had we known the fire was going to reach us, we could at least have got a few things out,’ she says wistfully. ‘If only we’d been given just a bit more time.’
It was a wretched refrain I heard several times this week. But the Great Fire of Wennington waited for no one as it hurtled along its zig-zagging path. Only the lucky ones kept hearth and home.
The scene from the air as the fire, caused by the weather, ripped through many homes in July (pictured)
Had the fire broken out while the village was sleeping, there is universal agreement it would have claimed many lives, too.
What the fire very evidently failed to destroy, however, was the village’s spirit. In summer, residents of The Green traditionally stage a communal picnic on the common, and this afternoon they have decided it will go ahead as scheduled.
It will be a rather different occasion this year, a chance for people to show their unity and support for those who have been displaced.
Amid the ghastly ruins, though, there will be food, drink, games for the children — and no doubt much optimism for Wennington’s phoenix-like resurrection.
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