Historic rural pub rises from ashes – two years after devastating fire
PUBLISHED: 13:13 13 March 2020 | UPDATED: 15:27 13 March 2020
When high winds whipped up a chimney fire on the newly-thatched roof of a recently-refurbished country pub near Newmarket, the effects were devastating.
The roof collapsed, its weight bearing down on the ground floor, as 80 firefighters pumped gallons of water onto the historic 17th century inn to prevent the blaze from spreading.
After the fire - which broke out on March 3, 2018 - subsided, Philip Turner, founder of pub owner the Chestnut Group, and his staff were confronted by a damp, ashen ruin, with all their hard work undone - and the almost overwhelming task of rebuilding it.
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'I don't think I have ever felt so low as seeing the Blackbirds burn down,' he admitted afterwards. He recalls it was 'very cold, and very windy'. 'It all happened very quickly,' he said. Thankfully, no one was hurt - by far his main concern.
Staff inside the building at the time were able to escape without injury after a swift evacuation - but shocked villagers were dealt a blow after losing their only pub.
'You go through the emotional rollercoaster - is everyone safe?' he recalled. 'You have got your team and you have got to work out what happens to them.'
There have been setbacks to the re-launch - the Chinese factory from which they ordered the new pub furniture closed down, and all the works have needed to comply with the requirements of heritage experts.
But now the ancient hostelry in the small village of Woodditton - rechristened The Three Blackbirds - has been completely rebuilt and restored, and a nine-bedroom accommodation barn has been added to complement the business. In all, the investment has been around £1m.
Given the severe extent of the damage, the rebuild - overseen by heritage experts to retain as much as of the original - is nothing short of miraculous. It has been very much a labour of love to restore and reincorporate familiar elements including artworks into what is largely a new pub.
But that has meant new foundations and improvements such as to the windows have been possible to bring it up to required building standards, and the accommodation barn has been an added bonus, says Philip.
The chimney stacks have been rebuilt, and the new oak and steel structure, with charred and warped remnants of the old building incorporated where possible, exposed so that the story of the building is on view.
'We have effectively had to rebuild from the ground up,' he said.
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In the run-up to its re-opening this weekend (March 13/14/15), the pub has hosted a series of events for staff, firefighters, construction workers and villagers as a thank you for their support.
The pub group itself started when Philip bought his local, ex-Greene King pub The Packhorse at Moulton, near Newmarket, in 2012 as a hospitality novice.
The fire has been a rare dark moment in the otherwise meteoric rise of his pub empire. The banker, who moved to Suffolk with his new wife, is originally from Gislingham, near Eye. He has chosen locations close to the region's most important cultural, historic or sporting assets in the East Anglian region where he feels there is a gap for quality hostelries. He now has 11 - with two more 'in the pipeline'.
Pubs in the group include the Westleton Crown, the Ship at Dunwich, the Rupert Brooke in Grantchester, the Northgate in Bury St Edmunds, the Black Lion in Long Melford, the Weeping Willow at Barrow, the Eight Bells in Saffron Walden, the Crown Inn in Stoke-by-Nayland, and most recently, the Globe Inn in Wells-next-the-Sea.
The Chestnut Group - which is backed by investors - bought The Three Blackbirds from farmer Guy Taylor, who has himself diversified into a wedding business, in August 2016.
The group spent a few months refurbishing and re-thatching it and re-opened in March 2017. It opened strongly, but just 11 months later, the grade II listed building, set in a conservation area, was destroyed by the fire.
Philip admits he's learnt lessons since the pub's enforced closure and he has rethought a number of aspects of the business, including returning the pub, which he rebranded as The Blackbirds, to its original name. 'We wibble-wobbled a bit in terms of finding an identity,' he admitted. 'If you make a mistake, you put your hands up.'
Now it's a 'proper old country pub' he said. 'The fire was quite a cathartic moment for us to go back to the roots of the building,' he added. 'What we did before was a bit harsh and was not quite in keeping with the ethos of the pub.'
Now he feels a much greater sense of ownership, having put so much into the building. 'I feel personally we are much more in tune with the pub,' he said.
'It looks amazing. The feedback we have had from people so far is fabulous. It's exciting. The work in the building has been very respectful to the character and authenticity of the pub.'
It's a busy period for the group, and 30-strong team at the Three Blackbirds are 'hugely excited' at the opening, he said.
'The pain you go through during the process you almost forget instantly,' he said.
'We also completed on The Globe in Wells as well. As business, we have got quite a lot going on. We continue to wanted to expand in the East Anglian region. You don't allow something like this to derail your plan.'