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A Night to Remember - Thirty Years Ago ...

Monday 15th September 1969

-A brief note by Dave Irwin


Above: - The Belfry, 1961. Photo: Mike Baker

Right: -Cover of belfry Bulletin No. 259 that was published a week later informing members of the disaster.

It seems only yesterday that the club faced one of the worst crises in its history.  The old wooden Belfry caught fire and suddenly the Club was 'homeless'.

It happened one wet Monday night when a group of visitors were sinking their beer at the Hunters. 'Jock' Orr was also staying at the Belfry but was spending the evening in Bristol supping coffee with Wig and Tim Reynolds. 'Jock' left Bristol about 11.30 pm and arrived at the Belfry to find the Fire Service in attendance.  Dave Searle who lived nearby had already switched off the main electrical supply to the building but the firemen had another problem - how to get the gas cylinders out of the building safely.  However, the fire was contained within the building and little external damage was done either by the fire or the firemen.  Within a short space of time the fire was out but the building was gutted internally.

'Jock' returned to Bristol and woke Wig about 2.15 am who took the whole episode as a bad joke!!  But when Jock produced a hand full of coins that had been retrieved from the building it was all go.  Bob Bagshaw, the club treasurer, was woken a half-hour later and told of the occurrence and who, later, contacted the insurance company and assessors. Meanwhile, Jock and Wig carried on to Chew Stoke and woke John Riley and his brother, after all, if Jock and Wig were up why shouldn't everyone else en-route.  Eventually all ended up in the Belfry car park at about half-past three. The weather was pretty foul, heavy drizzle and the usual Mendip low cloud and when the Belfry came into view - the whole scene looked pretty dismal to say the least.  The building was still smouldering in places and the air was filled with the stench of wet burnt wood.  Nothing more could be done so it was back to Chew stoke for coffee and eats - courtesy of John Riley; then back to Bristol to change and off to work! That afternoon, a group returned to the Belfry to sort out salvageable gear and personal belongings of             members which was passed to Bobby Bagshaw for safe keeping.

Within the next couple of days a group of 'club elders' met and decided the next move and what was needed by the Club AGM to be held as usual in early October.

Fortunately, plans for a more permanent building had been in being for some time and at that time a number of regular Belfryites had been paying a quid a month for a period of three years - quite a lot of money at that time.

General view of the Belfry on 15th September, 1969.  Photo: Roy McR. Pearce

Though many people on Mendip were spreading 'malicious' rumours and rubbing their hands with glee that the BEC had burnt the Belfry deliberately and in any case this event would be the end of the BEC they were to a shortly disappointed.  At or about the time of the AGM, Bob Bagshaw announced that combining the Belfry fund, various anonymous donations and the insurance money, the Club was only some £700 short of the £3,000 to commence the building work.

Added to that the collections and fund raising devices arranged at the Annual Dinner, and subsequent further donations, that shortfall was raised in the coming months.  The upshot was that the Belfry was up and running and officially opened by Mrs Shuter, the retired landlady of the Waggon and Horses at Redcliffe, Bristol, in May 1970.

What happened in between? Well, the stone Belfry, now the tackle store and MRO store, was converted into a temporary bunkroom and living quarters for the intervening winter - it was tolerably comfortable but no real substitute for that which had been destroyed in the fire.

All the photos accompanying this note are being published for the first time.

Top and above:  In daylight – 15th September 1969.  Photos: Roy McR Pearce

Above:  Another view of the general scene after sorting member’s valuables from the wreckage. Photo: Roy McR Pearce

Below:  Phil Davies (right) then Hon. Secretary of the Wessex, offering his condolences.  Also in the picture, Alan Thomas (left foreground) and John Riley (extreme left).  Photographer unknown.