Today marks the anniversary of a huge hotel fire that rocked the community of a Devon seaside town.
Just before 7pm on the evening of Wednesday, August 9, 2006, firefighters from 20 stations across Devon and Somerset were called out.
An enormous blaze had taken hold at the Montebello Hotel on Ilfracombe’s historic Fore Street, one of the main thoroughfares to the town’s seafront.
The six-storey building, once one of the town’s more popular hotels, had been derelict for some time.
Huge plumes of smoke emanating from the fire could be seen for miles around and several nearby properties had to be evacuated.
It took more than 100 firefighters over 24 hours to extinguish the fire.
One resident was forced to stay in emergency council accommodation while several others were taken to a nearby church, though fortunately no one was injured in the blaze.
Both Fore Street and the A399 in Ilfracombe were forced to remain closed for several days after the blaze while firefighters worked with police to establish exactly what had happened.
Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service described the cause of the blaze as suspicious, though no one was ever convicted in connection with the incident.
The charred remains of the hotel were so badly damaged that they could not be salvaged and the building was knocked down.
Now, 14 years later, the derelict, rubble-filled site remains – a constant and unwanted reminder to the community of the shocking event.
While hording has been erected around the sight in an attempt to minimise the visual eyesore, there remains a gaping and very obvious hole in the landscape of the town, which relies on the tourist trade to survive.
The site has been on the market for many years and is still listed on the Webbers Estate Agents website where potential buyers can get a “price on application”.
But despite a few nibbles of interest from potential developers over the years, the site remains empty.
The fire was one of several that seemed to happen in the town over the course of a five year period.
Other sea front properties to suffer damage from fire included the Cliff Hydro Hotel, the Collingwood Hotel, the Berkeley Hotel, the Glen Tor Hotel and the Golden Coast Amusements.
Residents have long tired of the derelict buildings and empty sites in the town and last year North Devon Council decided to take action.
A report from the authority stated the buildings were having an “adverse impact on the environment, economy and wellbeing of the town” and said unless the authority intervenes the sites are likely to remain in their current state.
In March, 2019, the council’s executive committee agreed to explore the potential compulsory purchase of both the Montebello Hotel site and the prominent Golden Coast amusements site on Wilder Road.
Planning enforcement notices had already been placed on both sites by the council for improvements works to make them safe, with some works carried out at the council’s expense.
Speaking about the Montebello Hotel site in the 2019 report, the council states: “The site’s owners, who acquired the hotel, live outside the area, but have been in contact over that period, and a hoarding was replaced at the Council’s expense to keep the site safe and make this busy tourist route more attractive.
“Fore Street is one of Ilfracombe’s most popular streets, with hotels and restaurants on the route from the High Street to the Harbour.
“Webbers are currently marketing the site at an asking price of £600,000 and a prospective buyer has been in pre-application discussions with North Devon Council planning. The purchaser is struggling with viability issues.
“There are questions around the stability of the rear retaining wall of the site which is several stories in height. This could be a risk to the Council if the site were acquired, but a back to back agreement in place before acquisition could transfer this liability to any partner/purchaser.
“The difficulty with both sites is that their original purchase price has meant unrealistic expectations of value in the current market and with their existing constraints.
“The recommendation is that the Council explore the potential to use their CPO powers to bring both back into active economic use.”
Speaking at the time, North Devon Council’s lead member for economic regeneration, Councillor Pat Barker, said: “The decision to explore the potential for a compulsory purchase of these two properties is great news for residents and visitors to Ilfracombe.
“The properties are in two prominent positions within the town, namely the seafront and Fore Street, so it’s vital that we protect these areas.
“If we decided to proceed with a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) it will come back to our executive committee for further consultation, but it’s a step in the right direction.
“It shows that the council will intervene and take action on sites across the district which have an unhealthy impact on our communities and neighbourhoods.”
However, while plans for an 80-bedroom hotel were submitted for the former Golden Coast amusements site last year, things appear to have gone quiet on the Montebello site.
Devon Live has contacted North Devon Council for an update.
A history of hotel fires in Ilfracombe
A fire at the Candar Hotel leaves one person dead and eight people injured.
65 firefighters called to The Golden Coast Amusements on Wilder Road. The building, which had to be knocked down due to extensive damage, was empty at the time. Police suspect arson.
70 firefighters are called to a blaze at the Cliffe Hydro Hotel. The building was empty at the time. Police suspect arson.
30 firefighters called to a fire at the Cliffe Hydro Hotel. The building was empty at the time. Police suspect arson.
Six fire engines called to a blaze at the Cliffe Hydro Hotel. The building was empty at the time. Police suspect arson
Three fire crews called to a fire at the Cliffe Hydro Hotel. The building was empty at the time. Police suspect arson.
More than 100 fire fighters are called to a large blaze at the Montebello Hotel on Fore Street. The building was empty at the time. Firefighters say the cause of the blaze was suspicious.
13 fire crews called to the Collingwood Hotel. The building was empty at the time. The fire was not treated as suspicious.
Nine fire engines were called to reports of a fire at The Berkeley Hotel on Wilder Road. The building was empty at the time.
Four fire crews called to a blaze at the Glen Tor Hotel. It is believed the cause of the fire was an electrical fault.
Around 172 people are evacuated from the Dilkhusa Hotel on Wilder Road after a fire breaks out at 2.40am. Seven crews from across Devon across Devon are sent to tackle the blaze. Five people are taken to hospital. Police suspect arson.