Mill Road fire: Demolition of burnt-out shop front begins
Demolition has begun on parts of the shop affected by a huge blaze on Mill Road last week after fears it could collapse onto the street below.
Fire ripped through the H Gee electrical shop on the evening of Monday, July 15, spreading to the roof of the neighbouring buildings. More than 90 firefighters worked through the night to bring the blaze under control.
No one was injured in the fire but 29 households – all the way back to the bridge – were evacuated and some are still unable to return.
Now a structural engineering inspection has revealed weaknesses in the roof of the electrical store and the two adjoining properties, meaning the roof will have to be taken down. But even more pressing is the dormer window of the flat above the shop as it is at risk of falling down.
Paul Parry, from Cambridge City Council’s emergency planning manager, said: “The roof and the dormer are unsafe and they are taking them down now.
“I understand the upper floors have been severely damaged and a large chunk of the roof has come down on the upper floors.
“If the roof collapses it will likely fall inside the building, but if the dormer collapses there’s a potential it could fall into the street which is why we have had to cordon off the area. If it does collapse it will make a mess but not hurt anybody.
“It had to be done for safety reasons but there has been a knock on effect to the work going on to install a new gas main in the road.
“At the moment they can’t dig in front of the shop because that whole area is cordoned off due to the risk of building collapse.
“It’s likely that by next Monday the businesses can access the building to see the full extent of the damage.”
Many businesses are waiting to hear about the future of their premises after being evacuated following the fire last week.
The H Gee electrical shop was destroyed in the blaze, but neighbouring businesses are also unable to return because of water damage to the properties and remaining questions about whether they are structurally sound.
Anjana Taank, the owner of Taank Optometrists which is next to the site of the fire, has been working from a room in St Barnabas Church since last Tuesday, unsure of the level of damage suffered by her property.
She said: “As far as I can tell, we haven’t had any fire damage but the firefighters had to put holes in our roof and cannoned water through the holes. As a result it soaked through the whole building, so the tenants’ flat has been damaged and the practice has been damaged as well.
“The water has come all the way through to our practice but we have salvaged as many things as we can get and we are working to try and rebuild we have options of relocating temporarily.
“Our machinery is in there so we can’t operate at the moment. We need to get some new machinery and rebuild the practice and hopefully get back on track. Patients can still contact us though, and we have a phone line working and all of our patient records. There has been a practice on this site for more than 100 years and Mill Road is in our DNA, so we will be back.”
Anjana was out of town on the night of the fire but received a call from her tenants to say the next door building was ablaze.
She said: “We got in the car and drove to Cambridge and we saw the fire from the back of the building.
“It was pretty extensive at that point – it had reached the roof and firefighters were everywhere. It was quite devastating actually seeing that.”
Businesses further along the road were also evacuated, including the digital marketing company Sookio, which operates from above the empty Lloyds Bank building two doors down from the H Gee’s shop.
Sue Keogh, director, said: “On the night of the fire, the fireman had to break down our door and check there was no one inside and that the fire hadn’t spread
“A friend had called me in the night to leave a message about the fire but I didn’t see it until the morning. I didn’t know until I got there whether the fire had spread to our office.
“We are a bit nomadic at the moment. So far, this morning we have been working in Hot Numbers, now we’re currently in the church opposite and then some lovely clients are giving us a bit of desk space this afternoon.
“We can work remotely because we do digital marketing. If we had been a clothes shop it would have been devastating because we would have lost all our stock, but as it is we can work from laptops.
“All I’m waiting for is an official OK from someone to say we can go back in and that it’s structurally sound. The building itself looks OK from the outside but I’m not qualified to make that decision.”
Following news that many businesses were struggling following the Mill Road bridge closure, the gas works taking place and now a devastating fire that meant many had been evacuated, Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner went to speak with local traders last Friday.
He said: “I found there had been mixed experiences. Some people had been OK but others had clearly been suffering and we were there to flag up that Mill Road is very much open and the sense of vibrancy and good cheer makes it even more compelling.
“The fire quite clearly was very upsetting and traumatic for people and the problem is not only have we got the bridge closure and the gas works but now we have the fire and there’s no doubt in the area immediately adjacent it has been a big blow. I think the best way Cambridge people can respond is by going out of their way to go to Mill Road and show support.
“Some, not all, said they had suffered due to the bridge closure. It depends on the type of business because some of the cafés had done reasonably well from the extra workmen there. But clearly some of the businesses have been hard hit and I have huge sympathy.
“I’m still irritated by Govia Thameslink, who promised me last November they would ensure the footway and cycle access would be maintained throughout and that isn’t the case. That’s not helping either.
“I don’t understand why they couldn’t do that so I’m pursuing it with them. It’s worth remembering there will be benefits. It will allow the Chisholm Trail to be completed and there will be better train services too. But it impact is falling very hard on a few people in Mill Road and I have huge sympathy.”
On the question of whether the road should stay closed to traffic, he added: “I was interested to see how it worked. The immediate drop-off you get is probably what you would anticipate. What we don’t know is whether a more relaxed atmosphere where people can walk more freely would actually boost business. In places where that has been tried in the past that has been proved to be the case but you don’t necessarily prove that in a week or two.
“We may be able to learn from this but I appreciate there are strong views on both sides. I have always taken the view that getting traffic out of Cambridge would be good for everybody so I will be watching the results with interest. I think the general trend will be to get more cars out of city centres. But it has to be done in the right way – just shutting a bridge isn’t enough. We can certainly learn from this period.
“Mill Road is a very special area and the joyful spirit in the street is pretty special. I think it has a fantastic future.”