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Family’s last look at Norwich’s Bethel Street fire station

PUBLISHED: 15:00 22 October 2011

Deserted parking bays at Bethel Street fire station in Norwich, which is now up for sale.; Photo: Bill Smith

Deserted parking bays at Bethel Street fire station in Norwich, which is now up for sale.; Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2011

It used to be a bustling station that was ready to spring to action at a moment’s notice.

But now with only old hoses, coat hangers and a solitary piece of pool chalk laying disused, memories are almost all that are left of the city’s Bethel Street fire station.

The grade two listed building ended its 77 year history as a fire station when the service moved out in August.

Now it is being prepared for a new chapter in its history.

But before its sale and likely overhaul, a former resident of the station’s flat took one last look around.

Janet Smith lived in the flat during the late 1950s when her father Desmond became station officer.

Together with her mum Wendy, the family moved into the flat above the fire station and spent four happy years there.

Janet’s sister Sarah was even born in the back bedroom in February 1959.

This week Janet’s memories were relived as she took a tour around the station.

Together with her sister Sarah and brother Jonathan they wandered through the old station’s empty bay, mess hall, workshops, winding staircases, host of small offices and roof area that was once used as a rifle range.

Ms Smith, 61, of Anglesey, said: “It is just amazing. It looks exactly the same.”

Her sister Sarah Telfer, 52, of Redcar, near Middlesbrough, was under two years old when they moved to Bournemouth, so she could only remember the way the light fell through the windows of her old room.

Mrs Telfer said: “It is amazing for me to see somewhere my mum and dad lived and get a picture of how they lived.

“It is nice to be here and see it, especially when it is all going to change.”

The building was vacated by the Norfolk Fire and Rescue service in August when they moved to a new £4.5m base in Trowse.

A dozen tenants were going to move in as guardians of the building while its future was decided, but it was declared unfit to live in as it failed to meet fire safety regulations.

Now a few current firemen are living on site, acting as the guardians as NPS Property Consultants look for buyers on behalf of Norfolk County Council.

The building, which has a floor area of more than 2,500 square metres, comes with planning permission for 14 flats and retail or office use on the ground and first floors.

However, Darren Facey, of NPS Property Consultants, said this was just an idea of what could be done to the property, although restrictions meant that flats could not be on the ground or first floors, and the famous brass poles had to stay. He said: “This is just a potential change of use. We expect a developer to come along and have other uses.”

He said that there had been a lot of interest, with a proposal to turn the station into a hotel among the inquiries.

Mr Facey said: “The basic price is £650,000, which is a lot of bricks and mortar for the money. But we expect to get more than that.”

Ms Smith said she would like to see the station’s bay as an art gallery or a museum so that it retained a connection with the fire service.

She said: “I am pleased the building is being preserved as a grade two listed building, as I think it is iconic and beautiful.

“It has made me realise how important it is to keep buildings, not just to come back and be nostalgic but because they have a sense of history about them.”

Potential buyers have to complete a tender document by December 1.

Norfolk County Council will make the final decision and the sale is expected to be completed by January 6.

Memories of Norwich Fire Station 1956-1960 by Janet Smith

Early memories of the fire station were wonderful and joyous. I had always been a tomboy, preferring those things which seemed to be the domain of men and boys. And now I was a tomboy living in a world of men who had machines, engines, equipment and a wonderful camaraderie, which seemed to involve a lot of hanging out, smoking and drinking tea interspersed with bursts of intense and intensely exciting and dangerous activity.

I don’t remember there being other young children in the other flats, but at Christmas time, there would be hordes of children at the Christmas parties. These were splendid affairs, held in the firefighters’ mess hall, with Santa arriving on the raised stage carrying his huge sack of presents. At less festive times of the year, the mess was still a place of warmth and jokes.

Right at the top of the Fire Station was a rifle range - a long, dark space which was mostly adult head height, apart from the eaves which were dark dusty corners where forbidden boxes were stored and which would occasionally transmit the sound of small rodents. But this was the place where we could do target practice. At the far end of this long room, which seemed miles away, were targets pinned to a wooden frame. I can remember the excitement of being allowed to fire a rifle for the first time.

Living in the flats, we got used to seeing the firefighters do their drills - and some of them were reconstructions of fires with smoke pouring out of the water tower and the sirens blaring. I watched dummies and real men being “rescued”, carried over the shoulder of a firefighter who was descending the ladder.

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