For most Shaftesbury residents, Easter was a time to relax and enjoy the company of friends and family. But some locals who traded from Melbury Business Park will have had a holiday weekend they will never forget, following a huge blaze that destroyed the industrial estate and their premises.
ThisIsAlfred spoke with two businesspeople who have received community support following the fire.
Sculptor and woodturner Darren Wheeler has clearly been on a ‘rollercoaster’ of emotions. He paused and took a breath when he spoke of how complete strangers have donated cash and sent goodwill messages. “There’s a parcel at home waiting for me. It arrived from the Isle of Mull. I don’t know anybody on the Isle of Mull,” Darren Wheeler smiled. We joked that it would have hopefully been despatched by a distillery.
“My phone has crashed twice this week. It can’t cope with the messages coming through. And if anything, that’s what has brought me to my knees. The way that the community has rallied around and tried to help,” he said.
We were sitting on the park bench outside Shaftesbury Town Hall. I asked Darren to tell me about the most moving message of support he had received. “I can’t. I’ll start blubbering,” he said. “There have just been so many on Tuesday and Wednesday. I couldn’t even read my Facebook page. I found it very humbling.”
“Somebody asked me, do I feel the love?” he continued, “And by God, I do! Very much so,” he exclaimed.
Just over a week ago, many people in Darren’s situation would have felt utter despair. “It’s just been an absolute nightmare,” he said, when he explained how the fire, which is believed to have started in the unit opposite his new studio, spread. It burnt out his premises. Darren lost his sculptures, which were destined for summer exhibitions and all of the wooden platters which he crafts.
Darren was alerted to the incident on Easter Sunday evening on social media. “I was already in bed. I was having an early night and a friend messaged me through Facebook and told me that my unit was on fire. I got up, and went down to see if I could salvage anything. I got there just in time to see the roof and the walls collapse,” said Darren, recalling that moment. The memory was clearly still raw and deeply upsetting to him.
Upholsterer Peter Port also traded from the rural business park. His Easter Sunday was shattered when he received a phone call. “A neighbour of my son-in-law was walking their dog over on the hill on the other side and they could see my unit on fire. I got a call and went straight down there but you weren’t allowed in. You couldn’t get past the first gate,” said Peter, who has worked as an upholsterer around Shaftesbury, Semley, Motcombe and Wincaton for thirty years.
Peter could only sit and watch as the workshop he had operated from the five years, and which stood next door to Sherman Chemicals, was engulfed in flames. “You are just kind of frozen. You are watching it but you are still not believing it,” Pete said.
Both craftsmen described the loss of their tools with great sadness. Woodturning utensils can be bought again but the ones with strong sentimental value were priceless and irreplaceable. “It’s taken me decades to accumulate all of the tools and kit. There were a lot of personal items in the workshop and quite a few of my grandfather’s tools. He was the one who got me into woodwork. There were chisels in there that I used daily for years,” said Darren.
Darren doubts whether anything can be recovered. “There’s not a lot of hope of salvaging anything. The fire was so quick, so hot. There’s nothing left really. I’ve just got to face facts. It’s gone,” he said. Even if metal equipment can be rescued, he says he would be nervous using it because it has been exposed to intense heat, could be out of alignment and potentially dangerous.
Peter has been back to the site of his unit to search for a tool that he used for decades. This piece of equipment would be hard to replace because it was made for Imperial measurements. “It’s the thing I used to cut out shapes of buttons – a metal cutter. I can buy another one but it’s metric and a little bit too big. I’ve had this one for years. I knew where it was. It was on the table and that has gone, so it can only have fallen in a straight line onto the floor. I searched for half an hour in the deep pile of ash,” said Peter. He found it.
It is bad enough that Pete has lost his livelihood but as an upholsterer he has been entrusted with other people’s furniture to restore. Some of the pieces destroyed were family heirlooms. Pete has had to cope with counting his losses and rebuilding his business whilst breaking bad news to his customers.
“I can understand what it must be like when a policeman has to go to somebody and bring them terrible news. That’s what it felt like. I’ve had clients crying down the phone. I’ve actually been to their houses. I just feel so horrible.”
Peter knows it’s not his fault, “but the insurance company aren’t going to do it are they?” he said. “I know everybody thinks, ‘It’s only a chair’ but it’s not really,” he continued. “It was the chair that grandfather sat in. It’s all the stories like that,” Peter said.
In the days since the fire, Darren has been overwhelmed by the support from Shaftesbury people and colleagues all over the country. Darren’s friends launched an online appeal for cash support. Peter’s granddaughter Freya did the same, unbeknown to Peter.
“What has happened since has been incredible,” said Darren. “Friends and family and the community have started this crowdfunding page. There are artists giving pieces of art. There’s an auction being arranged by Simon Gudgeon with lots of paintings, pieces of leather, jewellery. The whole artist community has got together and are trying to help me get back on my feet,” he said.
Darren enjoys bushcraft, the skills of outdoor camping and living. The bushcraft community has also been helpful. “I take my kids and we hammock camp in the woods and I will teach them how to build a chair as we have adventures, he said. “I belong to two bushcraft clubs – one in Wiltshire and one in Dorset. The Wiltshire guys have offered foraging courses on the auction site that Simon has set up. We went on a camp this weekend and I wouldn’t have been able to go without the support of the Wiltshire bushcraft boys. Everything went in the fire. All my bushcraft kit, rucksacks, hammocks, sleeping bags, everything. They lent me kit so me and the kids could go.”
This support is particularly important. Darren hasn’t got an insurance payment to look forward to. “I hadn’t opened my unit. It was due to open on 1st May so my contents insurance wasn’t live. I’m told that you cannot claim on somebody else’s insurance unless there was a direct contact of fire. Spontaneous combustion and heat transfer is not covered on insurance. This fire was nothing to do with me. It happened on the far side of the business park in an area that I have no control over and it’s totally wiped me out,” he said.
Peter does have insurance for his stock but says his pay out won’t cover the cost of his tools, which have been lost. “Generally you buy something each year and I didn’t increase the insurance enough so my cover was £3,000. My loss of tools is somewhere around £10,000 so I’m already £7,000 out of pocket. I had pieces of furniture that I collected over the years with the intention of doing them up and selling them on. I probably lost between £30,000 and £40,000,” Pete said, adding that he has found dealing with the insurers difficult and slow. “I’ve been told that some of it may take a year. Some of it may take two years”
Freya Port started a Justgiving appeal to raise £2,000 to fund a new upholstery workshop for her grandfather. Fifteen donors have given £370 so far. Peter says he’s touched that people have ‘put their hands in their pockets’. He says that money would be gratefully received.
152 donors have offered £4,600 towards the £5,000 target that Darren’s friends have calculated as the sum he needs to get back on his feet. “It won’t pay for me to be able to replace everything but it will give me a start,” said Darren.
Both men have experienced an incredible blow, greater than most people face in a lifetime of business, but after the support they been shown they are both determined to carry on. “I have already bought a lathe and I have been given some space in a workshop, so I can set the lathe up and get turning. I am going to be based at Sculpture by the Lakes, Simon Gudgeon’s sculpture park near Dorchester and I will be turning by 11th May,” said Darren.
And Darren will still meet one of his long-standing summer arts show commitments. “My first show would have been at Sculpture by the Lakes and I will be there demonstrating but I obviously won’t have the display of stuff that I’d already made.”
Darren hopes to find a unit in Shaftesbury in the not too distant future. “My kids go to school in Shaftesbury and I’d very much like to come back here at some point. It is only short-term at Simon’s,” he said.
Peter has also been given a new place to work nearby. “I can walk to my old unit in three minutes,” he said.
After a dreadful, desperate and draining week, Darren is determined that the terrible events on Easter Sunday won’t get him down. “I haven’t lost my skill. I have not lost my passion and I will not be beaten,” said Darren.