Cause of 900C blaze that destroyed celebrity chef’s school still a mystery

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The cause of a fire which destroyed the 17th-century barn housing celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s cookery school kitchens remains unknown, investigators have said.

Following a probe into the blaze at the River Cottage headquarters in Axminster, Devon, the fire service said it is not treating it as suspicious.

Temperatures during the blaze reached over 900°C and it is believed the fire was burning for some time before being discovered by a gardener who was staying overnight in a flat in the farmhouse.

Fire investigator for Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service Mike Burroughs said: “The building was extensively damaged throughout, but particularly in the kitchen area and lean-to buildings.

“Some very large structural timbers had burnt to completion and there was evidence to suggest temperatures reached over 900°C at low level.

“It is likely that the fire had been burning for some time before it was discovered and was well developed before fire crews arrived.

“The area of origin was the most badly damaged and there was insufficient evidence found to draw firm conclusions on the precise mechanism of ignition; however there are no suspicious circumstances.

“I can confirm that the fire did not start in the wood-fired bread oven or food smoking unit.”

The fire broke out just after 10pm on Tuesday, destroying the roof of the restored barn with much of the wood charred and blackened.

The cooking school kitchen contained around 10 ovens each connected to individual gas cylinders, which were involved in the fire.

Fearnley-Whittingstall was out of radio range filming in the Southern Ocean on Wednesday when staff at the River Cottage headquarters were trying to contact him.

Later the chef, who moved his headquarters to the farm in 2006, said it was “impossible to imagine” the damage caused by the fire.

“I’m so shocked to hear the news of the fire in our barn at Park Farm, our River Cottage HQ,” he said.

“Obviously it’s a huge relief that nobody’s been hurt, and I’m very grateful to the local fire brigade for their prompt response and all their help.”

The roof of the cookery school kitchen, in a barn at the farm, has been completely destroyed by the fire, with much of the wood charred and blackened.

Fearnley-Whittingstall, a chef, writer, broadcaster and campaigner, moved into the original River Cottage in Dorset in 1998 to start growing and rearing food of his own.

In 2006 the headquarters moved into the farm near the Devon and Dorset border.

Based in Axminster, it is the base for running courses and events in line with the chef’s commitment to ethically-produced food.