Just before noon on Friday the acrid smell of burnt timber still filled the air around Maida Vale, an exclusive district in northwest London. Ash littered the roads like black snow.
The spire of St Mark’s church, which overlooks the area, was visible up the hill towards St John’s Wood. But now it was scorched. The roof was gone. St Mark’s, an architectural and historical treasure with links to author Lewis Carroll and the novel Alice in Wonderland, was destroyed by fire overnight.
The blaze in the once-beautiful, 175-year-old listed building started on Thursday night some time after 10.30pm. The local Anglican vicar, Rev Kate Harrison, had earlier that evening been watching EastEnders and The Apprentice on television in the vicarage beside the church. Suddenly, she told The Irish Times, a neighbour frantically knocked on the door.
“We didn’t know anything about it until we got that knock. The neighbour said they could see flames. We got out quickly. It is just a blessing that nobody was hurt.”
In less than an hour the church was engulfed as the flames leapt high into the London sky. About 80 firefighters fought to bring it under control, while the tallest fire ladder in Europe was raised in front of the spire. But St Mark’s could not be saved. Only the stone structure was left standing on Friday.
Rev Harrison said the fire had left her “broken”.
“It really was the centre of our community. It was a real beacon, especially in recent years. A beacon of hope. For 175 years we served the community here with openness and with love. We always rallied around our congregation.”
Now the congregation must rally around St Mark’s. The church was consecrated in 1847 and survived a nearby bombing in the second World War. It is perched high above Maida Vale, where houses cost in the millions of pounds. Around the corner in St John’s Wood lie Abbey Road Studios and the Beatles crosswalk. This is a famous part of London.
When my daughter was little I used to bring her into the playgroup. Now it’s all gone. They will have to investigate what happened. I hope it wasn’t deliberate— A local woman
As well as being a place of worship, St Mark’s is also closely linked with the arts. It hosted regular classical music events and next Saturday a performance of the music of composers Gustav Mahler and Antonín Dvořák was due to take place.
But the church was best known for its literary connections. Rev Harrison’s predecessor at St Mark’s more than 150 years ago was Canon Robinson Duckworth, who famously tutored Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Prince Leopold, the Duke of Albany.
Canon Duckworth had another friend of the cloth, Rev Charles Dodgson, an aspiring writer whose pen name was Lewis Carroll. The author used to visit him at St Mark’s. One day there, Duckworth introduced the writer to the Liddell family, with whom he was friends.
Carroll became enchanted by the family’s youngest daughter, Alice Liddell. She became the inspiration for the eponymous young girl in his fantastical novel, Alice in Wonderland. St Mark’s proudly asserted on its website its history as the “genesis” of the famous story.
Its history may be storied, but the future of St Mark’s seems more uncertain. Locals stood around on Friday, whispering in shock. One woman, who did not want to be named, said she had been at a midnight service in the church at Christmas.
“It’s so sad. It was a beautiful church and it had this magnificent organ. It was always so wonderful there at Christmas. When my daughter was little I used to bring her into the playgroup. Now it’s all gone. They will have to investigate what happened. I hope it wasn’t deliberate,” said the woman, who said she lived on nearby Abbey Road.
As firefighters continued to pump in water, a stream flowed down the hill at Abercorn Place into Maida Vale village. The church’s roof timbers had collapsed into a heap. The stained glass windows had shattered. A police officer on the scene said there was no indication yet as to how the fire started.
“Our biggest worry was the embers floating about and the safety of this building here,” he said, gesturing towards an adjacent residential block, Violet Hill House. “Thankfully, everybody was evacuated.”
On a bench outside the church someone had placed a bunch of flowers. Despite her devastation, Rev Harrison believes the church can one day be rebuilt. “I really do hope so,” she said.