Reprinted from Newsletter 102, dated 2002 January

Victorian department store gutted; police suspect arson

Jim Nagel

A brick building with a rounded corner is at the corner of a road. It is surrounded by scaffolding. At street level temporary barriers have been put up to keep pedestrians from walking too close. To the right Glastonbury’s Market Cross monument is visible, and next to this is a large Christmas tree which has been decorated with lights. Some pedestrians stand and walk in various places in the scene.
The Victorian listed building at the corner of Benedict Street near the Market Cross, gutted by fire before Christmas, makes a sad sight. Police are investigating possible arson. The building — Heaphys department store until 1970 — is owned by Malcolm Slocombe. We must hope its condition will allow complete restoration with minimum delay. Written on the boards is the same hope: “Grafton’s Café is closed for redecoration — see you in 2002.”

Builders are currently working on the fire-damaged Heaphys building at the top of Benedict Street, carrying out burnt timbers and making it safe. Insurers, structural engineers and conservation experts will then have to decide about restoration work on the listed building.

A neighbour rang the fire brigade at 3:15am on December 6, and 44 men turned out with both engines from Glastonbury, two from Wells and one from Street plus a hydraulic platform from Bridgwater. They had the fire under control by 4:47am.

The blaze appears to have started on the first floor and spread upwards, the staircase acting like a chimney. Upper floors and the roof were gutted but the ground floor suffered surprisingly little: water damage and ceiling ruined but café fittings and plate-glass windows intact.

Grafton’s Café had its kitchen on the first floor along with some seating, and used the second floor and attic for storage. Upper floors had been cheap flats in previous decades, but luckily were unoccupied at the time of the blaze or there could have been deaths. By good fortune the fire did not spread to the flats next door in Benedict Street, where residents had to evacuate — nor to the huge stock of second-hand books on three floors of the other neighbouring building, the Book Barn.

Police are treating the fire as arson. Among other suspicious recent cases, firemen were twice called on January 2 to a barn in Godney Road. First they found burning bales of hay and put them out. Responding to another call a few hours later, they found the barn itself blazing and were unable to save it.

Malcolm Slocombe (of Four Seasons), who owns the burnt Market Place building along with the adjoining one in Benedict Street and numerous other properties around Glastonbury, repaired upper-floor windows to conservation standards some years ago.

The same brick building as in the previous photo, but from a different angle, and closer. No scaffolding is present. The lettering above the main entrance is just about visible as “Heaphy”. Some large round glass lamps hang from the building. A sign is visible reading “Perth dye”. A church tower is visible further down the road, left of the building.
Heaphys in its heyday — note the curved glass and grand lamp by the main door. From the Somerset County Archives postcard collection.

When vandals smashed the curved glass on the ground-floor corner, a reminder of the building’s glory days as Glastonbury’s department store, it was replaced with a compromise: three flat panes of plate glass. In the rebuilding, perhaps curved glass will be restored.

Heaphys department store — the name survives in mosaic tiles at the entrance — was still in business when I first came to Glastonbury in 1970. I recall a half-flight of stairs leading to departments in an adjoining building, presumably the one in Benedict Street.

A Hong Kong family lived upstairs in the building in the later 1970s and ran the China Garden take-away restaurant. Among short-term uses in the 80s and 90s the shop sold oriental carpets. For a brief while the name Heaphys was resurrected as a wine bar until Grafton’s Café opened two years ago.

Café vows to thrive again

Lynn Bastian (née Grafton), the café proprietor, in a letter to the Central Somerset Gazette on January 10 catalogues the vandalism, graffiti and other criminal acts that have plagued town-centre businesses. She vows to fight back and reopen as soon as possible.

In this fire, Glastonbury was lucky not to have lost its entire marketplace, she writes. As it is, 16 staff and weekend musicians lose their jobs, and local suppliers lose custom from the café.

“Grafton’s had successfully rejuvenated a run-down corner of the Market Place. Instead of a thriving café with tourists enjoying the sunshine on our outside tables, residents and visitors this year will face a boarded-up eyesore in the very heart of the town for at least six months.

“If we as a town let the criminals win, Glastonbury will become a graffiti-strewn ghost town of empty and boarded-up shops, and none of us want that. The sad thing is that the lawless element are a small minority in a town that has a very big heart.”