The fire at Hinton Ampner
On Sunday 3rd April 1960 - a day he remembered as being particularly unpleasant with a strong wind blowing beneath a grey, watery sky - Ralph Dutton took to the woods for a walk after lunch. It was a walk he would later regret.
While he was out, a spark from the library fireplace leapt over the guard and settled on a nearby sofa which, in those days, would have been made from highly flammable materials. While the fire was contained for a time in the library, it soon burst through the ceiling where, fanned by the strong winds, it soared upwards to spread like a mushroom through the attics and eventually into the bedrooms.
When Ralph returned across the park an hour and a half later, he saw a thin column of smoke rising above the trees. As he drew nearer, the house that he'd left in serene tranquillity just a short time ago was now surrounded by fire engines and firemen. Water was in short supply, and when the rainwater tanks and formal pool were emptied, the fire brigade had to carry a pipe down the drive and across the main road to a stream in a meadow nearly half a mile away.
While the fire had by this point consumed many rooms, leaving behind little but black, putrid smoke, the contents of the sitting room were passed through the windows, even as the ceiling and floors were smouldering. Bravely, the firemen stood in the heat and smoke on the roof of the service wing to prevent the fire spreading further.
By midnight, the situation was largely under control, and while a token force of firemen remained on site in case of another outbreak, Ralph was taken in by kindly neighbours for the night.
The next morning revealed the extent of the devastation - the house was now largely a blackened shell with gaping windows, through which scenes of fallen beams and destroyed furniture could be glimpsed.
" From the ruins emanated that despairing stench that one had come to know all too well in wartime London, of burnt paint and sodden plaster."
Littered in front of the house were the few objects that had been lucky enough to be rescued and these, together with any other items that could be salvaged from the wreckage, were transferred to various outbuildings.
In the library, every book was destroyed. Ralph recalled: "Subjected to intense heat and water, [they] had become almost petrified as if engulfed by a volcanic eruption, and had to be hewn out of the bookcases with pickaxes."
Despite the destruction that lay before him, Ralph did manage to find two positives. Firstly, the fire had destroyed an immense amount of what he felt was useless material: "Whoever has the task of going through papers after my death should feel grateful that the work has been greatly lightened by the flames."
As for the second, Ralph was determined to rebuild the house without delay. For him, it was the setting and the surroundings which provided the principal draw of the property, and within 24 hours he found himself discussing the rebuild with Mr Wills, the architect of his 1936 alterations.
Work concentrated on making the structure watertight and habitable, and within a few short weeks Ralph found himself living in two small rooms on the ground floor; these were to be his home for the next three years.
Alterations were to be relatively minor, with only one low attic reinstated covering the original Georgian section of the house, and this had the effect of reducing the number of rooms by ten and lowering the height of the house by five feet.
Inside, almost all the Victorian features had been destroyed, and Ralph took the decision not to recreate them. Instead, a demolished house in Ashburnham donated its 18th century chimney pieces and a pair of fine door cases, while new cornices, pillars and entablature (the horizontal moulding that rests on top of the pillars) were constructed from modern fibrous plaster in an 18th century design.
The library was restored much as it was before, although it was some time before Ralph found a suitable chimney piece at an antique dealer in Paris. The Adam ceiling in the dining room was partially destroyed, although enough original plasterwork survived to allow the missing sections to be reproduced. The roundels, however, had been totally destroyed, so Ralph commissioned Elizabeth Biddulph to produce a new set in the 18th century style.
In the entrance hall, only the massive porphyry chimney-piece survived. Although blackened and damaged, the marble masons believed it could be restored, and they were also commissioned to produce four columns which were erected on a black and white marble floor. A new staircase with a more graceful design was added, and with the fire having consumed the upper floors, the drawing room ceiling was lowered a few inches to leave the bedroom windows at a more comfortable height from the floor.
By May 1963, exactly three years and one month after the fire, the house was fully habitable.