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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 February 2008, 01:05 GMT
Crowds gather while Camden burns
By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

Firefighters tackling the blaze at the Hawley Arms
Much of the firefighters' efforts centred around the Hawley Arms

Ash floated through the air, and the sky was lit by a beautiful yet terrible glow.

Camden was burning, and the gathered crowds at the edge of the police cordons could scarcely believe their eyes.

A musty aroma filled up the nostrils as they watched thousands of gallons of water aimed relentlessly at the famous Hawley Arms pub.

The flames simply seemed to reach contemptuously higher.

This pub is - or, perhaps, was - the favoured watering hole of such stars as Amy Winehouse, Liam Gallagher and even Hollywood's Kirsten Dunst, who is said to have popped in after the London premiere of Spider-Man 3.

Its landlord received Winehouse's Mobo award on her behalf in September, reportedly saying that "it'll be on the back wall of the Hawley Arms. In fact the Hawley Arms has won this award tonight".

In the streets surrounding the extensive blaze people gathered, grouping together and taking up high vantage points, lining up at the plastic police tape stretched between trees, railings and bollards, doing their best to get a better view.

Some skipped over these flimsiest of barriers and got closer still to the action, keen to get a grandstand view, much to the fury and dismay of police officers.

Seth Owuadey
Seth Owuadey saw the fire in its early stages

One officer was having a one-sided argument with a young hooded man on a bicycle, threatening to arrest him if he did not move away.

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There were people swarming everywhere in the half-lit, eerie streets, and while the firefighters tried to tame the flaming beast that was tearing through the heart of one of London's most famous districts, the police were working hard trying to keep the gawping onlookers at bay.

Above it all was a tower of greyish smoke, and a golden sky spewing the occasional swarm of sparks, punctuated by the odd high column of angry flame that demonstrated the enduring ferocity of the blaze.

The atmosphere was subdued, one of shock - Camden is an area that many people have a great affection for.

Vibrant, bohemian, if you want an unusual gift, or a T-Shirt with an amusing slogan, or a tattoo or even a bootleg CD, then Camden is the place to visit.

Watching a significant part of it burn was like watching a dear friend suffer an accident.

Many people live in the area, and there was concern among some as to the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Two people sat watching the scene of the fire
Moira Smith (right) watched the drama unfold

One young woman was talking into her mobile phone, seemingly leaving a voicemail message, asking her mother to contact her because she was not answering her daughter's call.

A group of Goths, clad in long black coats and dresses, stood somewhat incongruously on a street corner, unsure of what to do next, their plans ruined.

Likewise, many people shouted across to one another about alternatives for their evening, or barked instructions into their mobiles while hurrying down a street, organising an alternative meeting point.

Giant flames

Wandering the streets with a group of his friends was Seth Owuadey, 48, who lives in Kentish Town.

He was in a bar opposite the Hawley Arms and saw the early flames grow stronger.

"A fire engine arrived but it took about 40 minutes for more to come, even though by then the flames were the height of a house.

"We thought it started in the Hawley Arms, but it started in an alleyway behind there. There were people on the roof of the Hawley Arms, just looking down at the fire.

"People on the street started shouting up at those in the pub to get out because the fire was spreading. It looked huge."

Moira Smith, 46, also of Kentish Town, saw the flames out of the window of her home "and the next minute, it was on the news".

Two firefighters
Several buildings were destroyed, despite efforts by the fire service

She was sat next to a young man in the middle of the road at the edge of the police cordon in Chalk Farm Road, and for some reason the pair were seated on a couple of bar stools, clearly commandeered from a watering hole outside of the fire-fighting cordon.

She said: "You could tell it was serious. The smoke was black.

"I'm just shocked by it all. Please God, there'll be no casualties.

"This area is really popular with local people and tourists. There's a market, different types of clothing, vintage clothes and shoes.

"Camden is the place to be and is packed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I've never seen so many people come out to look at a fire like this before."

Eyewitness accounts: Camden fire
09 Feb 08 |  England
In pictures: Camden fire
09 Feb 08 |  In Pictures

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