When Knebworth Golf Club's general manager Mark Bierton saw smoke coming from an electrical meter, he had two choices. He made the right one
It was the faintest puff of smoke – seeping out of the top of an electrical cupboard – and it stopped Mark Bierton in his tracks.
Was it only for a second? But the general manager at Knebworth Golf Club froze in time. He had a choice. Did he open the door, or call 999?
“I called the fire brigade and we evacuated the building,” he remembers. “It took them seven minutes to arrive and, by the time they did, there were flames coming out of the roof.”
Bierton can remember almost every step of that day – August 3, 2019 – when a fire gutted the first floor of the clubhouse at the Hertfordshire club.
“The main lobby hall, where the fire had started in the meter cupboard, had dissipated,” he says as he recounts what he saw when the water had finally doused the blaze.
“There was a really nasty smell of burning wood and material. Without the fire doors on that cupboard, it would have spread through the entire downstairs.
“As it contained it within the cupboard, it sent it up to the first floor. That’s where it really started to hit home what had happened.
“The main staircase was black and dripping. On the landing, the floors were raised and lifted where the fire had come through the floorboards.
“The storeroom was a scary sight. There was no roof. I could see straight through to the elements and I was getting rained on at that point.
“That roof damage continued across the front of the building and the back elevation as well.
“To see a fire that had started downstairs remove a roof from a building was what hit home to me.
“All I could think of was, ‘How am I going to open tomorrow?’”
They talk you through fire drills, and Bierton had done his fair share of those in his previous career working at hotels. Instinct kicked in, as it did for his well-drilled team, when the alarms started ringing.
What’s harder to get your head around is what comes next. Bierton had only been in post at Knebworth five months. Now he was faced with the reality of servicing a membership without a clubhouse while helping to shepherd the rebuild of a Grade 2 Listed building that was a much-loved treasure.
Little did he know then that the worst winter in recent history and a global pandemic that shut the club for nigh on two months was just around the corner.
But if we can take one moment as a window into the spirit of Bierton, his team and the wider club at large, and gauge just how they were going to get through such hardships, perhaps it came the morning after the blaze.
When incredibly, in the midst of the ruins around them, the golf club was open.
“We worked through the night and got a generator to power the halfway house so we could offer the members some service.
“We were frantically writing emails to tell members about what they were going to arrive to on Saturday morning.
“We did manage to offer a relatively full service from our halfway hut. The chefs moved over there and we exported everything out of our kitchen.
“We had a mobile beer pump and went to Costco to get some plastic pint glasses. I wanted to keep a bit of a fighting spirit and give the members something the next day because they were going to be in for a tough year.
“We didn’t, at that point, have a clear picture of the year ahead. But there was a really nice atmosphere at the club on the Saturday.
“I’d not seen the terrace that busy. There was a real united spirit outside. It spurred me on to see what we could achieve with the rebuild and the refurbishment.”
Optimism is part of Bierton’s DNA – “I’m a very positive person and I like to take the positives from every situation” – and that manifested itself throughout the rebuild.
It was a top to bottom refurbishment and the club took the chance to go through the building root and branch and improve it.
They transitioned what had been the old club office into a large conference centre with presentation screens. A storeroom shifted to extend the boardroom, giving the club another fully fitted room that pandemic-aside will bring in revenue.
The members’ bar was refurbished, the men’s and ladies’ showers refitted.
Bierton explains: “We put together a little committee, of experienced members, and they really helped us realise the asset we have got today.
“It has been a team effort and the members have played a really key part in that and the board have sat side by side all the way through.”
“We now walk round the clubhouse and it’s a really fresh feel,” he adds. “It may sound a bit of a strange thing to say, following a fire, but with every tragedy comes an opportunity and we have really taken that.
“Perhaps we took a long time to complete the works because we wanted to plan it out and make sure we did the best for the club and the best for the Grade 2 Listed building that we sit within.
“It has been a forced refurbishment but we have got a product we are really proud of. That would have taken us three to five years longer if the fire hadn’t happened.”
A year and a day after the flames subsided, the clubhouse was finished. But, for Bierton and Knebworth, the work to push the club forward begins anew – and that goes on amid the backdrop of a virus that dares businesses to try and plan ahead in such uncertainty.
“From a team point of view, we definitely sat down and realised what we had been through and what we had achieved,” he says.
“There was a pat on the back around the table and then it was back to pandemic business, unfortunately. There’s no real time to rest upon your laurels as to what you’ve achieved.
“It’s getting back and making sure we can survive as a club in the times we are in and making sure the facilities we have got we are going to use to benefit the membership and the club.
“My main frustration in my day-to-day at the moment is that we are ready to launch. We are ready to step into the next echelon of the journey for Knebworth as a golf club.
“We are ready to kick on as a club, as a revenue generator and a member service, but we are being held back.
“The conference facilities are a really untapped market that could just secure the future of the club. It will help us control our membership fees.
“We’ve got a lot of facilities ready to go and I’ve got no doubt we will be in a really good place when we are able to start using them properly.
“I am really optimistic. We’ve got a great team here and a really solid foundation to build upon and push the club forward. There is no limit to where the club can go now.”
Hear more of the story from Knebworth Golf Club manager Mark Bierton in the NCG Podcast:
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