IT’S EVEN older than Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, which was almost destroyed by a devastating fire on Monday evening.

Which is why the Revd Canon Charles Stewart of Christchurch Priory says his heart goes out to the people of Paris and all of France. “Our hearts go out to the people of Paris, for whom Notre Dame has been their Cathedral for many centuries, and to the people of France, for whom Notre Dame is an iconic symbol at the heart of their national life – President Macron has described it as ‘the epicentre of our lives’."

The Notre Dame fire -which destroyed the entirety of the Gothic cathedral’s medieval roof, toppling its spire and breaking some of the priceless stained glass windows, is believed to have broken out during restoration work. The blaze has obliterated for ever irreplaceable sections of a structure which was considered so important it was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Christchurch Priory does not have that status but it is a Grade 1 listed building making it amongst the most important buildings in Dorset. It also has a large amount of ancient timber used in tis construction.

“One of the things you can’t get away from is that any medieval building is at risk from fire and, given the amount of wood used in their construction, the Priory is no different,” he said.

"The Priory was dedicated in 1094, over 60 years before Notre Dame was built – and the fact that we have a state-of-the-art fire alarm system in the Priory is an indication of how seriously we take this potential threat. We are also grateful that the Fire and Rescue Service come to the Priory from time to time to familiarise themselves with the building. Obviously, we hope and pray that we shall never have to call them to a calamitous fire such as this."

He warned that one of the reasons safety was taken so carefully was because, even if repairs can be made to historic buildings like Notre Dame, getting it back as it was before can never be guaranteed.

"The people of Paris and of France are already rallying to support the reconstruction of Notre Dame, so, on a smaller, more local scale, I am confident that, in time of need, a church so deeply loved and appreciated as the Priory would also receive the support of the local community," he said.

He sees the Priory as a ‘beacon’ looking out to sea and inland. “It’s for people of all faiths and none and one of the things I’ve been most deeply conscious of since arriving is the depth of affection and regard for the priory and the part its played in the life of the town and the wider area over so many years.”