A HAMPSHIRE bride-to-be watched on in horror as her dream wedding venue went up in flames just 48 hours before saying her vows.

Flames engulfed the 800-year old St Peter's Church in Ropley, near Alresford, just before 9am yesterday, destroying medieval architecture, the roof, bell tower, and doorways.

At its height, 100 fire fighters were tackling the blaze, with 12 engines, three water carriers, a special equipment unit, one commercial unit and eight senior officers.

For one couple, Alicia Hardy and Darren Bunce, their hopes of marrying at the same church as their families were shattered, as they watched the scene in despair.

Daily Echo:

Photo by Alan Thomas

How the drama unfolded - click here for all the videos and pictures from the fire yesterday.

45-year-old Darren has lived in the village for 43 years, and the couple became godparents at the grade II listed church, where they were due to marry on Saturday afternoon.

Lawyer Alicia, 46, said: “When I first saw what had happened I was in shock. The church means a lot to us, it's the centre of our village. You put in six months preparation, and you just can't write this stuff. We never considered getting married anywhere else.

“I said to Darren on the phone, no matter what happens, we are getting married on Saturday!”
The two will now tie the knot at St Nicholas church, in Bishop's Sutton.

Father-of-two, Darren, said: “It's a real shame for the people of the village because the church has so much history. My kids were christened there.”

The couple have four children between them Kieran, 23, Amy, 20, Ben, 15, and Louise, 12, who will be bridesmaids and ushers on the big day.

Darren's cousin, Karen Bunce, has lived in the village for 19 years and married at the church in 2006.

She said: “It's devastating, the centre of the village is burning down.”

The loud clang of a bell falling could be heard as fire fighters hosed the tower, and villagers gathered to offer what help they could.

Among them was the Rev Royston Such, vicar of the historic church for 24 years.

“It's absolutely devastating,” he said.

“The building has so many memories attached to it - we have a book called 'A Years Mind' which we use to commemorate people who have died in the village.

"It's not just my church, it's everybody's church. It hasn't sunk in, and it doesn't feel real. It's utterly catastrophic."

There has been much speculation about the cause of the blaze, with many residents reporting power surges late last night and early this morning.

One resident, who asked not to be named, said: “It's terrible. I looked out of my window at 11.45pm yesterday and didn't see anything but could smell faint smoke.

"My internet and electricity kept surging last night.”

Fire officer in charge, area manager Steve Foye, said: “This was a significant fire that has seriously affected a prominent building within the village.

"Crews have worked hard in arduous conditions to bring the fire under control. We would like to thank the local community for their support during this time."

An investigation into the exact cause is underway.

How the drama unfolded - click here for all the videos and pictures from the fire yesterday.