Video & Gallery: Parishioner opens door to see cross and Bible engulfed in flames at Cambs church

PUBLISHED: 12:28 15 March 2010 | UPDATED: 09:33 02 June 2010

St Marys Westry destroyed by fire

St Marys Westry destroyed by fire

PARISHIONER John Arnold had to be pulled back from a smoke-filled Cambridgeshire church today as he opened the doors to see the wooden cross and Bible engulfed in flames. Mr Arnold, 74, who was christened and married in St Mary s Church, Westry, March, di

PARISHIONER John Arnold had to be pulled back from a smoke-filled Cambridgeshire church today as he opened the doors to see the wooden cross and Bible engulfed in flames.

Mr Arnold, 74, who was christened and married in St Mary's Church, Westry, March, discovered the fire at around 10.15am when he tried to enter the church to repair a lock on the cellar door.

He said: "I came to repair the lock. Last week we had some windows broken by vandals and when I opened the door I first thought it was dust coming in the windows and then I realised it was smoke.

"I had thought it was strange because the door was unlocked.

"The smoke was really thick and I could see the Bible was burning and the wooden cross that we had made"

Vernon Sutton of East Anglian Mobility Warehouse was passing the church minutes after the fire was discovered.

He said: "I pulled up, as did a passing RAC van, and we went to the church and we both pulled Mr Arnold away. He wanted to go inside.

"There were several fires started inside, and some of the windows were smashed. The people who did this were probably somewhere nearby watching. It is dreadful."

Mr Arnold ran across the road to a house and called the emergency services.

The Rector, the Rev Anthony Chandler, and other parishioners were alerted to the fire as they were holding a meeting at Rev Chandler's home.

Arriving on the scene, Rev Chandler said: "It is just heartbreaking to see. It is gutted. Everything has gone."

Fellow priest, the Rev Jenny Webb said: "We had a full church yesterday for Mothering Sunday, it was so beautiful.

"The church was locked securely afterwards and now this looks very bad."

Churchwarden George Payne said the blaze would make a "colossal difference" if its congregation of around 60 people were not able to use it.

He added: "When the extensive works were carried out to the church last year, we used the parish room for services for several months.

"In the back of my mind I have had the idea that we might do that again."

Mr Payne said the church was last used for its 9.15am to 10.15am service yesterday (Sunday).

Afterwards volunteers went round and checked that all candles were out and that all doors had been locked, making sure the building was secure.

The fire which destroyed the church is thought to have been started deliberately.

Firefighters from across the area are at the scene of the fire at the 19th century church.

A neighbour, Councillor Jan French, described flames shooting from both sides of the building.

"I have spoken the caretaker who says there is clear evidence the church has been vandalised and that is likely to be the cause of the fire," she said.

Fire crews from March, Chatteris and Wisbech are at the scene, a turntable ladder is en route from Peterborough and another fire crew is on the way from Huntingdon.

"It appears to be a major incident," said a fire service spokesman. The alarm was raised at 10.16am.

Police sealed off the A141 while fire fighters tackle the blaze.

• St Mary's Church was built in 1874. The building was made of stone in the decorated style of the 14th century and contained a chancel, nave, south porch, vestry and western turret with one bell.

A rectory was built behind the church but was sold off in the 1970s.

A chapel of ease was also built in 1891 but fell into disuse and was demolished in the 1970s.

One of the stained glass windows at the church is dedicated to former vicar the Revd TT Peyton, whereas a small brass plaque commemorates a First World War soldier.

In addition there are two graves from the Second World War in the churchyard.

More recently work was completed to give easy access to church.

A gently sloping ramp to the church doors was installed in August 2009 and space was made inside for wheelchairs and buggies.

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