Fire crews from Lincolnshire and Norfolk battled to save the Bridge Hotel at Sutton Bridge following an arson attack on Saturday night.
Three fire engines from Lincolnshire and three from Norfolk – together with an aerial ladder platform from Norfolk – were called in at 9.20pm.
Firemen battled for hours to save the disused and partly boarded-up building and were still damping down at 10am on Sunday.
Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue described the hotel as 70 per cent fire damaged although they managed to stop “a significant fire” spreading from the building’s two-storey section to the three-storey area.
Nearby residents heard a bang or an explosion and believed a vehicle had hit Cross Keys Bridge, but it turned out to be a fire at the iconic hotel in Bridge Road, once the centre of social life for miles around.
Jenny Rowe, whose husband Tom heard the bang, had her phone in her hand ready to dial emergency services.
“By the time I got the phone, there was one fire engine there from Long Sutton,” said Mrs Rowe. “The hotel porchway was up in flames – the flames were leaping out of it – and the fire just proceeded to go through the building.”
Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue fire investigation officer Jason Lawley said yesterday: “Three fire appliances from Lincolnshire and three fire appliances and the aerial ladder platform from Norfolk attended this incident at a disused and boarded-up former hotel.
“On arrival, firefighters were able to prevent a significant fire from spreading throughout the entire premise, using six main jets to extinguish the fire externally.
“The fire started on the ground floor and spread to the first floor and roof area of the main building. Swift action prevented the fire from entering the third floor end of the building. The premises was not secure in a number of places with evidence of illegal entry. The cause is therefore thought to be deliberate, subject to an investigation by Lincolnshire Police.”
An aerial ladder platform was brought in from Boston to replace the appliance from Norfolk.
News of the fire at the hotel spread quickly via Facebook and scores of people gathered on a grassy area, dubbed the village green, as firefighters battled to bring the blaze under control.
Mrs Rowe said: “The village green was packed and there was such a lot of disappointment from local residents who knew the hotel as the flagship of the village. It’s a real shame.”
The hotel closed in 2008.
Many villagers hoped to see the hotel re-opened by a new owner as it suffered repeated attacks from vandals and occupation by squatters.
Last year, demolition works started. Roof tiles and floorboards were ripped out but that work came to a halt and there was talk of flats being built on the site, incorporating the hotel facade.
In July, a spokesman for South Holland District Council told the Free Press: “We have had discussions with the building’s owner regarding plans for flats at the site.”
Sutton Bridge Parish Council chairman John Grimwood described the fire damage to the hotel as “a sad day for the village”.
• The historic Bridge Hotel in Sutton Bridge never became a “listed building”.
Although its origins date to 1640 – when there was a farmhouse on the site – it’s been viewed by English Heritage as less important than a host of structures, ranging from Cross Keys Bridge to a red phone box.
Historian Beryl Jackson said in 1789 there’s reference to a sea bathing house run by a Mr and Mrs Prest from Hull and, after the bridge opened in the 1830s, it became a coaching inn.
It was known as Washway House when used for sea bathing.
Mrs Jackson said the hotel was for many years the place for social gatherings, particularly during the Second World War when there was a busy RAF station at Sutton Bridge, and she had her own wedding reception there as did many, many couples.
The hotel was completely renovated when it was taken over by Christopher Boyall in 2005/6, but closed in the autumn of 2008.
Since then, the hotel has fallen into disrepair with repeated attacks by vandals and various occupations by squatters.
Last year, police secured a closure order to stop the hotel being used for raves. Also last year South Holland District Council decided Bridge Hotel owner Mark Andrews did not need planning consent to demolish it.
•• Resident Levi Keatley videod the progression of the fire and caught scenes including windows “exploding” at the hotel and drivers rescuing parked cars from the front of the building.