Villagers tell of 'express train' fire that ripped through homes

Fire and Rescue staff on the scene of the blaze which destroyed two homes in Ashmanhaugh.

Fire and Rescue staff on the scene of the blaze which destroyed two homes in Ashmanhaugh. - Credit: Stuart Anderson

‘Like an express train’ roaring across the fields - that’s how a fast-moving fire was described by a retiree who came close to losing his home. 

Geoff Sparrow, 82, lives with his wife in a bungalow across the road from the fields and two homes which were destroyed by flames in School Road, Ashmanhaugh, on Tuesday.

Geoff Sparrow's bungalow in Ashmanhaugh, showing the burned trees and bushes just metres away.

Geoff Sparrow's bungalow in Ashmanhaugh, showing the burned trees and bushes just metres away. - Credit: Stuart Anderson

The fire spread onto Mr Sparrow's property, engulfing several bushes and trees barely 10 metres away from his home, as black smoke poured into the sky. 

Shortly before he became aware of the blaze around 12pm, Mr Sparrow had been sheltering from the oppressive conditions inside. 

He said: "My neighbour called me and said, 'do you realise there's a fire?'

Geoff Sparrow next to a charred bush at the front of his property in Ashmanhaugh.

Geoff Sparrow next to a charred bush at the front of his property in Ashmanhaugh. - Credit: Stuart Anderson

"I went out the back and I couldn't see a thing. But then I came out the front and everything in front of me was smoke. You couldn't see across the road. 

"Then if you looked down the road, you could just see through it and see the flames, but you wouldn't have been able to walk or run to keep up with it." 

Mr Sparrow said the flames on the fields were low - around a metre high - but fast-moving. 

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He said: "It was just the enormous speed with the winds behind it, getting flattened by the wind."

Ashmanhaugh's narrow lanes saw fire engines from across north Norfolk come to fight the flames. 

Ashmanhaugh's narrow lanes saw fire engines from across north Norfolk come to fight the flames. - Credit: Stuart Anderson

"It was travelling at such a high speed I thought 'oh, God, this is bad news'.

Mr Sparrow, who has had some experience of such stifling conditions having lived in Kenya and Zimbabwe earlier in his life, sprang into action to defend his home, dousing the flames with a hosepipe. 

Neighbours on his side of the road also pitched in to help fight the fire with hoses and buckets, before one, and eventually several, fire engines arrived to battle the blaze. 

Norfolk Fire and Rescue was overwhelmed with call-outs on a day when Britain's temperature records were smashed, fighting blazes the width and breadth of the county. 

Support from fire services as far afield as Bristol and Merseyside were drafted in to help with the effort. 

One of those who lost his home on the other side of School Road was Keith Gant, who was left with just a pair of jeans, a tee-shirt and his Land Rover.

Everything else he owned, including the land Rover's keys and his own footwear, was destroyed. 

Talking to Radio Norfolk, Mr Gant, who had lived in the house for 30 years, said: "I borrowed a pair of shoes. I do a lot of video and I video farm machinery, I've been doing it for 20 years and my camera is gone, everything is gone. 

"And insurance can't pay for sentimental things."

Mr Gant said he had been sitting inside, reading a newspaper with the curtains drawn to keep the heat out when he was alerted to the fire by an alarm going off upstairs.

"I opened the curtains and I couldn't see anything because of the smoke," he said. 

Although no-one was injured in the fire, the occupants of the other gutted home, Trudie and David Calver, are believed to have lost their beloved pet cats. 

A family friend has set up an online fundraising campaign to help those who lost their homes. It has already raised more than £1,600 and can be found at www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/ashmanhaughfire

The gutted homes were owned by Hoveton Hall Estate, which covers 620 acres in the area. 

They said in a social media post that "several acres" of farm land had been destroyed on what they described as a "devastating" day. 

They said: "Fields will recover but our hearts go out to the families who have lost literally everything due to the fire spreading to nearby homes.

"Please everyone stay safe and anything we can do for the families affected we are here to help.

"Thank you to everyone who came out to help. Without the heroic efforts of the fire service and the fabulous village residents things could have been much worse."