(This extract was taken from: The Lincolnshire Echo - Monday, October 25th, 2004 - Lincolnshire Echo Picture references: 4-6920-20 and 4-6920-5)
Arsonists have today been blamed for a fire which destroyed a 160-year-old building. Fire ravaged Nocton Hall just days before council officers were due to take action against its owners, who had been accused of letting the hall fall into disrepair.
Police are now investigating exactly how the fire at the Grade II listed building began. Meanwhile, people living in Nocton Village, east of Lincoln. Said the hall had become a target for vandals and the blaze was 'inevitable'.
More than 75 firefighters battled the blaze for three hours after it broke out at around 11.45pm on Saturday night. Crews were still at the scene until Sunday afternoon. Firefighter John Taylor said the fire had destroyed almost all of the hall. "We were faced with the building well alight, it was a well-developed fire when we arrived at 11.45pm", he said. “We had ten crews here at the height of the incident. It was under control by 2.30am and we are now in the early stages of investigating how it started. The roof has collapsed and the building is dangerous”.
Residents from the Cottage Residential Home, opposite the hall, were evacuated in the early hours. Most of the 24 residents were taken by ambulance to Lincoln County Hospital. Deputy manager of the home, Natasha Doughty, said the evacuation had left some residents shaken up. "We were half way through evacuating people when at around 3.30am the fire brigade gave us the all clear, so only 13 residents had gone," she said. "We had to take the residents in ambulances past the fire because it was the only way out. The hall has been a target for vandals for a long time".
The stone hall was built in 1841 and Frederick Robinson – the only Lincolnshire man ever to be elected Prime Minister – once lived there. The Victorian building was once used as part of the RAF hospital. More recently it was a residential home.
Last year the current owners, Leda Properties, were granted planning permission to turn it into a private home. But the hall had become derelict and on September 28th Leda were served with an urgent works notice by North Kesteven District Council. The order required Oxfordshire-based Leda to maintain the property and keep it secure. But no work had been carried out before the deadline of October 15th and council contractors had begun the work themselves – and were planning to send the bill to Leda.
Planning and building control officers were today at the scene assessing the damage. District council spokesman Julie Wetton said: “Our planning officers visited the site to check whether work had started and it had not. We confirmed with the owner’s agent that nothing was in place to start work. "We were instructing our contractors to go in and do the work and recoup the costs from the owner. But events have now taken over us".
Villager Elsie Horton had worked the neighbouring RAF hospital. She was sad to see a piece of the village’s history destroyed: "I heard the commotion and looked outside to see the ambulances coming", she said. "Then my neighbour told me what had happened. I worked at the hospital most of my life and when that closed I cleaned Nocton Hall. It’s part of my life, I just can’t believe it. It’s Nocton’s history, now it’s gone and it’s very sad".
Peter and Liz Murray live opposite the hall and say the loss of the building would be devastating for the village. Mr Murray took photographs of the hall as it was engulfed by flames. "Peter was woken by the sound of the roof collapsing at about 1am," said Mrs Murray, a consultant oncologist at Lincoln County Hospital. "Then our neighbours called and told us what had happened. They had been woken by the fire engines taking water out of the beck that runs through the grounds. The hall was the heart of Nocton and people will be devastated by this".
Leda Properties bought Nocton Hall in 2000 when it was a residential home after the former owner went bankrupt. Leda also own the RAF hospital site behind the hall. Villagers say the fire was inevitable after the hall had been left to fall into disrepair and had become an easy target for vandals. They say the hall had been looted of anything of value. Mrs Horton said: "For the past few years it has just been left vacant. Vandals have been in and smashed the windows and doors. People have been complaining that it has not been secure".
Mrs Murray said that she had called the police last Tuesday evening after she heard people ransacking the building. "We heard sounds of breaking wood and people smashing their way into the hall," she said. "There was lots of shouting, the glass had been smashed and door panels kicked through. We moved here 9 years ago when the hall was a residential home. "The grounds were beautiful and it was a lovely site to be in. Over the past few years it has fallen to rack and ruin. It has been vandalised and stripped of anything of value, the fireplaces and the mahogany staircases – all stolen".
Leda Properties Ltd: Registered Office: Marcham Road, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, OX14 1TZ. Trading at: 144 High St, Sutton Courtenay, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, OX14 4AX. Company No: 01257376. Incorporated: 06/05/1976.
Nature of Business: 5030 - Sale of Motor Vehicle Parts etc; 0111 - Grow Cereals and other crops; 7020 - Letting of Own Property.
Leda Properties contracted SLR Consulting Ltd (www.slrconsulting.co.uk) to carry out a landscape and visual appraisal of the 70 acre site at Nocton, near Lincoln, and to provide concepts for a residential master plan. The site is adjacent to the grounds of Nocton Hall, which forms part of the conservation area. The development site itself is a disused RAF Hospital and SLR has also audited this site for potential environmental liabilities. [Outlook Leaflet - Summer 2002]