A FIRE which ripped through an historic Victorian manor house and took almost 20 hours to put out is believed to have been started by arsonists.
Four fire crews from Hyndburn, Blackburn and Rawtenstall were called out to remote Owl Hall, off Plantation Road, Accrington, last Friday evening.
They found the 140-year-old building well alight with thick smoke billowing from the roof, and the last engine did not leave the scene until 4pm on Saturday.
Watch manager John Pinner of Hyndburn Fire Station said he believed the fire had been started deliberately because accelerants were found at the scene.
The roof of the hall, built by the Hargreaves family, suffered 75 per cent damage.
The blaze came as a shattering blow to owner Peter Broadley, who bought it three months ago and is planning to restore it and then build 17 homes on the site surrounding a central courtyard.
He said: "I have had nothing but problems with it. If you were to visit the hall between six and eight in the evening you would see large groups of teenagers hanging about, dealing drugs and having sex.
"I’ve had the police up here six or seven times and people have been stealing lead, copper and cobbles from the site."
Mr Broadley said he could not put a figure on the damage but he added: "It is a real shame as it was starting to come on nicely, but the fire has not changed my plans.
"I intend to restore it to its former glory as soon as possible."
He had to call the police again on Wednesday when youths began smashing the hall’s windows with catapults.
Mr Broadley, who has also converted the old church at St John’s, Stonefold, into a private home, has yet to apply to Hyndburn Council for planning permission for his scheme.
An eyewitness, Lee Morante, said: "Four or five fire engines turned up at the scene and I got within 20 yards of the fire by climbing over a wall.
"Fire crews were struggling for ages with the fire. It was really raging."
When the brigade arrived a neighbour reported that the property may not have been empty as she had seen somebody working on it during the day.
They called for an aerial ladder platform so they could get a better view to spot any casualties, but it was later confirmed nobody was in the building.
Police have confirmed it is being treated as arson and are asking witnesses to contact them on 51212 or, anonymously, on Crimestoppers 0800 555 111.