AN HISTORIC church was severely damaged in a fire last night.

Smoke was first seen coming from the roof of St Mary's Church, in Church Lane, Sheering, just before 4.30pm yesterday, prompting six emergency crews from across the region to rush to the scene.

By 5.40pm at least 20% of its roof had been damaged by the blaze, with flames also seen inside the building.

The fire was finally extinguished just after 9pm, but crews remained on the scene for several more hours as they dampened down the wreckage.

Incident Commander-Assistant Divisional Officer-John Moss said: "Firefighters have done extremely well in fighting the fire in the church this evening.

"The fire had entered into the roof and the fire crews quickly had the fire surrounded.

"Crews remain at the incident this evening checking for any remaining hotspots, they have also managed to salvage some of the church's belongings such as artefacts and paperwork."

The fire was only spotted by chance when resident Carol Gibson, 43, saw the smoke as she was walking her dog nearby.

She told the Guardian: "I was just going past when I noticed quite a lot of smoke coming from a section of the roof.

"I rang the fire brigade but at first I wasn't even sure it was a fire, but by the time they arrived the smoke was much worse.

"I didn't see any broken windows and the main door was locked, so I didn't see any evidence of arson, and the car park was empty so I knew the church was empty.

"It was very fortunate that I went past when I did. I usually walk there, but if I had left my home any later I would not have gone that way because it was getting dark.

"I think if I hadn't been there no-one would have seen the smoke in the dark and it could have all burnt down, so it was very lucky.

The mum-of-two, of The Street in Sheering, added: "It was really sad. It's such a lovely old church."

The Rev Brian Surtees said he was very grateful for the emergency services' work at the scene.

He said: "A special thanks to the firefighters for their prompt arrival, and also the care and professionalism they showed in dealing with the incident and managing to save some of the church's artefacts.

"The church is very grateful for all their efforts."

Robert Halfon, Conservative party prospective parliamentary candidate for Sheering and who arrived on the scene last night to speak to fire-fighters, said: “This is a tragedy for one of the most beautiful churches in the constituency. As always we must applaud the heroic efforts of the fire-fighters who have done what they can to save this beautiful church and its artefacts."

The cause of the fire is not yet known, and a full investigation is under way.

It is not being treated as suspicious.